Some would hold that “business ethics” is simply an oxymoron. There are many examples of businessmen and women whose sole guideline would appear to be maximizing profit, even if that requires violating core human values.
There are nuances sometimes, giving it a veneer of intellectual ethical analysis. Ayn Rand, for example, can see a morality in being a member of an elite which is justified in exploiting and dominating the lower classes, who deserve no better. To sacrifice for them or share with them would simply be counterproductive. Similarly, the Nazi concept of “Untermensch” sees some people as superior to others by virtue of better genetics. This makes it acceptable to rule and boss those with less fortunate ancestries in order to achieve a societal order run by and for the elite.
The average person making a living in our capitalist environment, whether an employee or business owner, seldom goes to such extremes. They see it as reasonable that profit is bounded by some basics. Murder, arson, prevarication, blatant theft, knowing sales of defective products, mistreatment of employees, fraud and more have all been done for no reason other than increasing profits. Yet for many, such practices are wrong, even in the name of making more money.
Some Christians see their Faith as being a guiding factor in their work life. They apply a personal morality to their workdays. They never use the workplace to indulge in marital infidelity or sexual harassment. They are scrupulously honest, and do not cheat clients or customers. While they hope to make a healthy profit, they do not do so by defrauding or exploiting others. Many give a percentage of the profit to the Church and other charities. They even witness to their Faith at the workplace when that can be done effectively, with respect for other’s values and privacy. Perhaps the very integrity of their lives is a powerful witness.
Unfortunately, this Christian witness is more than thwarted by those whose hypocrisy justifies the accusations of the secularists and damages the Faith of vulnerable believers. Today a whole counter-culture exists of people who proclaim their workplace Christianity loudly in regard to a few specifics, demanding, to be allowed to opt out of the ordinary rules applying to folks in general, because of their Christian morality.
The case of Steve Green, the CEO and co-owner of Hobby Lobby, is perhaps known to you. When the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) was instituted, it included coverage for contraceptive care. Green objected to paying for employees to receive this, stating it was contrary to his Christian ethics. There had been previous legal discussions regarding exemption for specifically religious organizations from employment law, including healthcare aspects. But this case poses the question of a private, for-profit enterprise being able to opt out of specific health insurance provisions based on the owners’ personal ethics. He won his case, establishing that Christians do not have to follow the same rules as others when it is a matter of conscience. It is a tricky issue, since the employees covered may wish to have contraceptive care. The exemption is for the employer’s morality, not that of the employee.
As it turns out, Green apparently believes he can opt out of other rules as well. According to the Federal Government, he has illegally imported a large number of stolen antiquities from Iraq. The Feds fined him several million dollars and made him give the artifacts back. The details of the case are off the subject here but you may want to search them out. They make fascinating reading, in the subterfuges used and the way the money was “laundered” through numerous people in Israel and the UAE to cover the tracks from Iraq, and even the veneer of religion Green used to excuse his actions.
Like pedophilia among the clergy, cases like this do incalculable damage to Christian witness. Already, the “aha” of judgement is raining down on Green, who certainly deserves it, but also it is being generalized to judge all Christians as hypocritical sleazebags. When someone has made such a public point of being a Christian, requiring special exemptions because of his superior morality, they tend to be seen as representative of Christianity. Yet Green is a classic example of how not to practice Christianity, definitely including the part of loudly proclaiming your Christian righteousness while simultaneously pulling off a massive heist of precious antiquities belonging to the Iraqi people.
How can we approach business ethics as sincere Christians to counter the misuse of the name Christian? It is time to go back to some healthier basics.
1. As noted in previous posts, the earth is the Lord’s (see Ps. 24, among others). This means all earthly activity, including economics by whatever system used, is done in the sacred environment of the Lord’s property. We “own” parts of it only as we hold it in trust for him.
2. Christians therefore are not stepping from a sacred “churchy” environment on Sunday into a “secular” one on weekdays. The economy is a sacred arena, where the Lord is present, especially through “Christ-bearers” living a Eucharistic lifestyle.
3. We live in a fallen, sinful world, in which Christians, too, are sinners. It is false witness to proclaim our own righteousness. Rather, we must point to Christ and his grace as the guideline, and avoid acting like the Pharisees.
4. In the fallen world, all economic and political systems are flawed. As Christians, we can propose no earthly system of perfection to replace them. Jesus and St. Paul in particular make it extremely clear we are to manage as best we can within the flawed systems in which we find ourselves. Any replacement system will also be stained with sin, as history shows.
5. In the imperfect politics and economics of the world, it should be no surprise that there is no perfect health insurance. To focus on one or two issues around sex, to be forced on employees who may not agree, is a distortion of witness. The issue involved is of debatable theology for Christians anyway. Further, it ignores a myriad of other ethical questions regarding providing any health coverage at all, disparities, access to care, workplace health, sale of healthy products, provisions for a healthy environment, maternity/ paternity leave, respect for employees, all the things which combine to produce an umbrella of health for employees.
6. Christians who bring a personal Christian morality into the workplace certainly have “business ethics,” and are to be commended. But they need to see a larger picture, as follows
7. In general, Christians should promote a respect for the environment, as it is the Lord’s property we are caring for. It thrives when there is a natural balance which we, as its stewards/ managers, are responsible for maintaining. All economy is ultimately about that goal. Reasonable profit is not wrong, but it is secondary. Christians need to say this out loud.
8. The care of the Lord’s earth includes respect and compassion for her people and their spiritual, intellectual and material well-being. Hurting, exploiting, trampling on, oppressing, molesting, having contempt for, or enslaving others is damaging the children of God.
Business ethics? There is absolutely a crucial role for the Christian, as steward of God’s earth, to give leadership in all legitimate human enterprise with the goal of being a good and faithful servant of the Lord, helping the earth and all its creatures to thrive in a healthy balance. Whether a steward is given a large or small role, the important thing is to function ever mindful of that goal.