A Single Principle or Command?

Article / Produced by TOW Project

Wayne is still struggling with his dilemma. 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 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.[7] This is the “Golden Rule,” proclaimed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount — “Do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12 NIV).

This one guideline (“How would I like to be treated in this situation?”) should govern all ethical decision-making.[8] 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.[9] Over the past two centuries this saying has become known as the Golden Rule,[10] 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 were 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 behavior pays (at least in the long-term). There is no convincing evidence that this is the case.[11] In fact, as Scott Rae and Kenman Wong point out, if this were always (or even mostly) true:

…there would be no need for books or courses on business ethics, as nearly everyone would practice solid moral behavior because of the prospect of financial reward.[12]

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 realizes 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.

We’ll return to this point of Maxwell’s in chapter 5

Maxwell, 21.

The equivalent in Luke is 6:31 — “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Craig Keener suggests that John Wesley may have been the first to call it this, in a sermon he gave in 1750. See Craig S. Keener, Matthew, IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997) 161.

Amar Bhide and Howard H. Stevenson argue convincingly that after extensive research they discovered that “There is no compelling economic reason to tell the truth or keep one’s word — punishment for the treacherous in the real world is neither swift nor sure.” See their article, “Why Be Honest If Honesty Doesn’t Pay?”, originally published in Harvard Business Review (Sept-Oct, 1990) 121-9. Reprinted with permission by Rae and Wong in Beyond Integrity, 70-8.

Scott Rae and Kenman Wong, Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 85.