What do you do when work ethics conflicts with social responsibility?
The issue is an important one and is debated by business ethicists in such guises as the clash between corporate stakeholders benefits and social and environmental responsibility. One of the bases of capitalism, some suggest, is that there is ultimately no contradiction between the pursuit of personal interest and the general welfare. Experience has shown us, however, that conflicts in these areas do exist and that ethically sensitive people struggle all of the time with contradictory and seemingly incompatible demands.
But work ethics is also part of social responsibility. Contracts need to be faithfully fulfilled, workers need to work honestly, and employers need to treat their employees fairly. In fact, Jewish law curtails a worker’s right to fulfill certain religious obligations if it interferes with his or her work obligations. A worker’s time is no his/her own. And Rabbi Israel Salanter commented that the religious demands on a business person are much more detailed, far reaching, and onerous (an entire one-fourth of the Shulhan Arukh (Code of Law), Hoshen Mishpat), than the few chapters that detail the intricacies of ritual slaughter.
At the same time, Jewish law does not allow us to be so self absorbed that we ignore the needs and welfare of others. Known as middat Sedom (the trait of the wicked city of Sodom), it implies an economic, religious, and social narcissism that ignores the needs and welfare of others.
What is the proper balance? It is impossible to give theoretical guidelines as the possible resolutions will depend so much on the nature, importance, and significance of the issues involved.
What do you do when work ethics conflict with social responsibility?
A simple answer would be: Do not work for a company when you know that it produces or does something that you consider to be socially irresponsible.For example, if you strongly opposed the last Iraq war because you felt that it was entered into under false pretenses – that is, Iraq was accused by the U. S. government of producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and you did not accept the legitimacy of the government’s evidence – then you should not have even considered seeking employment in a company that you knew produced equipment used in that war.
If your training and economic need were such that employment in that company was the only option available to you, then, perhaps, you would have had to compromise your concerns regarding its participation in the war.Since you, presumably, did not have available to you any top-secret information that would enable you to make an absolute judgment about the truth of the government’s claim regarding Iraq’s alleged WMD production, you would be compromising your judgment call, but not necessarily a truth.
If, however, after you began work at that company, irrefutable evidence emerged that the government had lied regarding the WMD matter, you would have had to seriously consider quitting that job.Staying in that position and intentionally doing substandard work, either to give vent to your ambivalence or to subvert the government’s war effort, would not have been an option, because you would have been engaging an unethical activity in order to respond to another unethical activity.
From a Jewish perspective, this kind of response is a violation of a seminal ethical principle set forth in the teachings of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, (Poland,1765-1827), one of the great Hassidic Masters.R. Simcha, in commenting on the passage in Deuteronomy 16:20, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, “righteousness (or justice), righteousness shall you pursue,” teaches us that the pursuit of righteousness must be accomplished righteously; that is – the means must be as ethically pure as the ends. R. Simcha’s principle resonated in the minds and souls of many subsequent interpreters of Torah and can be found referred to in the commentaries of the modern Hertz, Friedman and Etz Hayim/Lieber humashim.The words of Deuteronomy 16:20 also evoked the following categorical statement by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his T’rumat Tzvi Pentateuch commentary: “‘Justice – right’ – the shaping of all private and communal affairs in accordance with the requirements of God’s Law, is to be the one supreme goal sought purely for its own sake; a goal to which all other considerations must defer.”
Truth and justice cannot be sacrificed for the sake of social responsibility, because then we build on a foundation of injustice a society that is supposed to be responding to the needs of the masses of the people but that, ultimately, compromises the people's best interests.A good example of this was the Former Soviet Union, in which the presumed advancement of the good of the many was achieved by sacrificing the civil rights of individuals and the very sanctity of human life.The Soviet government acted immorally in order to create a society in which there was a “just” distribution of goods and services.As a result, millions of lives were lost and an oppressive regime kept the masses in line through fear and acts of terror.In sum, ethics that are based on truth, justice and righteousness must take precedence over social responsibility.
The problem with abstract questions such as this is that they do not provide any context, nor do they provide definition. How do you define work ethics, and how do you define social responsibility? What is the set of circumstances that lead to the question? Each situation needs to be examined sui generis, as a thing in and of itself. Then the issues can be explored with rationality. Until then, all we have is a conundrum.
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