Teaching Business Ethics Through Fiction


Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badaracco teaches a course titled “The Moral Leader,” in which he has defined leadership as “a struggle by a flawed human being to make some important human values real and effective in the world as it is.”

To teach thoughtful moral decision-making to future generations of managers and CEOs, Badaracco employs an unusual form of case study: “literature that helps his future MBAs learn how to deal with the ethical gray areas, competing interests and multiple points of view they’ll encounter during their careers.”

We think this is a terrific idea. Deep engagement with fiction can leave an indelible mark on a person, from a simple feeling that may be triggered in the right context to a complete overhaul of someone’s way of thinking about a variety of issues. Not every student will be permanently transformed by a particular work of literature, but any reader can learn a great deal by grappling with the complex web of personalities, motivations, and obstacles adroitly woven by a skilled author. The discussions in Badaracco’s class, facilitated by questions he poses in the syllabus, have the potential to stay with his students for years to come.

Ethical Systems collaborator Jonathan Haidt is also using literature to teach critical moral thinking at NYU Stern. We want to help other professors do the same. To that end, we have compiled a list of dozens of business-related novels suitable for use in a business ethics or professional responsibility course.​ Over time, we hope to better understand the efficacy of this approach to ethics education and to refine our method accordingly. For now, just open your books to page one.