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Stories play a big role in the development of moral awareness in students

10 May 2023
Reading and discussing world literature contributes to the moral development of business school students, whereby stories stimulate their moral imagination and empathy. This is shown by a research study conducted by organizational psychologist Inge Brokerhof (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) in collaboration with a team of researchers from Harvard University (USA), the University of Lincoln (UK), Utrecht University, and the University of Stavanger (Norway). "In traditional business ethics education, students mainly learn philosophical, abstract theories about ethics, but they are often not encouraged to reflect on their own moral stance. When they read world literature, students become emotionally engaged with the moral challenges and predicaments of the protagonist in a story. Reading and discussing stories which take place in different times, and social and cultural contexts, broadens students' moral perspective and encourages them to reflect on their own moral values," says Brokerhof.

Brokerhof explored the personal experiences of students in the context of business ethics education. Students were assigned to read one piece of world literature per week in which the main character faces a complex moral challenge and then they discussed the story in groups. Brokerhof demonstrates that reading stories can contribute to the development of "moral muscle," which refers to the ability to consciously reflect on complex ethical issues. "Students became emotionally involved in the stories and the moral challenges of the main characters. The use of world literature in the business ethics classroom thus invoked a different kind of learning experience in students compared to traditional ethics education. It was deeper and more personal. They described it as vicarious learning - through the eyes of the characters, they felt a bit like they had faced the moral challenges themselves."

Moral development varies from person to person

The classroom discussions on world literature strengthened the development of moral muscle. Students were often surprised by how differently their classmates interpreted the same piece of literature. Furthermore, the development of moral muscle was not the same for every student. It appears that people have different starting points and learning paths. Some students began the course with a rigid way of moral thinking (with a strong idea of 'good' versus 'bad'), but by the end of the study, they were more open to different moral perspectives.

On the other hand, some students started the course from a standpoint of moral relativism ("there is no right or wrong"). These students came to realize the importance of having their own moral standpoint by the end of the course. "This suggests that moral development can vary from person to person. Additionally, moral development occurred through regular reflection and practice. Just like with regular muscle, you also need to train your “moral muscle”. Well-developed moral muscle makes you better equipped to recognize moral challenges in diverse contexts and situations, and take your own moral stance," states Brokerhof.

Contribution of the study to the debate surrounding business ethics

Brokerhof's research contributes to general knowledge and the debate surrounding business ethics in various ways: “Through stories, readers can experience different complex moral challenges in an immersive way. This stimulated students to reflect on their own moral values and their view on the (ethical) role of companies in society. Furthermore, the concept of "moral muscle" offers a new way of thinking about moral awareness. Your moral muscle develops gradually, and you must continue to use and develop it, otherwise, your attention to the ethical aspect of business operations will decline. Students realized the importance of ethics in the context of companies and organizations and that they need to start thinking about their moral role and vision now if they want to make a difference in the world as future managers or business leaders."