Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Religious Sources of Business Ethics: How Far Along Are We?

If Business Ethics for Dummies is any indication, the topic of religious sources for business ethics must have gained steam through the first decade of the twenty-first century. Increasing interest in such a topic in the midst of modernity is ironic, or counter-intuitive. For philosophers without any degrees in religion, the temptation might be to dilettante over to this topic in order to proffer an opinion. The result for the rest of us could well be a false sense of the extent of knowledge on the topic.
In Business Ethics for Dummies, Norman Bowie—a philosopher assisted by a journalist who has written other for Dummies books—discusses topics in several religions to demonstrate how they can be relevant to business ethics. With regard to Christianity, Bowie starts out on most solid ground in pointing to how Goldman Sachs has violated the Golden Rule. Specifically, the bank sold mortgage-based bonds (e.g. Timberwolf) that the bankers admitted internally were “crap” and shorted in proprietary trading even as Goldman sales people were selling the securities to clients. It is unlikely that the people at Goldman would have relished being misled on something they were sold.
In terms of the Ten Commandments, Bowie wonders whether it is for Jews only. He concludes that not stealing, lying, or envying others’ possessions is consistent with business ethics. It is questionable how useful such a platitude might be to actual business practitioners.
On the topic of Biblical teachings on wealth, Bowie opines that “the ethical teachings in the [Bible] can and should be consistent with normal business practices” (p. 27). To get to this conclusion, he suggests that Abraham established the concept of private property by purchasing a burial site for his wife, Sarah. Bowie even suggests that the exchanged evinces the essence of all business transactions.
Regarding the rich man getting through the eye of the needle, Bowie discounts the typical conclusion that Jesus was pointing to a dichotomy between being wealthy and being saved by interpreting Jesus’ statement—“With God all things are possible”—as meaning that the rich can indeed enter the Kingdom of God. Bowie will only admit that the Bible “discourages greed and the excessive accumulation of wealth and encourages generosity” (p. 28). The philosopher sidesteps the tension or outright contradiction between the rich man getting through the eye of the needle (a view that was salient in early Christianity) and the virtues of liberality and magnificence (which were salient in the Renaissance). Such tension, which is discussed in my book, God's Gold, assumes that the two virtues require continued wealth (to be given away in on-going philanthropy) rather than simply involving a once-and-for-all getting rid of all of one’s possessions before following Christ. That the “eye of the needle” story and the Christian virtues requiring wealth have each been dominant at different points in the history of Christian thought is missed by Bowie’s blanket statement on a definitive Biblical position on greed, excessive wealth, and generosity.
With regard to polytheistic religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, Bowie claims that because they “believe in more than one god,” they “place more emphasis on individual actions and thoughts in the quest for enlightenment or elevation to the next plane of existence” (p. 32). Would not having more gods to call on reduce the reliance on the human’s actions and thoughts? I can find no credible basis for Bowie’s assertion.
In terms of Buddhism in particular, Bowie brackets Theravada Buddhism wherein only poor monks can be enlightened and concludes that for the lay Buddhists having wealth sans attachment is consistent with enlightenment. However, by including hoarding in attachment, Bowie implicates wealth itself.
Turning to Hinduism, Bowie contends that the religion is relevant in being reduced to its non-dualist (i.e., monist) Advaita Vedanta school’s “all in one, one in all” principle.  “Hinduism teaches that all beings and things are both themselves and all other beings and things. Thus, the rationale for treating others well is really one of self-interest; if you hurt someone else, you hurt yourself. Because everything is made of the same essence, you are everything in the world and everything in the world is you” (p. 33). Bowie concludes that business and profit-making are not considered bad according to Hindu teachings.
Bowie succumbs to a fallacy, however, in assuming that something else is me just because it has the same substance. A cat and I am both made out of Brahman, but this is not to say that I am the cat or that I’m hurt when the cat is hurt. In other words, everything in the world is made of the same stuff, but that does not mean that the specific entity that is me extends to the world. There is a difference between saying that everything is made of the same thing and that everything is me. Compassion in Hinduism stems from the former rather than the latter. Furthermore, Bowie over-extends the business term of self-interest in applying it to his misconception of the Hindu monist teaching that Atman (soul) is Brahman.
Generally speaking, uncovering possible religious sources of business ethics cannot be made easier by re-casting those sources in business terms, nor should the task be compromised by glossing over religious teachings from the exterior vantage-point of philosophy.
To be sure, dilettantism is not unusual in the field of business ethics. Management scholars tend to become philosophers (sometimes even without a single course in ethical theory) and both management and philosophy scholars may become political scientists as the field of business & government (e.g. regulation) is typically lumped in with business ethics. Furthermore, sociology is often “picked up” on the cuff as social norms are salient in the field of business & society (e.g., CSR), which is also lumped in with business ethics. It is as if getting a doctorate in management, philosophy, political science, or sociology (and now religious studies) gives the holder a pass in any of these other disciplines under the cover of “multidisciplinary.” The proof is in the pudding, however, as evinced in the shoddy writing of “scholars” who venture too far from their native fauna. Perhaps even more than intelligence, self-restraint is necessary for solid scholarship.


Norman Bowie and Meg Schneider, Business Ethics for Dummies (New York: Wiley, 2011).

See Skip Worden, God's Gold, Christianized Ethical Leadership, and Spiritual Leadership in Business, both available at Amazon.