I was deeply honored to be the recipient of the 2021 Responsible Research in Management Award from the Academy of Management Fellows Group and the Community for Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) for my 2020 book Better, Not Perfect: Moving Toward Maximum Sustainable Goodness (2020). Better focuses on helping the reader be better than the real-world behavior observed and described in the behavioral ethics field, and better than the set of decisions than most of us intuitively make.
Much has been written about ethics from a variety of disciplines. By far, the most dominant influence has come from philosophers. Philosophers have a long history of debating the characteristics of what constitutes moral action. Philosophers offer normative accounts of what they think people should do. In the last decade, behavioral scientists have entered the ethical arena to document how people actually behave – or what social scientists call descriptive accounts.
Better departs from both of these traditions. Better is prescriptive. While the prescriptive approach of guiding you to be better is different from what has been offered by philosophy and psychology, Better draws on both of these literatures to provide insights on how to be better. Philosophy provides the goal state, while psychology will provide insight into why we remain so far from the goal state. By integrating these perspectives, Better attempts to provide useful advice on how to be better in the world we actually inhabit.
When writing about ethics, it is too easy to think about the behavior of others. Yet, as the author, I have an obligation to think about my work and the work of my professional colleagues, including those working in the social sciences and in business schools. And, when we look at the world of social science, the last decade has presented us with a crisis. In addition to embarrassing episodes of data fraud, we have been confronted with the need to reform how we conduct our research, and more importantly, how we train our students to conduct research. We have become aware that some of our leading scholars have used questionable research practices (developing hypotheses after seeing the results, trying too many different dependent variables, running enough study participants per cell until the effect is significant, etc.) to identify cute effects, that attract media attention, but are less likely to replicate and generalize. These practices have earned the nickname “p-hacking,” questionable research practices aimed at getting effects to be significant at .05 level, so that they are more likely to be published.
We know the solutions. We can preregister our studies. We can run just one pre-specified model to test our hypotheses. We can increase the size of our samples. We can write our papers so that the reviewers and readers can know exactly and completely what we did. More importantly, faculty can train students to act with integrity. We can educate ourselves on how to read research with an eye for spotting p-hacked results. And, we can support the research reform movement, including RRBM, rather than trying to defend our past, questionable practices. By doing so, we will not create a perfect world, but we can make it Better.
And, we can go beyond being ethical in how we do research and think about what we choose to study. Over fifty years ago, Milton Friedman misled our society by persuasively arguing that “There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game”.[i] Too many people treated this as the law, rather than an outlier’s assessment of social responsibility. During the same half century, many academic institutions have developed institutionalized views of what is good research, often defined by what our journals and tenure processes value. Thus, many of us selected topics based on what is publishable and what will interest the organizations that directly consume our research. In other words, we often use public resources (government funding or student tuitions) to do research that benefits ourselves (in terms of promotions) and our schools (in terms of reputations and rankings). But, ethicists define morality in terms of what is best for the broader community, society, or world. Rooted in the work of Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism would suggest that the most ethical research would be research that creates the most value across all sentient beings – not just the value of the researcher or the values defined by a journal. Great models for thinking about domains that maximize collective value can be seen in the research of my colleagues who also were finalists and winners of the Responsible Research in Management Award. My view is that Jeremy Bentham provides a more useful direction than Milton Friedman for helping us understand what research is more socially responsible. I hope that the views in this blog are useful to some as they think about what research they do and how they do it.
[i] Milton Friedman, “A Friedman Doctrine‐-The Social Responsibility Of Business Is to Increase Its Profits,” The New York Times, September 13, 1970, sec. Archives, https://www.nytimes.com/1970/09/13/archives/a-friedman-doctrine-the-social-responsibility-of-business-is-to.html.
Max H. Bazerman is the author of the Award-winning book “Better, Not Perfect: A Realist’s Guide to Maximum Sustainable Goodness” and the Straus Professor at Harvard Business School.