Religious Beliefs as a Basis for Ethical Decision Making in the Workplace

by Kenneth Bond, Ph.D 
Professor of Business Administration 
Humboldt State University 
Arcata, CA 95521
© 1998, Ken Bond

The relationship between religious beliefs and ethical decision making in business environments is an interesting one. While there are numerous ways in which one might attack this particular issue, the current analysis will be subdivided into two distinct areas. The first major proportion of the analysis will look at the areas in which ALL major religious traditions have COMMON themes which impact ethical decision making. The second portion of the paper will sketch some of the areas in which various religious traditions treat ethical decision making in business DIFFERENTLY.

Common Themes to ALL Major Religious Traditions

Survey after survey of senior business executives show that in one way or another, many use some variant of the 'golden rule' as their bench-mark for ethical decision making [when J.C. Penny started his stores, they were in fact called the 'Golden Rule Store']. While there is adequate discussion of the weakness of the 'golden rule' as an ethical decision making model in numerous sources, the current discussion will focus on the simple fact of commonality of the model, not the pros and cons of the model. As a single rule, non-consequential model for ethical decision making, the 'golden rule' is found in most major religious traditions. As an indication of the breath of this universalism within religious traditions, the following set of translations is offered:

The Golden Rule (Religions of the World)

Good People proceed while considering that what is best for others is best for themselves (Hitopadesa, Hinduism)

Thou shall love they neighbor as thyself  (Leviticus 19:18, Judaism)

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12, Christianity)

Hurt not others with that which pains yourself (Udanavarga 5:18, Buddhism)

What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others (Analects, Confucianism)

No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself (Traditions, Islam)

(Please note: my apologies to anyone who might find the particular translation of any of the listed statements to be different than the source they might have in mind. My only point in this particular set of translations is to show the general "common-ness" of the idea of fair/just treatment of others called for in most religious traditions.)

It should be noted that the above statements of "fair exchange" can be found outside of any particular religious setting. A common, "human" sense of justice frequently will deal with behaviorial comparisons. Much of the fundamental beginning of ethical decision making starts from a neutral basis and proposes the hypothetical question of "... if A does something to B, what should B do to A in response to maintain a fair (just) exchange?"

As a non-religious baseline of "fair exchange," one might go back and review the Code of Hammurabi (1780 BC). I used a translation by L.W. King with Commentary by Charles F. Horne (1915). My version was a 1996 electronically enhanced version of the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica. It should be noted that the code begins and ends with addresses to the gods. Even a law code was in those days regarded as a subject OF prayer, though the prayers here are chiefly cursing of whoever shall neglect or destroy the law. Hammurabi's code was not really the earliest. The preceding sets of laws have disappeared, but traces of them, and Hammurabi's own code clearly implies their existence. Hammurabi, however, is clearly among the oldest for which we have a fairly complete enumeration.

It is clear that, among others, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all knew of the Babylonian law and incorporated portions of it into their custom/traditions. The code then regulates in clear and definite strokes the organization of society. the judge who blunders in a law case is to be expelled from his judgeship forever, and heavily fined. The witness who testifies falsely is to be slain. Indeed, all the heavier crimes are made punishable with death. Most are familiar with some of the more frequently quoted laws such as:

Law #196: An eye for an eye
Law #200: A tooth for a tooth

But beyond these better known illustrations, there are interesting social contracts as well. Not every act by someone needs compensation. For example:

Law #266: If the animal be killed in a stable by God (an accident), or if a lion kill it, the herdsman shall declare his innocence before God, and the owner bears the accident in the stable.

However, if there is human error, then:

Law #267: If the herdsman overlook something, and an accident happen in the stable, then the herdsman is at fault for the accident which he has caused in the stable, and he must compensate the owner for the cattle or sheep.

While individual relationship such as these form a core of the Law and of fair exchange, there is also an interesting note about relationship with society and the expectations of just social actions to be found. For example:

Law #22: If anyone is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.

but please note...

Law #23: If the robber is not caught, then shall he who was robbed claim under oath the amount of his loss; then shall the community, and the governor on whose ground and territory and in whose domain the theft occured will compensate him for the goods stolen.


Law#24: If persons are stolen, then the community and the governor on whose ground and territory and in whose domain they were stolen will pay one mina of silver to their relatives.

There is a 'clear' sense of social obligation well beyond an 'eye for an eye.' While religion's part in the basic structure of Hammurabi's Code is more passive that active, there is still an interesting over-lay of religion. An accused person was allowed to cast himself into "the river," the Euphrates. Apparently the art of swimming was unknown; for if the current bore him to the shore alive he was declared innocent, if he drown he was guilty. Faith in the justice of the ruling gods was already firmly, though somewhat childishly, established in the minds of the society.

As we move into the Ancient Mediterranean Trading Cities prior the Punic Wars (246 to 146 B.C.), cities such as Carthage, Tyre, and Rhodes were business centers which flourished. While not developing the argument in detail, among the reasons these cities flourished was that business was seen as an honorable profession and pre-Christian religious philosophies were surprising compatible with business philosophies.

However, by the time we reach the Greek business environment, business was generally seen as no more than a necessary evil (without regard for religious affiliation). Both Plato and Aristotle admitted the necessity of commerce in an ideal state, but both were negative. Plato, in the LAWS recommended such strict regulation of all commercial activity as to virtually stifle trade.

Aristotle, possible more than any other individual, contributed to a lasting negative social attitude toward business activity with quotes such as the following:

Of the two sorts of money-making one, as I have just said, is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honourable, the later a kind of exchange which is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another. The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural use of it.

Aristotle, Politics

Finally, Cicero also discusses the relationship of behavior and business in Greek philosophy has also provided us with statements which demand a certain sense of honor and fairness without calling on any particular religious basis.

Those men who separate profit from honesty wholly pervert the first principles of nature: for all of us naturally desire our interest, toward which we are carried with so strong a bias, as that it is not in our power to turn the other way: for who is averse from, or rather who does not most eagerly follow, his own advantage? But since we can find no real advantage, except in what is honest, becoming, and commendable, therefore we count these the principle of things: and take the work profit to signify something which only relates to our outward necessities, and the supplying of them, without all that glorious and shining excellence which appears in the actions of virtue and honesty.

Cicero, De Officiis, 44 B.C.

In summary, we can see that a non-religious based system of value for 'appropriate' business behavior is clearly possible and has been in place through out antiquity. While the over-riding attitude about business swung across the spectrum from high esteemed to despised, underlying all transactions were one or more sets of rules about fairness. In all likelihood, without any religious impact, we still may well have come to something very much like the Golden Rule as a governing standard for business transactions.

However, we humans do have religious systems and across those various systems, there is a clear common element of demanded behavior. The universal impact of "religious traditions" have guided much of business in a system of consistent expectations. Across all 'main-line' religious traditions, there appears to be much in common as to how religious beliefs would act as a basis for ethical decision making in the workplace.

Applications WITHIN Specific Religious Traditions

It could be argued that there are two fundamentally different perspectives in religious traditions. One group of religious traditions focus primarily on direct relationships with some concept of a supreme being(s). The other group of religious traditions also focus on direct relationships with a supreme being but see one or more of the critical means of attaining that relationship to be through interactions with other individuals in their surroundings. Another way to summarize this difference is to consider the importance of the community in finding one's path to the supreme.

Among those religious traditions which see 'primarily' DIRECT relationship with a supreme being [NOT involving significant interactions with other members of a community], it could be argued that those traditions fall generally under the 'golden rule.' In that sense, these religious traditions tend NOT to have a direct and specific impact on ethical decision making which can be uniquely attributed to their particular religious philosophy.

On the other hand, those religious traditions that find interactions with others (community), essential to their spiritual journey, the picture is quite different. When looking for impacts of these religious traditions on ethical decision making, the single most influential key the author has found is the concept of SERVICE.

Fair exchange is relatively common to ALL, both in religious traditions and in the common law of most modern societies. While fair exchange is both religiously supported but at the same time religiously neutral, SERVICE in ethical decision making seems to be a very unique call of some of the religious traditions. While a sense of service beyond fairness can be sparsely found in non-religious based philosophy, the frequency of such argument is minimal. Ross's multiple rule, non-consequential theory comes to mind in which the final criteria stated involves the 'greatest benefit to the least advantaged.' It should be noted that Ross's initial decision rules are clearly based on a set of criteria which advocate equality for all and only as a LAST criteria adds a sense of value judgement beyond equality of exchange. The idea of claiming Ross's call is one of 'service' is not the an essential point to this presentation. The point being illustrated is that there are agreements in ethical theory that go beyond just or fair exchange to advocating additional values.

What, then, do the various religious traditions say about the issue of 'service' in decision making and how might that impact business decision processes? To facilitate this discussion, allow me to place it within a more concrete illustration. Let me propose a question for consideration from various religious perspectives. One of the cable TV networks recently broadcast a series of biographies based on the great 'merchant princes' of the late 19th and early 20th Century. Using some of the material from that series as a backdrop, assume the following:

A merchant spent his/her life in earnest and honest business activity. The quality of product was good for the prices charged and thus it would be agreed that the customers where receiving fair value in exchange for their dollars; employees where treated fairly in relationship to both direct wages and all other working conditions; and finally we will toss in the catch-all and politically correct assumption that the merchant was responsive to the wide range of social issues of the day. In other words, boil down the forgoing to the assumption that the merchant had made a significant fortune fairly and honestly. (For the present discussion, we are setting aside the argument that no accumulation of wealth is justly possible which one can find in various corners of philosophy and religion.)

Assuming a just and fairly accumulated fortune, what would the various religious traditions say (demand) from that individual at the time of his/her death. Additionally, if there are any differences between religion and what might be called basic non-religious philosophy of just exchange, what might those religious traditions say about business decisions of individuals while still actively employed?

As an illustration of how such distinctions might be made, consider Christianity. In both the Old Treatment and in the New Testament there are clear calls for equality of exchange as a minimum standard of behavior as shown in the quotes at the start of this paper. However, near the end of Jesus's life as noted in John's gospel (15:12) Jesus changes the commandment to be much more service oriented, namely, to "love one another AS I HAVE LOVE YOU." Consider the ramifications... This was an individual who, in the eyes of Christians, was about to be unjustly arrested, tried, convicted in a mock trial, tortured and subsequently killed. On his cross, according to the Christian tradition, he calls upon his Father to forgive those who had done this to him.

Such a religious tradition would call on a much stronger sense of the welfare of others beyond a sense of just exchange in their decision making strategies.

In the Koran, all wealth is go to the immediate family. However, the individual may give up to 1/3 of their estate to philanthropic causes if they choose before the distribution to the heirs. There is NO call to do so, but such behavior is permitted. If the family receives all assets, it is expected, but not required that they should assist others in need. Finally, it is not permitted to disinherit immediate family members (e.g. the 'bad heir' should not be cut out of the will).

The above illustrations do NOT cover the spectrum of religious impacts on business decisions but show some of the directions one might consider discussing. Clearly specific issues such as interest on loans is seen in a variety of lights, depending on one's religious philosophy.

However, if one looks at the wide range of issues about which business executives make decisions today, there are probably more areas in which we would find commonality of decision making on the part of those with highly refined religious attitudes than we would find differences among the same group. Fair treatment of claimant groups such as employees, suppliers, customers, local community, etc. would have much in common from the faith perspectives mentioned at the start of this paper.

At a minimum: non-religious, ethical decision making in business requires justice

At a maximum, ethical decision making in business overlaid with religion would require justice and...another dimension which some might call service; others might call compassion, etc.

In closing, allow me to quote from a NON-religious publication from the communication industry about ethics and social obligation. That quote will be followed by one from a religious based set of business school deans.

Contributions to Society

Ethical business considerations extend beyond simply adhering to practices that don't violate laws or generally accepted standards of conduct. Business exists as an integral part of our society and therefore has an ethical obligation beyond economic capacity or a role as a provider of employment.

Pacific Northwest Executive
Oct. 1988

Moral challenge

Societies which provide products and services efficiently and effectively can create an economic order which benefits and elevates the quality of life of each citizen.

It is also true that without leadership which is sensitive to justice and service (emphasis added), an unjust social order can destroy the social value of the business sector and alienate individual workers.

The challenge, therefore, is a moral one. Business can be good or bad. But as a social institution it cannot be ignored, nor treated merely as "an economic engine" without value choices.

Four Reflections,
Business Schools in Jesuit Education, '86