Can the Capability Approach Help Management Education tackle Unequal Consumption?

Poruthiyil, Prabhir Vishnu (2016). 'Can the Capability Approach Help Management Education tackle Unequal Consumption?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

topics: Ethics and Morality, Business and the Market, SA - South Asia

abstract: Word Count – 976 excluding references   Introduction   Inequality is one of the toughest problems facing contemporary India (Dreze and Sen, 2013; Corbridge and Shah, 2013; Weisskopf, 2011). Inequalities are reflected in the grossly unequal consumption patterns across classes which in turn feed intra-societal resentments and strife, rising anxieties and depression, destruction of ecology, pollution, and displacement of communities (Weisskopf, 2011). The situation demands urgent attention from all stakeholders. However, most businesses and most in the better off classes, having an economic interest (and indeed complicity) in surges of consumption, have become inured or have chosen to ‘look away’ (Mander, 2015; Gandhi and Walton, 2012).   The paper argues that management education that presently caters exclusively to the corporate sector and the middle and upper classes (the main champions of unlimited materialism) has an opportunity and responsibility to address this aspect of inequality. Applications of the capability approach (CA) to tackle the ills of over-consumption can assist management education in this regard (Crocker and Linden, 1998). Specifically CA can (1) support existing critiques within management studies that have posed a challenge to consumerism, (2) transform students from manipulative sellers and impulsive consumers into reflective and empathetic individuals, and (3) create in management schools a learning environment that respects diversity.   State of management education   Concerns of scholars over the state of management education would not alone raise many hopes that an effective challenge to the existing state of affairs can be launched from within the field.  The longstanding concerns show no sign of abating; these include a reliance on a pedagogy that reduces interest in learning and instills arrogance, an amoral syllabus which favors cramming for credits rather than reflection, and the alignment of management education with economism which assumes human beings are consistently self-interested and legitimizes profit-making above other human goals (Adler and Jermier, 2005; Ferraro, Pfeffer, Sutton, 2005; Huhn, 2014; Ghoshal, 2005). Most business schools have ignored “higher aims” and preferred to become “hired hands” of a system (Khurana, 2007) and they often are willing to sacrifice societal interests in order to remain subservient to corporate interests (Marens, 2010).   There is, however, a stream of scholarship that goes against the dominant logic of “profit at all costs” to critique marketing strategies that rely on exploiting the vulnerability of consumers (Brenkert, 1998). These scholars question the ethics in attitudes that condone the exploitation of vulnerabilities of consumers. Marketing strategies of a number of companies rely on groups which have underdeveloped or diminished cognitive skills like children, expectant mothers, the illiterate, unhealthy, grieving, and older persons. Even relatively healthy educated adults with few significant vulnerabilities are being manipulated by marketing strategies designed to stoke previously unrecognized insecurities and create new ones.  The critiques against such marketing tools designed only to make profits have now extended to microfinance institutions that cater primarily to poor consumers (Hudon and Sandbert, 2013).   Business ethicists therefore have sought to stress the unjustifiability of actions that disrespect the autonomy of consumers by exploiting their vulnerabilities (Brenkert, 1998; Palmer and Hedberg, 2013). However, the literature lacks a full-fledged description of well-being of individuals. Rather most criticisms rely on a minimal version of liberal individualism that rarely goes beyond stressing negative liberties of consumers. CA can contribute significantly to fill this gap as it has articulated a more comprehensive and explicit notion of well-being.   Extending CA into business ethics/education.   CA is a normative approach in which well-being corresponds to the extent of an individual’s valuable freedoms to have or to be (Sen, 1999, 1998; Nussbaum, 2011). Well-being as envisaged in CA would be impossible without the capacity for persons to make reasoned choices. This view of well-being, which like that of business ethicists builds on a commitment to autonomy, is much more fully elaborated to incorporate positive expressions of freedom like empathy, sacrifice, and commitment to socially responsible actions.     A marketing campaign that accepts this perspective, therefore would not distort information about a product’s harmful effects (aerated drinks’ effects on obesity, for instance), as that would reduce the freedoms the consumer might have had to make more fulfilling consumption decisions. Sen’s (1998) critique of two other measures of well-being – utility and opulence – (the dominant view[s] in management approaches) can be extended into business ethics to strengthen the existing critiques of indiscriminate selling to vulnerable consumers.  An interesting sister question that requires exploration would be the implications of Nussbaum’s (1998) list of ten functional capabilities for marketing ethics.   Education within CA is a fundamental area for building capability that helps make the individual’s “horizon of vision wider” (Sen, 1999, p.199; see Vaughan and Walker, 2012), and to “liberate minds from the bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world” (Nussbaum, 2010, p.8). The concept of reasoned choices can trigger in students a reflection on the criteria (and absences) in their decisions in their professional roles (one could ask, for instance: “Is my customer aware that our product is a key contributor to obesity in children?” or “what sort of a person is this job forcing me to become?”) and their personal consumption decisions (“would this product bring me lasting happiness?”)   Unfortunately, management schools in India, like elsewhere, are run on the same market principles they teach - education is treated as a commodity, so teachers are sellers and students are buyers.  The entire system is geared towards negating linguistic, cultural, and gender-related diversities in order to deliver standardized outputs to be deployed to further business interests. This leads to an unhealthy combination of herd behavior and an obsession with grades as the only option for standing out (and getting the most lucrative jobs). Introduction of CA in a curriculum could be a catalyst for transforming this environment into one that respects the individualities of each student by developing their capacities to make authentic choices.

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