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The manager seeking virtue: Lessons from literature

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The authors argue that studying classic literature (fiction) is useful in strengthening the manager's ability to resolve specific ethical dilemmas.

The authors summarize stories, plays and novels that explicitly address a series of ethical trials common to many managers (e.g., whistleblowing, discrimination and greed). Recognizing the multicultural nature of contemporary business practice, the authors draw upon literature from Europe and Asia to illustrate their thesis. Studying literature offers a challenging and personally compelling method for managers (and management students) to improve their moral sensitivity and strengthen the decision making skills used in addressing the ethical ambiguities of business practice.

The article concludes with a supplemental reading list that summarizes additional pieces of international literature with strong business ethics themes.

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  1. Bentley, E.: 1966, Bertolt Brecht,Mother Courage And Her Children, English Version (Grove Press, New York, NY), p. 25.

  2. Brecht, B.: 1969,Saint Joan Of The Stockyards, trans. F. Jones, Intro. F. Grab (Indiana University Press, Bloomington), pp. 29, 38, 43.

  3. Byrne, J. Y.: 1990, ‘The Classic Bookshelf’,Business Week (March 5), p. 10.

  4. Coles, R.: 1987, ‘Storytellers' Ethics’,Harvard Business Review 65(2) (March–April), pp. 8–14.

  5. Coles, R.: 1989,The Call of Stories (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA), p. 159.

  6. Culp, M. B.: 1985, ‘Literature's Influence on Young Adult Attitudes, Values, and Behavior, 1975 and 1984’,English Journal 74 (December), pp. 31–35. Fowler, E. M.: 1988, ‘Refreshing Literature for M.B.A.'s’,The New York Times (October 4), p. D25. Garrod, A. and Beal, C. and Shin, P.: 1990, ‘The Development of Moral Orientation in Elementary School Children’,Sex Roles 22(1–2), pp. 13–27. Goldberg, M.: 1987, ‘Piaget's Structuralism and the Teaching of Literature’,The Journal of General Education 38(4), pp. 273–286. Gross, F. L.: 1981, ‘Teaching Cognitive-Moral Development in College (A Generalist Approach)’,The Journal of General Education 32(4), pp. 287–308. Krogh, S. L. and Lamme, L. L.: 1985, ‘But What About Sharing? Children's Literature and Moral Development’,Young Children 40(4), pp. 48–51. Mills, R. K.: 1988, ‘Using Tom and Huck to Develop Moral Reasoning in Adolescents: A Strategy for the Classroom’,Adolescence 23(90), pp. 325–329. Readence, J. E., Moore, D. W. and Moore, S. A.: 1982, ‘Kohlberg in the Classroom: Responding to Literature’,Journal of Reading 26 (November), pp. 104–108. Tappan, M. B.: 1989, ‘Stories Lived and Stories Told: The Narrative Structure of Late Adolescent Moral Development’,Human Development 32(5), pp. 300–315.

  7. Dürrenmatt, F.: 1982,Plays and Essays (The Continuum Publishing Company, New York, NY), p. 93.

  8. Garrod, A.: 1989, ‘Promoting Moral Development Through a High School English Curriculum’,Alberta Journal of Educational Research 35(1) (March), p. 61.

  9. Harris, C. and Brown W.: 1988–1989, ‘Teaching Business Ethics Using Fiction: A Case That Failed’,The Organizational Behavior Teaching Review 13(1), p. 38.

  10. Huish, I.: 1980,Horvath: A Study (Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, NJ), p. 17.

  11. Jones, T.: 1989, ‘Can Business Ethics Be Taught? Empirical Evidence’,Business & Professional Ethics Journal 8(2) (Summer), p. 73.

  12. Kohlberg, L.: 1975, ‘The Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Moral Education’,Phi Delta Kappan 56 (June), p. 670. Rest, J. R.: 1979,Development in Judging Moral Issues (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN), p. 5. Rest, J. R.: 1986,Moral Development — Advances In Research And Theory (Praeger, New York, NY), pp. 80, 85, 111–118. Rest, J. R.: 1988, ‘Can Ethics be Taught in Professional Schools? The Psychological Research’,Easier Said Than Done 1(1) (Winter), pp. 22–26. Kohlberg's critics include, e.g., Gilligan, C.: 1977, ‘In a Different Voice: Women's Conceptions of Self and Morality’,Harvard Educational Review 47(4) (November), p. 481. Also see, e.g., Gilligan, C.: 1982,In A Different Voice (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA), Blum, L. A.: 1988, ‘Gilligan and Kohlberg: Implications for Moral Theory’,Ethics 98(3) (April), p. 472, and Flanagan, O. and Jackson, K.: 1987, ‘Justice, Care and Gender: The Kohlberg Gilligan Debate Revisited’,Ethics 97(3) (April), p. 622.

  13. Lippit, N. M.: 1980,Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature (M. E. Sharpe Inc., White Plains, NY), p. 111.

  14. Parr, S. R.: 1982,The Moral of The Story (Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, NY), p. 6.

  15. Rest, J. and Thoma, S. J.: 1986, ‘Educational Programs and Interventions’, in J. Rest,Moral Development (Praeger, New York, NY), p. 59.

  16. Shakirova, G. M.: 1981, ‘On the Purposeful Development of Moral Convictions in Students’,Voprosky Psikhologii 6 (November–December), p. 47 as reported inPsychological Abstracts (Arlington, VA: The American Psychological Association Inc., 1982),68 (# 11273), Oct.–Dec.

  17. Vitz, P. C.: 1990, ‘The Use of Stories in Moral Development’,American Psychologist 45(6), pp. 709–720.

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Tony McAdams is Professor of business law in the Management Department at the University of Northern Iowa. Professor McAdams has been published in theHarvard Business Review andThe Academy of Management Review, among other journals, and he is the principal author of the text,Law, Business, and Society. He received the 1978 Distinguished Teaching Award from the student government at the University of Kentucky.

Roswitha Koppensteiner received an MBA degree from the University of Northern Iowa in 1990.

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McAdams, T., Koppensteiner, R. The manager seeking virtue: Lessons from literature. J Bus Ethics 11, 627–634 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00872274

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  • Economic Growth
  • Business Ethic
  • Ethical Dilemma
  • Business Practice
  • International Literature