Leaving the Road to Abilene: A Pragmatic Approach to Addressing the Normative Paradox of Responsible Management Education

  • Dirk C. Moosmayer
  • Sandra Waddock
  • Long Wang
  • Matthias P. HühnEmail author
  • Claus Dierksmeier
  • Christopher Gohl
Original Paper


We identify a normative paradox of responsible management education. Business educators aim to promote social values and develop ethical habits and socially responsible mindsets through education, but they attempt to do so with theories that have normative underpinnings and create actual normative effects that counteract their intentions. We identify a limited conceptualization of freedom in economic theorizing as a cause of the paradox. Economic theory emphasizes individual freedom and understands this as the freedom to choose from available options (a view that can be characterized as quantitative, negative freedom). However, conceptualizing individuals as profit-maximizing actors neglects their freedom to reflect on the purposes and goals of their actions (a qualitative, potential view of freedom). We build on the work of pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who distinguishes between habitualized and creative problem-solving behaviors (theory of action), conceptualizes knowledge construction as a process of interdependent scientific social inquiry (epistemology), and understands actors as having the freedom to determine what kind of people they wish to be (ethics). We apply pragmatist theory to business education and suggest equipping students with a plurality of theories, supplementing neoclassical economics with other economic perspectives (e.g., Post-Keynesian, Marxist, ecological, evolutionary, and feminist economics) and views from other disciplines (e.g., sociology, psychology, and political science) on economic behavior. Moreover, we suggest putting students into learning situations that require practical problem solution through interdependent social inquiry (e.g., using cases and real-world business projects), encouraging ethical reflection. In doing so, we contribute by linking the problematic conceptions of freedom identified in economic theorizing to the debate on responsible management education. We conceptualize a pragmatist approach to management education that explicitly re-integrates the freedom to discursively reflect on the individual and societal purpose of business activity and thereby makes existing tools and pedagogies useful for bringing potential freedom back into business.


Values Self-interest Freedom Pragmatism Dewey Learning PRME Business education 



The authors thank two anonymous reviewers for their developmental feedback. We are grateful to the editors of this special issue (Mollie Painter-Morland et al.) for their patience and the guidance during the review process. We further thank the attendees of our AOM 2013 symposium on “Questioning self-interest: Addressing the hidden moral impact of management theory and education” for their constructive reflections and comments on early thoughts leading to this paper. Finally, we very much thank Ms. Susannah Davis (University of Passau) for her in-depth feedback and her editing work on various versions of this manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Research Involving Human and Animal Participants

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Nottingham University Business School ChinaNingboChina
  2. 2.Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, Carroll School of ManagementBoston CollegeChestnut HillUSA
  3. 3.City University of Hong KongHong KongChina
  4. 4.University of NavarraPamplonaSpain
  5. 5.Globalization Ethics, University of TübingenInstitute for Political ScienceTübingenGermany
  6. 6.Global Ethic Institute at the University of TübingenTübingenGermany

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