Clara Brahimy, a junior Business and Enterprise Management major (BEM) had applied to the School of Business and was waiting for an admission decision when she signed up for a brand new elective, “Why Business?”
“I figured I may as well choose an elective that will enhance my understanding of the business world,” she said about her decision last year.
But being part of the inaugural class did more than enhance Brahimy’s understanding. It gave her new perspectives for her career path. “I think the course made me look at business from a different lens. I can look at business through the philosophical ‘Why Business’ point of view and I can look at business from the operational, BEM point of view.”
Her professor, James Otteson, who is also executive director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism, says he designed the course to explore the proper role of business in a humane and just society. A philosopher and economist, Otteson believes students should be familiar with the moral implications of issues and cases that arise in a market economy.
“Wake Forest is one of the few schools that takes its motto seriously. Students know Pro Humanitate and define it as the service of humankind. We want to show all the programs how they can connect to that large, noble purpose. If we’re going to teach business, we need to show how it serves that mission,” said Otteson.
The class uses both classical and contemporary readings to explore challenges that business and market economies face. Otteson says this helps the students develop a conceptual framework for understanding an individual’s purpose, their firm’s purpose and industry’s purpose in a humane and just society.
“I think my favorite reading and class discussion was on Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy,” Brahimy said. “Our discussion of this reading emphasized that capitalism tends to give people the impression that everything is potentially for sale, and that maybe everything should be for sale. However, as a class, we agreed that there are some things that should absolutely not be for sale, such as the sale of human organs.”
“The world we operate in revolves around business. Every single person on this campus interacts with countless businesses every day,” said William Carter, a senior finance major, who was also in the inaugural class. Carter indicated that this class helps students understand and appreciate these connections.
While the course debuted in Spring 2014 as an elective for undergraduate business students, it has expanded into the Master of Arts in Management (MA) and MBA programs in slightly different versions, and may be presented in other programs in the future. Otteson says Wake Forest is rare among business schools in this philosophical exploration that goes beyond a regular business ethics course.
While many schools offer a course that explores ethical decisions according to laws, policies or regulations, “Why Business?” takes students into the background work of knowing the difference between vicious and virtuous behaviors and how they can impact organizations, businesses, markets and individuals.
“I never expected an American business school to spend time discussing the tenets of another economic philosophy, but the conversation allowed for a very relevant and worthwhile debate,” said Chanel Geter, who expects to graduate this spring with her Master of Arts in Management degree. “It also served as an opportunity for students to reveal themselves as devoted to learning without prejudice.”
The course allows students to develop a compelling story about why they’ve chosen business and how their work contributes to society.
“I had never invested myself in the question of whether business could be a moral pursuit,” said Jill Shuster (’15), an MA in Management student. “This class invites students to explore the ability of business to bring about positive developments in society.”
Otteson says the implications studied in the class cover all areas of business. “People think accounting is just arithmetic, but there are many thorny issues about where to put things in ledgers, how to count things, or even which things to count.”
He adds, “Our graduates will leave Wake Forest with not only the technical business skills, but the additional ability to tell their friends, family and coworkers why they are doing something important and to explain their role in business in a larger context.”
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