"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Thursday, March 29, 2018

An Interfaith Declaration of Business (Ethics)

Released in 1994, “An Interfaith Declaration: A Code of Ethics on International Business for Christians, Muslims, and Jews” is comprised of two parts: principles and guidelines. The four principles (justice, mutual respect/love, stewardship and honesty) are described predominantly in religious terms, devoid of any connection to business. In contrast, the guidelines invoke the principles in their ethical sense, devoid of any religious connotation. The disconnect in applying religious ethics to business is not merely in books; the heavenly and earthly cities are as though separated by a great ocean of time.

Are these religions applicable to business?    

To be sure, the text refers to business in discussing the ethical principles of love, stewardship and honesty, however briefly. Love in the business world is to extend out from corporate boundaries to  stakeholders. Stewardship applies to a business’s use of resources such that ownership itself is qualified beyond the reach of regulation. Lastly, honesty includes the use of “true scales.” The honest are said to get a religious reward (i.e., resurrection), presumably to compensate for any monetary loss in being honest in business.

Turning to the guidelines for business, they are portrayed predominately in the text mostly as a defense of corporate capitalism. Strangely, the reference to the principles is devoid of any religious association. The following guideline is typical: “The efficient use of scarce resources will be ensured by the business” (A.7). Another guideline adds a reference to an ethical principle: “Competition between businesses has generally been shown to be the most effective way to ensure that resources are not wasted, costs are minimized and prices fair” (A.2). To be sure, fairness is indeed an ethical principle, which John Rawls applies in his Theory of Justice. However, fairness is not among the religious ethical principles. Furthermore, no religious content is referenced in the guideline, as well as still another: “The basis of the relationship with the principal stakeholders shall be honesty and fairness, by which is meant integrity” (B.3). The reader is left to ponder what integrity looks like in terms of the three Abrahamic religions.

A major problem in relating monotheism and business ethics comes down to the enigma that God’s omnipotence cannot be limited by a human ethical system, and yet divine decrees that violate secular ethical principles are untenable and thus typically considered to be invalid. For example, killing people who refuse to convert because God says rankles the modern conscience into seemingly rebelling against the Ultimate. The question naturally flairs up regarding whether God really decrees the sordid practice. Looking out of a smoked window in this earthly realm, we mortals tend to conceptualize or sense God as extending beyond the limits of human perception and cognition. This means that we cannot rely on any firm answer in justifying a divine decree above a social ethic. 

For example, insisting that employees keep the Sabbath, whether on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, may not be fair to the workers who do not recognize the validity of the Ten Commandments. Given the limitations discussed above that preempt religious intuition, belief, and experience from being recognized as factual knowledge, an employer cannot justifiably treat the revelation as though a fact that an objecting employee has no cause to ignore. The question of the revelation's divine validity is ultimately at stake here, and no answer can possibly settle the matter in dispute.

In conclusion, it follows that throwing monotheism into the mix of business and ethics cannot reduce to a simplistic list of determinate guidelines. Getting beyond the “oil and water” of the sacred and profane turns out to be a whale of a challenge to religious business practitioners. In Christian terms, the problem can be put in terms of whether the "fully human and fully divine" Christology devoid of blending is a sufficient basis to cross the ocean of time between Sunday and Monday.  


Related paper: "Religion in Strategic Leadership: A Positivistic, Normative/Theological and Strategic Analysis," Journal of Business Ethics (2005) 57: 221-239.

Related book: God's Gold  The text goes through the history of Christian thought on how greed is related to wealth and profit-seeking, and proffers an explanation for why the historical shift was from anti-wealth to a pro-wealth dominant stance.