Future Business Leaders, Ethical Values, and National Economic Freedom: A View from Business Students in Eight Countries

Ethics drawing
(Image: Leigh Blackall/Licensed by CCBY 2.0)

Ethics, goes one line of reasoning, are great for those who can afford them. It’s a cynical view, to be sure, but what effect does the economic terrain affect ethical orientation? For an exploration of how that plays out among millennial business students in various countries, we today present the exploratory research of James Weber, director of the Albert P. Viragh Institute for Ethics in Business at Duquesne University’s School of Business, and Jessica McManus Warnell, associate teaching professor in the Department of Management & Organization at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and author of Engaging Millennials for Ethical Leadership. This paper, “Exploring the Relationship of Variant Degrees of National Economic Freedom to the Ethical Profiles of Millennial Business Students in Eight Countries,” recently appeared in the journal Business & Society. They answered some questions about their research, which appear below the abstract for the paper.

This research explores the relationship of variant degrees of a country’s economic freedom to the ethical profiles of millennial business students, specifically an individual’s personal value orientation and post-conventional reasoning. Grounded in Social Identity, Personal Values, and Cognitive Moral Development theories, we construct an ethical profile to compare responses provided by millennial business students from eight countries. Our results suggest that a country’s degree of economic freedom has some association with an individual’s ethical profile, yet we also discuss other national influences on an ethical profile. These results and their implications are discussed in the article.

What motivated you to pursue this research? 

James Weber and Jessica McManus Warnell
James Weber, left, and Jessica McManus Warnell

As teachers and scholars focused on educating business students in management and ethics, we met years ago and continued to cross paths at conferences in business ethics around the world. We were particularly inspired by our shared interest in what makes our students “tick” and how their worldview is shaped by their environment – from the mission and work of their colleges and universities, to their countries of origin. Our conversations were always stimulating and inspiring, and we felt that collaboration would be fruitful, with several papers resulting. We are both intrigued by the omnipresent discussion in scholarly literature and in the business press, there often following the business scandal-of-the-week, of what can and should motivate future business people toward effective, ethical leadership. This research allowed us to explore how their worldviews might be shaped by their country of origin with respect to the values that motivate their decision making and action.  Associated with a previous project that explored a national sample of business students’ values orientations, co-authored with professors at several business schools around the country, we expanded the dataset to examine perspectives of respondents from eight countries. 

Were there any specific external events—political, social, or economic—that influenced your decision to pursue this research?

Our global interconnectedness and interdependence is thrown into stark relief as countries around the world confront challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, injustice and inequities, and climate change. It is more important than ever to try to understand the forces that shape the perspectives of those who will be leading our institutions, contributing to our economies, and shaping our societies through business. Our paper is one offering, we are inspired by the work of so many others, and we look forward to future scholarly contributions in management and ethics, with research and teaching helping to inform the choices that we make as global citizens. 

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Our study seeks to advance critical elements of individuals’ ethical decision-making related to personal value orientations and cognitive moral reasoning, so that we might consider the impact of a country’s degree of economic freedom on its citizens. The implications could inform understanding of the values that underlie citizens’ ethical profiles and their experiences of their countries’ economic systems, which are indubitably reflective of a country’s values, or at least the values of those in power. The study helps illuminate the institutions and citizenry associated with democratic capitalism, and the opportunities and challenges associated with interaction across countries that increasingly characterizes the global economy. We hope our work can contribute toward discussions of decision-making in the individual, organizational and societal contexts as countries around the world confront challenges with profound ethical implications – challenges that demand collaborative solutions. 

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