With the recent boom in business ethics comes a curious irony: the more entrenched the discipline becomes in business schools, the more bewildering—and even off-putting—it appears to actual managers.

The more entrenched the discipline becomes in business schools, the more bewildering it appears to managers.

Signs of the boom are everywhere. Over 500 business-ethics courses are currently taught on American campuses; fully 90% of the nation’s business schools now provide some kind of training in the area. There are more than 25 textbooks in the field and 3 academic journals dedicated to the topic. At least 16 business-ethics research centers are now in operation, and endowed chairs in business ethics have been established at Georgetown, Virginia, Minnesota, and a number of other prominent business schools.

And yet, I suspect that the field of business ethics is largely irrelevant for most managers. It’s not that they are hostile to the idea of business ethics. Recent surveys suggest that over three-quarters of America’s major corporations are actively trying to build ethics into their organizations. Managers would welcome concrete assistance with primarily two kinds of ethical challenges: first, identifying ethical courses of action in difficult gray-area situations (the kind that Harvard Business School Lecturer Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr. has described as “not issues of right versus wrong,” but “conflicts of right versus right”); and, second, navigating those situations where the right course is clear, but real-world competitive and institutional pressures lead even well-intentioned managers astray.

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