Part I: Is Harvard Business School Immoral?

Max Anderson

Let’s do a morality thought experiment.

Suppose you are a junior in college and just got a job as an investment banker in New York City. You’re excited because the job was hard to get and pays a lot of money.

It comes with all these perks — free dinner, free car service home instead of the subway, etc. (Only later do you realize these perks are to pay you off for staying in the office past 9 pm every night).

The dinner budget is $30 — big enough that you could order a decent steak every night. Initially, you spend it all on yourself, ordering an app and dessert every night. Then you realize you’re getting fat because you never have time to workout. So you change strategies.

On your way home one night, as you step out of your Town Car, you see a homeless man, the same one you’ve seen in your neighborhood several times before. You get an idea. You decide to spend less of your dinner budget on yourself, but still max out the expense and buy food for the homeless guy in your neighborhood.

Is that immoral?

There are at least three ways to look at this.

  1. It’s stealing. The bank didn’t intend to become a social service agency. It gave the money to feed you. If you don’t want to use the whole budget on food, you should save the bank money, reduce its costs, and help make it more profitable. You’re stealing from the managing directors and from all the shareholders without their consent.
  2. It’s part of the deal. Someone else would say that the bank has already budgeted for the maximum expense, so it is yours to use. The $30 is basically a daily bonus for working long hours — paid in food, not cash. They are just glad to have kept you in the office fixing fonts in pitch decks. You earned that $30 budget in overtime so you can use it as you like. Who’s to say that it’s more moral for you to eat a slice of chocolate cake yourself than to share a sandwich with someone else?
  3. There’s a higher law at work. A third perspective is that it doesn’t matter what the bank thinks; it is a good and noble thing to share food with the hungry. You are a modern day Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Even if the food budget was intended for your personal use only, some rules aren’t just and there is a higher moral order to obey.

What do you think?

And what would you think if the situation were altered? What if you spent your extra food budget to buy dinner for your roommate who isn’t poor, but doesn’t get a dinner allowance from his internship? Or what if you max out the budget to buy your dinner for that night and your lunch for the next day?

Or what if you used the dinner allowance to practice arbitrage? You order the food for free then re-sell it at a steep discount to your roommate, or to others. They get cheap food, you get cash, the restaurant gets business. All thanks to the generosity/bureaucracy of the bank.

Clearly, this isn’t the most important problem to solve in the world. But it’s a not-uncommon issue faced by young professionals just starting their careers. Many of them never think about it — they are too bleary-eyed after 14 hours staring at a screen they just order the food, eat it and collapse into bed.

But these are the kinds of small daily decisions that form habits that inform bigger decisions later. I have an Aristotelian belief that virtue is formed by habit, and sometimes you aren’t even aware of it. Ethical questions are more often gray than they are black-and-white and, just like the dinner allowance question, the way you frame the question leads you to very different answers. And by the way, the smarter you are, the better you are at generating rationalizations for whatever choice you make.

Is Harvard Business School Immoral?

A new book has been in the news: The Golden Passport by Duff McDonald. The book’s subtitle gives you a sense of what it is about: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite.

It is a tome well over 600 pages long. McDonald argues that HBS is the most influential business school in the world, producing the largest number of Fortune 500 CEOs and captains of Wall Street. And he argues that HBS has systematically failed to train its graduates to lead responsibly and ethically.

My one sentence belief about his critique of HBS: The more you tip toward overstatement, the more books you are likely to sell. Even in a media atmosphere fixated on President Trump’s every tweet, McDonald has managed to generate a lot of press attention. That is to be expected when you promise to pull back the curtain on one of the world’s most influential institutions and reveal it as a shady, corner-cutting, self-interested profit factory.

The trouble with this simplistic notion is that it ignores or downplays the facts that don’t corroborate the thesis. I can say this from experience. The Dean of HBS, Nitin Nohria, is a man committed to professional ethics. The role of the leader and stakeholder theory have been among his central concerns throughout his academic life.

The vast majority of the professors I had at HBS were similarly committed to educating students not just in how to make a buck, but in how to lead well in the interests of their shareholders, employees, customers, and communities. The students at HBS ranged the entire spectrum from selfish profit-seekers to altruistic do-gooders, but by far the majority earnestly wanted to have a successful career and give more value than they received.

I don’t want to whitewash the truth about business education at HBS or anywhere else. Although I broadly support the leadership of the school, I am not a strict apologist for HBS.

I think it can and should do more to prepare students for the harder challenges of leadership because many of them will end up in positions of enormous power.

As McDonald points out, the shareholder theory pushed by some professors at HBS and other schools has no doubt given many students the justification they needed to make awful decisions in the name of maximizing earnings per share.

McDonald is wrong about HBS simply producing greedy financial engineers. He is right that the school can and should do more to elevate the ethics and praxis of it’s alumni.

This piece was republished with permission from


Max Anderson

Max Anderson is an entrepreneur and author. He founded Saturn Five ventures, writes The Weekend Reader, a deep thinker’s guide to modern culture, and authored Modern Meditations: Reflections from the Mid-Point of the Second Decade of the Twenty-first Century.

Max co-founded the MBA Oath upon graduating with honors from Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School in 2009. He co-authored a book of the same title, The MBA Oath (Penguin Portfolio) with Peter Escher in 2010. Max has spoken at universities, companies, and not-for-profit organizations across the United States and Europe. His work has been profiled by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, NPR’s Weekend Edition, and dozens of other media outlets.

He began his career at McKinsey & Co. in New York City, followed by work with leading organizations across the for-profit and non-profit world including Google, The Charlie Rose Show, Redeemer Presbyterian Church and, most recently, Bridgewater Associates — where he served in a number of leadership capacities as a member of the firm’s senior management cohort and as director of the firm’s Investment Associate leadership program.