Saturday, 23 July 2016

The impact of business and economics education on moral competence

Last year I wrote a post on whether economics education made politicians more corrupt. It's an interesting question, whether learning about economics alters moral reasoning and makes graduates more corrupt (there are at least some who would quickly buy into this line of argument). Unfortunately, that paper didn't actually answer that question, because it confused correlation with causality. However, a new paper published in the Journal of Business Ethics (ungated version here) by Katrin Hummel, Dieter Pfaff, and Katja Rost (all University of Zurich) gets us a lot closer to understanding whether business and economics education affects moral reasoning.

The authors rightly identify that there are both selection effects (students who choose to study business and economics might be systematically different in terms of moral reasoning from those who study in other fields) and treatment effects (the effect of studying business and economics over and above any difference based on selection). To tease apart the effects, the authors surveyed over 3000 bachelor's and master's students, across six faculties: (1) theology; (2) law; (3) economics and business; (4) medicine; (5) arts; and (6) science. Since most students in Swiss universities progress from bachelor's to master's degrees in the same university (and most stay on to do the master's degree rather than exiting with a bachelor's degree), they essentially observe a cohort of students before, and a cohort of students after, their undergraduate education, as well as students in business and economics, and a range of control disciplines.

They claim to find:
...that both the self-selection as well as the treatment effect of the study of business and economics on students' MJC [Moral Judgment Competence - their measure of moral reasoning] do not exist.
I'd quibble slightly with that summary of their results, because actually there are some statistically significant differences that suggest selection effects - in particular, theology students have significantly higher MJC scores, even after controlling for a range of demographic and other variables, and the size of the effect is about one quarter of a standard deviation. However, regardless of that result there are no treatment effects that suggest that business and economics education reduces moral judgement competence. So, overall nothing to suggest that business and economics education reduces the level of morality in students. Phew!

Some people would (rightly) be worried about the external validity of the results. This study was based on a single university. I'd suggest that this is an invitation for some cross-university comparative research, particularly comparing European universities with British and/or North American universities, to better understand whether the findings are generalisable.

Some of the other results are interesting as well. Quoting (selectively) from the paper:
The results further reveal a significant negative effect of political attitude on MJC, indicating that left-oriented persons have higher C-scores...
Plenty of people would agree with that result, but probably not this one:
Regarding gender, the results suggest that male students have higher MJC.
It seems to contradict plenty of previous research, but apparently the MJC measure is known to be biased towards males. The only treatment effect that was statistically significant was a surprise to me, and somewhat disturbing:
Bachelor's education in medicine in particular seems to significantly reduce students' initially extraordinarily high MJC. This negative impact of medical education on students' MJC is also documented by other researchers... and these researchers explain this finding by the unfavorable learning environment of medical education, which discourages the use of highest-stage moral reasoning.
So medical doctors are less morally competent after their education than before. However, the fact that none of the other fields showed any impact on MJC, let alone a positive impact, leads the authors to conclude:
Today's universities do not offer a learning environment in which optimal moral development can occur. To facilitate moral development, university teachers must encourage students to engage in problem solving rather than offering prepackaged solutions to moral problems.

[HT: Marginal Revolution]


  1. Morality is subjective. I'm not sure theologists would score so highly using a different measure

  2. Fair enough. Although, in this case they are measuring 'moral competence' which is slightly different from morality itself. They define it as involving: "recognizing one’s own complex, conflicting moral feelings, submitting those feelings to reflective reasoning, and entering into an ethical discourse with friends, experts, and authorities".