Why do good people sometimes do bad things?
It’s a question that often gets asked when the results of unethical business practices make headlines and result in widespread harm. It’s also a question that has always interested Nicholas Epley, John T. Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Now, he poses that very question to EMBA students as part of his Designing a Good Life elective course.
Epley turns the traditional approach to teaching ethics in a different direction—one that veers away from ethics as a philosophical or theological problem and toward a behavioral approach. Think less in black-and-white terms about right and wrong and more about the meaning of a good life. And a good life, by all research accounts, is good for people and for business.
EMBA students in the elective focus on what it takes to live a good life in terms of being successful, being ethical and honorable, and feeling good. “All three of those things come together in real life,” says Epley. “The class touches on really important issues that resonate with everyone.”
Epley makes those issues hit home in a variety of ways:
- Students learn the impact of ethics in action during an investment demonstration that involves recommending funds for a client: They discover that their most commonly chosen fund is actually the Bernie Madoff feeder fund.
- As part of a case study, each student serves as an advocate for a person waiting to receive a kidney, arguing on their behalf. Students learn that their random assignments tend to drive their ethical decisions, creating ethical blindness.
- They design their own random acts of kindness and report back about their experiences in a survey that is analyzed for class.
- They also write a gratitude letter to someone who made an impact on their lives. Then they ask the recipients their thoughts about the note, which has been known to bring some students to tears. “That’s a powerful experience for the students,” says Epley.
- They create a Personal Responsibility statement that gets framed so they can take it with them to display prominently in their home or office.
These activities help make students aware of how people tend to behave in different situations, as well as make them consider how they want to behave, says Epley. The elective helps students integrate ethics with their principles and personal life practice and gives them tools for a good life.
“Students haven’t been taught about ethics in this way before,” he says. “I want them to walk away from the class not only seeing how to do good in the world but to better understand how to create good in the world.”