If there is one thing I have learned about teaching business and human rights for 20 years – most recently at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, California – and before that as a case writer at Harvard Business School, it is the importance of making the business case for human rights.

Business schools are the ideological temples of neoclassical economics and a big reason students go to worship there is that – let’s face it – they want a “piece of the action.” This does not mean that all business students are greedy, though admittedly a few graduate into full-fledged psychopaths who will be a menace to society. Most business school students have simple, understandable financial goals – to own a home, perhaps help support a family, and generally to achieve a bit of financial security in an uncertain world.  It’s hard to criticize that. Many of them will go on to lead companies, create jobs and wealth, and contribute to the public good. In that sense business schools, like the free market system they feed, can be forces for social betterment even without fully embracing altruistic ends for their own sake. At Santa Clara University we go a step farther and encourage students to embrace what we call Conscientious Capitalism, which, simply put, means that we ask students at some time during their studies to reflect on their values and commit to becoming humane and public-spirited business leaders.

Even a Conscientious Capitalist, however, is acutely aware of the need to run a profitable business if good intentions are to remain sustainable over time. So in the classroom we continue to make the business case for human rights and corporate social responsibility. The surefire way to make the business case is through fear. Fear works. It can triumph over, or at least temper, greed. The fear punch is simple to deliver. Bad things will happen to you and your company if you don’t respect human rights. Consumers will boycott your products! Indigenous groups will sue you for billions! You can go to jail!

While scare tactics are effective – I admit I sometimes use them in the classroom – they are not I find the best approach. What works better with highly practical business students is the value creation proposition. Nothing grabs a business school student’s attention better than when a brand name company takes human rights and other sustainability issues seriously. Students need to learn about Conscientious Capitalism in a language that won’t be lost in translation when they begin their careers at Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, and Facebook. So I’ve learned that the best way to make the business case for human rights is by letting students see how Nike is incorporating environmental and social sustainability into the core of their business strategy for the next two decades, how Starbucks is partnering with a non-governmental organization to source environmentally sound coffee beans on farms that treat workers with dignity and pay a decent wage, or how Google has developed a well thought out Human Rights impact assessment process drawing expertise from throughout their organizational talent to maximize the quality of and free access to information in their worldwide operations.

Another crucial teaching objective of the Conscientious Capitalism approach to human rights is making the human connection.  In a case involving the rights of hiv-positive expectant mothers in a clinical drug trial or the right to decent work, abstract human rights principles are certainly important to understand, but nothing helps make the connection better than to ask: “What would you want for your own children?” “How do you think this worker feels about being treated this way?” Business school students are very practical people. The best way to help them appreciate the importance of human rights and the true inner wisdom of committing to Conscientious Capitalism is to help them see the practical impact for the less fortunate and to help them feel real human kinship with people from diverse cultures and distant lands. Practicality and empathy are not mutually exclusive.

Over a quarter of a century, I have learned that teaching business school students about business and human rights requires one to understand but not worship in the temple of free market capitalism. To advance the cause of business and human rights I have learned to accept the practical and commercial ambitions of my students. The idea behind teaching Conscientious Capitalism is to help such students to channel the enormous power of free markets into leadership models that are both personally rewarding and socially responsible. Business is a very practical endeavor but it also has the potential to help civil society achieve our highest ideals of honoring the human rights of all of our global citizens.

Michael A. Santoro is a Co-Editor of Business and Human Rights Journal published by Cambridge University Press and a Professor in the Management Department at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. This blog is adapted from a presentation at the 6th Annual “Teaching Business and Human Rights Workshop” at Columbia University.

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