Business Needs the Humanities to Succeed

What is the second-best reason for studying the humanities in business school? We hope you already know the best reason: to understand what it means to be human, how to live a good life, how to be an informed and thoughtful citizen, and so on. These are the questions that we begin to grapple with in our formative years, and then return to in our contemplative ones decades later. In the roughly two score years in between, we hope MBAs will continue to do so. During that time of life, however, business school graduates tend to think mostly of … business. Our goal here is to demonstrate why the humanities can also help them be more successful in business.

The complex business challenges of an increasingly technology oriented and interconnected global economy will make the humanities as important a part of the core MBA curriculum as economics. As former Goldman Sachs banker and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin observed, a philosophy class was more important to his future career than his studies in economics or finance. The commitment to the kind of critical thinking fostered by the study of philosophy, along with an ability to spot business issues in areas where various humanities disciplines have deepened our understanding of the human condition, will make business students better at their jobs.

Take, for example, jobs in the tech sector, a prime destination for new business graduates. Today, many MBAs would jump at the chance to join the self-driving vehicle team at Tesla, GM, or many other companies. For grads heading in that direction, it might seem that the higher the tech, the lower the need to understand anything other than business, or perhaps engineering, but that’s hardly the case. Some serious philosophical thinking needs to happen before the car’s much anticipated commercial launch. The carmakers will have to solve one of the classic problems of modern philosophy: the trolley dilemma.

You’re standing next to a very large person on a bridge, and a trolley below is about to plow into a group of people. You can push the large person off the bridge in front of the trolley to stop it, saving several lives at the expense of just one. Should you? That is what the driverless car needs to know. It must be programmed in advance for cases where an unavoidable fatal accident will either protect the person in the car at all costs or sacrifice a passenger to save the lives of multiple pedestrians.

Additionally, a range of humanities issues can be found at the core of challenging questions confronting Google, Facebook, and Apple (to name just a few) relating to personal data usage by third parties, misinformation on social media, the security of smart home electronics, and the like. It turns out that the higher the tech, the greater the need for a humanities education. In fact, businesses, as early adopters of new technological opportunities, will often be pioneering society’s thinking about the deeper questions arising from their use. Whether they realize they are doing so requires managers with the right academic preparation and intellectual disposition. Google appears to have recognized this issue and has appointed its own in-house philosopher.

MBAs headed into biotech, pharmaceuticals or healthcare management also face a life-and-death issue, one that has been debated within the humanities for ages. When there are not enough life-saving resources to help everyone, who should get them? Around the world, much of the global healthcare market is committed to a process where a single government entity decides whether a new medicine is affordable for the whole country. That decision is based not only on complex calculations of the value of the “life-years” that could be saved across the population, but also on whether the medicines can be allocated in a just and fair manner.

To operate successfully in these global markets, life sciences executives need to understand the complex life-year calculations, which is something for which the existing business curriculum should be more than adequate. However, they also must comprehend how the various countries decide what just and fair means when it comes to accessing medicines.

This distributive justice issue has historically been the stock in trade of political theorists, theologians, and philosophers, and, in the modern world, it has become a critical question for life sciences managers as well. A curriculum that includes discussions of Aristotle, Kant and Mill will give business students a framework for understanding these complex decisions, and a head start in assessing how theories of justice influence commercial healthcare markets. Today, hospital chief executives and public health leaders are confronting similar kinds of questions as they deal with capacity shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, if there is any one common task shared by virtually all business grads, it is making models—short or long-term projections of future financial performance. Retail or wholesale, product or service, high tech or low, both for-profit and not-for-profit firms make their plans based on the results of these financial models. Widely available software packages enable models to consider thousands of different scenarios. In our experience, however, these powerful modeling tools often go astray long before the very first scenario is discussed. That is because the input assumptions make or break the model’s logic, and the assumptions are—or should be —rooted in things you are confident that you know.

Model-builders often fail to think about how good such knowledge is. Fortunately, a branch of philosophy is dedicated to just these questions. The theory of knowledge, or epistemology, asks us to consider what it means to know something. Understanding these issues should be a vital part of business decision making.

The long-time admissions director at Harvard Business School has said that candidates with humanities backgrounds are uniquely valuable, as she believes that they are the ones able “to think broadly” when “taking a stand.” She said: “You can learn to do accounting. But it takes judgment to do what we do here.” To develop that reasoned judgment, business students will need a deeper understanding of the humanities than is likely to rub off on them from the 19% of their classmates who majored in the liberal arts.

Classes in Philosophy (or the Humanities) in Business should join the core curriculum alongside existing courses in business ethics, and they should be accompanied by electives  focusing on case studies—such as the ones mentioned here—where important business issues intersect with the humanities. For these courses, it will be important not only to add humanities scholars to business school faculty, but also to find contributors who have seen how studying the humanities connects with business management in practice. Here universities can tap into the surprising number of executives—C-suite managers, entrepreneurs, consultants, bankers, and others—who have taken their humanities degrees into the business world and found more points of contact than professors of either management or the humanities might suspect. Prioritizing the humanities in this way will not only help business students be more thoughtful citizens—certainly the best reason for studying them—but also make them more successful in business.