The Open Syllabus Project

Last week a database of open access syllabi from many educational institutions around the globe, the Open Syllabus Project (, was published. This is a truly fascinating database (see also this article Even though it lacks representativeness, it does include references to a total of almost 1 million different readings from many syllabi from different fields of subject and 5 countries (all English speaking: US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). Given this number, it does allow for some conclusions about the current state of educational affairs at colleges and universities.

A few observations and ideas from my side after a first short glance at the list:

1) The top items on the list are quite often philosophical in nature – and make you wonder, why in reality Philosophy is such a marginal subject (at least when counting number of professors and students). (In reality the explanation is, that many of these texts are being used in multiple disciplines, but given the importance that other fields seem to put on philosophy it still makes you wonder why philosophy has such a limited voice in many contemporary debates.)

2) When selecting only syllabi from the discipline area “Business” – only 2 out of the top 15 readings in the syllabi are not finance, accounting or marketing; 10 out the top 15 are in fact finance or accounting! Three possible explanations come to my mind: Either there are just more finance, accounting and marketing syllabi in the data base, which in turn could be (a) explained by the fact that there are just more finance, accounting and marketing courses than other disciplines, or (b) other disciplines are more secretive about the syllabi which is why they don’t end up in the database. Alternatively (c) the dominance of finance, accounting and marketing texts at the top of the list could be explained by a higher level of agreement between teachers about what are the most relevant texts in the discipline. – Maybe there are even more explanations, but all of the three listed above somehow disappoint me:

(re a) That just shouldn’t be the case, because business is so much more than just finance, accounting and marketing!

(re b) Why should educators from other disciplines be so much more secretive about their syllabi? Wouldn’t it be much more important  to be public and transparent about the content of courses in fields that deal with the business in its larger context (CSR, business ethics, business and law, business and government et.)?

(re c) That would just be an expression that the underlying believes and assumptions of finance, accounting and marketing are more shared /  more common than those in other fields – and I don’t see any good explanation for that. In fact: maybe it should be the obligation of educators and researchers in other domains to challenge some of these assumptions… (And just by the way: even when only looking at accounting, shouldn’t it be expected that at least one text on integrated reporting, triple bottom line or the like makes it pretty far up in the list?)

3) There is only a truly disappointing list of texts in the domain of business ethics. Yes, there are some texts from syllabi in the field of business education with the keyword “ethics” – but in the top 1,000 texts this is only true for 13 plus 2 with the keyword “moral”. In total  only 1.5% of the total text body is directly related to ethics/moral. And out of these 15 only 6 are in the top 500, whereas 9 titles are found between 501 and 1,000. There is not a single text with “moral” or “ethics” in the top 100!

It doesn’t get much better if you include more search terms: There is no text with “CSR” or “responsibility” in the title, only one with “stakeholder” (but this is already in the 13 with “ethics”) – and the picture doesn’t get substantially better with any other keyword that came to my mind in the larger context of business – “environment”, “social”, “ecology”… All together a look at what is missing in the top 1,000 titles is truly disappointing and seemingly only supporting highly cynical views on business overall.


Full list of the 13 texts with keyword “ethics” plus 2 with the keyword “moral” in the top 1,000 texts of the database:

    1. 179 Ethics by Aristotle
    2. 340 Business Ethics : A Stakeholder and Issues Management Approach by Weiss, Joseph W.
    3. 414 Business : Its Legal, Ethical, and Global Environment by Jennings, Marianne
    4. 418 Business Ethics : Concepts and Cases by Velasquez, Manuel G.
    5. 485 Computer Ethics by Johnson, Deborah G., 1945
    6. 491 Case Studies in Business, Society, and Ethics by Beauchamp, Tom L.
    7. 553 Business and Professional Ethics for Accountants by Brooks, Leonard J.
    8. 604 Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
    9. 641 Ethics and the Conduct of Business by Boatright, John Raymond, 1941
    10. 665 Moral Issues in Business by Shaw, William H., 1948
    11. 819 Regulation of Lawyers : Problems of Law and Ethics by Gillers, Stephen, 1943
    12. 821 Moral Issues in Business by Barry, Vincent E.
    13. 831 Sex and Virtue : An Introduction to Sexual Ethics by Grabowski, John S.
    14. 866 Perspectives in Business Ethics by Hartman, Laura Pincus
    15. 886 Business Ethics : Ethical Decision Making and Cases by Ferrell, O. C.


Law versus ethics – a visual approach: Part 1 Venn diagrams / Set theory

When teaching business ethics – especially when using moral dilemmas from business life -, the class discussions often touch the topic of the relation between law and ethics. Even when I explicitly ask for moral/ethical arguments, many participants respond with references to legal frameworks. In the last few months I have repeatedly used this topic for a short visual exercise. I have asked my students/participants to draw a picture to illustrate their understanding of the relationship between law and ethics. And the results are just great!

From now on, I will post every once in a while a few pictures that I collected during these exercises. Today I will start by sharing the broad set of responses that use some sort of Venn diagram, i.e. that would roughly fall into the set theory, i.e. all those visualizations that use circles, squares etc. to put law and ethics into a relation by referring to their relative dimension.

The classic visualization, that typically about 20% of all participants will develop, roughly looks like this:

Set theory 1 - ClassicThe basic point of this illustration is usually the overlap. As explanation for such illustrations, participants will typically mention, that there is an overlap between law and ethics, but that both of them can also be isolated. Accordingly the picture allows for:

  1. actions that are legal but not ethical
  2. actions that are ethical but not legal
  3. actions that are legal and ethical
  4. actions that are neither legal nor ethical

Sometimes the same idea is brought into slightly different forms, such as this squared version:


Set theory 2 - squared and proportionalThe artist of the picture above did two important modifications compared to the classical version: (1) He drew the law box to be significantly smaller than the ethics box. (2) He positioned the two boxes in a way, that the law box is almost completely included within the ethics box (only a small portion of law is not ethical to his understanding), while the ethics box has lots of space outside of the law box.

And very much in line with this last point there are often quite a few variations of the classical picture that either rather focus on the overlap or on the discrepancies between law and ethics. One participant brought this into the following nice picture:


The three different variants are supposed to illustrate differences between different countries (law) or societies (ethics) – different being understood as different in history or geography. The participant explained that in some countries/societies there is/was more overlap than in others.

Quite often I also see two clearly opposing variants of the classical version: More often law is being embedded within ethics:

Set theory 4 - Law in ethics

Much more rare is the following illustration, where ethics is embedded in law:

Set theory 3 - Ethics in law

It is worth noting that these two concentric models implicitly assume that there is either:

  1. nothing legal that is unethical (1st picture)
  2. or nothing ethical that is illegal (2nd picture)

Another interesting picture was designed by a student who wanted to express his conviction that law can be perceived as the common ground within a society between very different individual ethical belief systems:


Interestingly you could also think about an exact inversion of this model, so that Ethics would bee seen/understood as something universal whereas law would be country specific, multifold and only partially overlapping with Ethics and/or the law in other countries.

The following picture is already a bit of a preview to other versions that I will share in later posts:

Set theory 5 - Law as foundationThis picture also shows two overlapping forms, but has two important differences compared to the classical version:

  1. Ethics is shown as circle and law as triangle: The implicit connotation is that law is more edgy/sharper than ethics.
  2. The ethics circle is shown on top of the law triangle: Law seems to have a certain character as basis for ethics.

In order to provide some structure and stimulate the thinking process, I sometimes also draw a picture that is fairly close to the classical model:

Set theory 6 - matrixThe basic idea of this 2×2 matrix is to not to show relative size of the boxes, but to allow for a conceptual discussion with my participants. The South-West and the North-East corner of this matrix don’t require a lot of imagination. So I typically divide the class into two groups:

  1. one group searching for examples of ethical behavior that is illegal (North-West);
  2. the other group searching for examples of unethical behavior that is legal (South-East).

Re 1: Frequent business-related examples include:

  • whistle-blowing in all variants,
  • stories like the German government buying CDs that were stolen in Switzerland and contain information about German tax evaders,
  • some types of legal violations done by investigative journalists,

or non-business examples such as:

  • parking in a non-parking zone in medical emergency situations,
  • mutiny against oppressors,
  • tyrannicide.

Re 2: Frequent business-related examples include:

  • higher levels of pollution than technically feasible but within legal framework
  • some forms of discrimination in international contexts
  • decisions to shut down mobile telecommunication services during demonstrations/revolution

or non-business examples such as:

  • marital infidelity in Western Europe,
  • private waste of resources such as water/energy/food.

When explicitly asking for drawings/visualizations for the relation of law and ethics one shouldn’t be surprised to get pictures such as the ones above. They all have clear messages and important lessons, but in future posts you will find that some participants come up with totally different ways of illustrating this relationship.

Stay tuned and/or send me your pictures!