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Chapter 2: Single and Balancing Commands for Making Decisions

Book / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
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A single principle or command?

Wayne is still struggling with his dilemma. Should he pay for the repair of his customer’s car? Having found the two command approaches largely unhelpful, he returns to his bookshelf to see what else might be of assistance. John Maxwell’s There’s No Such Thing as Business Ethics almost jumps out at him!

John Maxwell is a well-known business consultant and writer. He thinks we have made Christian decision-making far too complex. It’s his belief that all the Bible’s moral imperatives can essentially be reduced to just one overarching command. According to Maxwell there’s no such thing as business ethics: there’s only one rule for making decisions. We’ll return to this point of Maxwell’s in chapter 5. This is the “Golden Rule”, proclaimed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12, NIV. The Lukan equivalent is 6:31 – “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”)

This one guideline (“How would I like to be treated in this situation?”) should govern all ethical decision-making.[1] Simple, but not easy, is the way Maxwell describes this rule. However, he acknowledges that it requires a number of other principles to explain what it involves, including:

1. Treat people better than they treat you

2. Walk the second mile

3. Help people who can’t help you

4. Do right when it’s natural to do wrong

5. Keep your promises even when it hurts

Even though he doesn’t explicitly quote the Bible, Maxwell’s approach is clearly rooted in Matthew 7:12. Over the past two centuries this saying has become known as the Golden Rule [2] and Maxwell notes that the core of this precept is found in other religions and cultures as well. It is therefore a principle that can be commended to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Several of the explanatory principles mentioned by Maxwell are also clearly based on other elements of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, “Treat people better than they treat you” seems to be a natural implication of Matthew 5:43-48, and “Walk the second mile” is a clear reference to Matthew 5:41.

One thing that attracts Wayne to this Golden Rule approach to business ethics is that it is grounded in the teachings of Jesus. Given that we are often guilty of evading Jesus and his ethics, this is refreshing.

How does this help Wayne solve his problem?

The Golden Rule is certainly a very useful clarifying principle for Wayne. It causes him to think, “How would I want to be treated if I was in my customer’s shoes?” And the associated principles of “treating people better than they treat you” and “walking the second mile” do challenge Wayne to go beyond what is legally expected of him. However, Maxwell’s approach still does little to help Wayne determine the specifics of what he might take responsibility for.

There is no doubt that the Golden Rule is close to the heart of Jesus’ ethical teachings.

The simplicity of elevating the significance of one principle is attractive, and it is obviously helpful in some ways. However, it may also prove far too simplistic and quite deceptive in other ways. Maxwell’s need to flesh it out with further qualifying rules shows that this is, in fact, true.

Some of Maxwell’s fundamental assumptions are also questionable, such as his belief that ethical behaviour pays (at least in the long-term). There is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, as Scott Rae and Kenman Wong point out, if this was always (or even mostly) true:

…there would be no need for books or courses on business ethics, as nearly everyone would practise solid moral behaviour because of the prospect of financial reward.[3]

There is another limitation to Maxwell’s approach. It assumes that there are only two players involved in the decision (the person making the choice and the person being affected by it). As long as it works to the advantage of these two people, according to the Golden Rule it is the best thing. Wayne realises that in his particular current situation that’s largely true. However, his mind turns to many other decisions he has to make, where other people are impacted indirectly, and/or the environment is also affected.

For example, not so long ago Wayne sold a large four-wheel-drive vehicle. He felt he did apply the Golden Rule to the customer (treating her with respect, giving her the best deal he possibly could, disclosing all relevant information, etc.). However, in that sale one thing he didn’t take into consideration was the broader issue of how much impact this vehicle, with its high fuel consumption, would have on the environment.

So ultimately, Maxwell’s use of the Golden Rule (along with his accompanying principles) is a very useful clarifying perspective for Wayne. He finds it genuinely helpful to reflect on the statement, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” and it does offer some direction to his thinking. However, the Golden Rule is simply not designed to “cover all the bases”, as if it was an easy, simple solution to every issue we face. We need help from other perspectives for that.

Three Balancing Principles

Wayne is fast running out of books! But as he gazes up to his bookshelf again, he notices Alexander Hill’s Just Business.[4] Hill, a professor of business and economics, has attempted in this book to find a middle way between the simplistic single-rule approach and other more complicated approaches with multiple rules.

His central point is that Christian ethics in business should be built not on rules, but rather on the changeless character of God. As we study and observe God’s character, we can learn to imitate God. “Behaviour consistent with God’s character is ethical – that which is not is unethical.” [5]

We are called, therefore, to emulate God’s character. Few of us would argue with that, but the big question is….so, what is God like?

Hill’s answer is that the three characteristics of God most often emphasized in the Bible are

  • Holiness

  • Justice

  • Love

More specifically, he defines these traits as follows:

Holiness

Pursuing holiness involves single-mindedness, making God our highest priority. Which means considering all other concerns of lesser importance – concerns such as material goods, career goals and even personal relationships. Pursuing holiness includes zeal, purity, accountability and humility.

Justice

“Justice provides order to human relationships by laying out reciprocal sets of rights and duties for those living in the context of community.”[6] Two fundamental personal rights are the right to be treated with dignity and the right to exercise free will. The duties or responsibilities (which are really the flip side of the justice coin) require that we treat others in ways that offer them these rights. The rights and duties exist in tension, providing a necessary counterbalance to each other. For example, a worker’s right to a liveable wage means the employer has a duty to pay the employee fairly. And it also requires the worker to work faithfully for his or her pay. Justice cuts both ways.

Love

Hill acknowledges that love is generally viewed as the pre-eminent virtue.[7] However, it needs to be moderated by the other two characteristics. Its primary contribution to the holiness-justice-love mix is its emphasis on relationships, through empathy, mercy and self-sacrifice. Love creates bonds between people, and conversely, the breaching of these bonds causes pain.

A three-legged stool

Hill’s view then is that “a business act is ethical if it reflects God’s holy-just-loving character.” [8] (There’s no particular significance to the ordering of these three characteristics. In fact they are completely intertwined with each other.)

The image Hill uses to express this is that of a three-legged stool. If we are to operate biblically in business, all three aspects (legs) need to be taken into account consistently, otherwise we will have a badly imbalanced stool.

For example, if holiness is overemphasized to the exclusion of love and justice, then the result will be legalism, self-righteous judgementalism and withdrawal from society.

If justice dominates, then harsh results, emotional coldness and condemnation are the likely outcome.

When love is the only major measure, things can easily lapse into permissiveness and favouritism, because there is no real moral compass to direct us to the limits that love requires.

Alexander Hill condemns any attempt to reduce Scripture to a book of rules that can be applied to specific situations.[9]He’s also acutely aware of the complexities of the business world. (This is something that Wayne appreciates!)

While Hill’s approach is built on three principles (or characteristics of God), he frequently also takes into account the consequences – especially to determine whether justice has been produced.

How is Wayne helped by this approach?

Wayne struggles to get his head around exactly what holiness looks like in his situation, but he finds the balancing principles of justice and love quite useful. What particular rights and duties exist in his seller-customer relationship? And what response to the customer’s request might be just for both parties? Wayne resolves that he may have a duty to contribute to the repair – though he thinks that the customer also has a responsibility to contribute. Justice cuts both ways – being fair to both customer and seller.

Given that Wayne gave the customer a very cheap price on the car in the first place – with little profit margin, he feels it would be unfair to be expected to pay for all of the repair. But the principle of love causes him to also reflect carefully on the question, “What might it mean for me to love this person?” Again, while no definitive answer results, it does prompt Wayne to consider the customer’s own financial situation. What impact will a sizeable repair bill have on this particular customer?

Some general comments

One of the great strengths of Hill’s approach is the clarity it provides when considering ethical dilemmas, without being too simplistic. The holiness-justice-love stool is more comprehensive than the single principle of the Golden Rule, and infinitely less cumbersome than the multi-rule approaches we looked at in the previous chapter. Once we’ve gained some clarity regarding what Hill means by the terms holiness, love and justice, the three-legged stool can be a helpful starting point. Confronted with a particular situation we can ask:

  • What does reflecting God’s holiness require here?

  • What does expressing God’s justice require here?

  • What does expressing God’s love require here?

  • What does a balanced expression of all three characteristics of God require here?

For those Christians who are stronger in emphasizing personal morality than social justice this approach provides a useful corrective, ensuring that social concerns are not ignored. Similarly, for those who express a strong concern for social justice but in the process may ignore the demands of holiness and love, it may provide a useful balancing corrective. We like the way Hill’s model leads to developing God’s character in our lives as well as producing good ethical choices. And it reflects an approach to the Bible and to business that is more than one-dimensional. So it is useful.

But it nevertheless has its problems. The main limitation of the three-legged stool is that we’re still left with the challenge of determining exactly what is holy, just and loving for the affected parties. And what do you do when justice, say, conflicts with love? Which gets priority?

At last Wayne is beginning to feel he’s making progress. It was always obvious that reaching a decision would not be easy, but Hill’s three-legged stool in particular has given him something to work with. Clearly, whatever approach to ethics we adopt, discerning and balancing the relevant rules and principles is an important part. But in addition we must also try to calculate the consequences of different courses of action to see which decisions produce the most loving and just and holy results. But this is the subject of our next chapter – and of the next stage in Wayne’s decision-making process!

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

Consider the following situation:

Roger is a property developer. He’s about to embark on a new subdivision on the edge of the city. Roger has already invested much of the last three years attempting to negotiate and secure the land, which is the only significant undeveloped block within the basin that the city is located in. A fair amount of his capital has been tied up in this project too. However, the lengthy process of resource consent hits a snag when an environmental pressure group puts in a submission stating that the subdivision will negatively impact on an already fragile ecosystem, particularly given that it will require the cutting down of a block of trees, and the infilling of a small wetland area. On the other side of the equation, Roger’s development has been encouraged by council officers, who are aware of the pressure that shortage of housing is bringing within the city.

  • Is there a “rule” or “principle” specifically applicable to this situation?

  • Do Burkett’s “six basic business minimums” help in this situation? Why or why not?

  • Does the Golden Rule help in this situation? Why or why not?

  • Does Hill’s Three-Legged Stool offer any help?

  • What if abandoning the project were to mean financial ruin for Roger? How much weight should we give to this consideration?

  • How do you think Roger should respond? Why?



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