Three Balancing Principles

Article / Produced by TOW Project

Wayne is fast running out of books! But as he gazes up to his bookshelf again, he notices Alexander Hill’s Just Business.[1] 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. “Behavior consistent with God’s character is ethical — that which is not, is unethical.”[2]

We are called, therefore, to act according to principles that help us 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.”[3] 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 livable 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.[4] 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.”[5] (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 judgmentalism 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 favoritism, because there are no other moral compass points 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.[6] 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 (broad commands implied by the 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 the entire 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 more complex ethical dilemmas, without being too simplistic. The holiness-justice-love stool is more carefully balanced than the single principle of the Golden Rule, and infinitely less cumbersome than the multi-rule approaches we looked at previously.

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?

But nevertheless 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.

Alexander Hill, Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997).

Hill, 13-4.

Hill, 34.

Although Hill does note that the two great commandments — love for God and for neighbour (Matthew 22: 37-39) — include holiness (making God our highest priority) and justice (taking others’ interests into account). See page 47.

Hill, 15.

Hill, 12.