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

Abstract

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.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    We chose to display the enabling of various mental models by teaching a pluralism of theories as foundation in our model as we believe that it addresses the Normative Paradox most directly: Without addressing the dominance of the neoclassical mental model that excludes potential freedom, there is no starting point for the inclusion of normative reflection, however, teaching a plurality of normatively different theories makes normative decision processes necessary.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Moosmayer, D.C., Waddock, S., Wang, L. et al. Leaving the Road to Abilene: A Pragmatic Approach to Addressing the Normative Paradox of Responsible Management Education. J Bus Ethics 157, 913–932 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3961-8

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Keywords

  • Values
  • Self-interest
  • Freedom
  • Pragmatism
  • Dewey
  • Learning
  • PRME
  • Business education