Business Ethics


[text below written in 2017; needs update for 2020]

After each wave of business scandals, some people say that the business schools must do a better job of teaching ethics. But is teaching ethics the best way to improve business ethics? In ch. 4 of The Righteous Mind I wrote:

Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom. Classes are for riders, and riders are just going to use their new knowledge to serve their elephants more effectively. If you want to make people behave more ethically, there are two ways you can go. You can change the elephant, which takes a long time and is hard to do. Or, to borrow an idea from the book Switch, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, you can change the path that the elephant and rider find themselves traveling on. You can make minor and inexpensive tweaks to the environment, which can produce big increases in ethical behavior. 

A few months after I wrote those words, NYU-Stern hired me to teach its business ethics class. OK, that’s a little awkward, but I stand by my words. I certainly think it’s good for business students to take a course on business ethics, but I don’t think that one course will improve ethical behavior years later, when social forces in real work settings overwhelm whatever lessons students learned in class.

What I’m trying to do

If we really want to improve ethical behavior in business, we must grab the bull by the horns and change those social forces. That’s why I created the website It’s a collaboration among dozens of the leading researchers in organizational ethics. It’s an attempt to turn business ethics research into a rapidly advancing and cumulative enterprise. It’s “Nudge” for businesses, but it’s much more. Ethical Systems offers research-based advice on how to create an ethical culture, how to be an ethical leader, and much, much more. We are trying to support a long-term shift from the current and sometimes exclusive focus on “compliance” to a broader emphasis on ethics and ethical culture. (This is what compliance officers tell us they would like to do, and it is what William Dudley of the New York Fed called for in a major speech in 2014.) In 2017 our focus is on developing the best set of tools to measure the ethical culture of any organization. We’ll give them away for free. Our goal is to “make ethics easy.”

Below you can see my own writings and lectures on behavioral approaches to business ethics. You may also be interested in my page on Capitalism and Morality.


Here are my essays on business ethics

Make business ethics a cumulative science (with Linda Trevino), in Nature – Human Behavior (Feb. 2017)

Can you teach businessmen to be ethical?, Washington Post (1/13/14)

Behavioral ethics for Homo economicus, Homo heuristicus, and Homo duplex.  Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 123, 150-158.

Wonderful vs. Wonder-Free CompaniesHuffington Post (3/5/14)

[more to come]


Here are some interviews with me, and articles written about

The Thought Leader Interview: Jonathan Haidt. By Ann Graham,  In Strategy+Business (2/1/16)

Will your ethics hold up under pressure? By Ron Carucci, in Forbes (2/3/16)



Here is my YouTube playlist of talks I’ve given on business ethics. Below are the two main ones:

At Aspen Ideas festival (2015), on why ethics pays.

Here are two blog posts explaining the key ideas in the talk: 1) Buddha makes the business case for ethics, and 2) Ethical Systems Design can reduce income inequality.


At Zurich Minds (2014), Three Stories about Capitalism. Introduces the 2 sub-videos about capitalism as exploitation and capitalism as liberation, and introduces the concept of “dynamism vs. decency”

Here is a blog post drawing out the main points of the talk: Increasing dynamism and decency