What ethics?

I always find it interesting when people in business talk about “ethics” and “values,” as though it is commonly understood that there is a set of universal principles that are binding on all people. That is, of course, a profoundly Christian idea, but our age is not profoundly Christian. It is our assignment to live in an age of militant relativism, i.e., that every person (and, I suppose, every organization) may choose its own “truths,” since there is no absolute truth. For example, marriage and gender patterns in place since the beginning of mankind have been dumped over in the last few years because people want to be free to decide their own truths.

I wonder where people who teach business ethics get their ideas. Neither God nor his Word is ever mentioned, so he can’t be the source, right? It is fascinating to me that people are so hungry for God’s ways but just can’t make the connection that it was he who taught them to us.

Raiders coach and owner Al Davis was a legend in Oakland for decades. “Just win, baby” was his philosophy, and posters with it were plastered all over the stadium. Player Matt Millen said that Davis put up a big sign in the locker room: “Rule #1: Cheating is encouraged. Rule #2: See Rule #1.” The Oakland fans loved the team’s bad boy image and didn’t mind that the Raiders always led the NFL in penalties in those years. It wasn’t that Al Davis didn’t have values; it’s just that his values included doing anything necessary to win.

“The end justifies the means” is the more elegant philosophical description of Mr. Davis’ “Just win, baby.” I can imagine that some businesspeople and companies have these as their personal values:

  1. Do whatever you need to do to juice up quarterly earnings reports.
  2. Lies are not wrong if you don’t get caught.
  3. Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). It’s not your problem if the customer buys more goods and services than he or she really needs.
  4. There’s a sucker born every minute. It’s your job to find them and sell them things.

Citigroup (#29 on the Fortune 500 list) recently hired an on-call ethicist. Dr. David Miller is a Princeton professor with a theological education, and he advises Citi execs on the ways in which business and morality intersect. Citi’s president, James Forese, thinks that “ethics” are good for business, explaining that the bank had made maybe $1 million in dubious foreign exchange trading but had to pay $2.5 billion in penalties.

I am glad when I hear Christian businesspeople honor God as the source of their ethics and values and derive them from his Word. Living the Christian life is good for business:

  1. Tell the truth.
  2. Value the customer’s needs as more important than your own.
  3. Admit your own mistakes and take responsibility for them. Do everything in your power to make it right.
  4. Building long-term value is more important that short-term profits.
  5. Keep your promises.

Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus, a multicultural congregation on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of six books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.

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