A Case Study in Biblical Business Ethics

There are two (let's call them) "health care providers" in the yellow pages for a small town somewhere in the middle of the USA: one who is competent and willing to serve his clients by providing to them goods and services for which he is licensed by his state, and the other -- well, he is a deacon in his church and sings in the choir.

There was a person in this town with deteriorating "health", correctible but not yet corrected to the standard set by the state for obtaining a certain kind of license. He went to both providers in turn with the same requirement, to get his problem corrected. The first -- let's call him "MedA" -- used the same kind of equipment and diagnostic methods that his profession have been using for at least 50 years, but refused to provide any service of value at all, let alone to prescribe a corrective product: "I won't do it" (his exact words). It seems that he preferred a procedure he is not licensed to perform (and by extension, probably not even qualified properly to diagnose).

The other provider -- let's call him "MedE" (for "effective" or "efficient") -- used the latest diagnostic equipment (hmm, another E-word) by which he was able accurately to determine the required prescription without assaulting the patient with unwanted and noxious chemicals nor other invasive procedures. MedE then proceeded to dispense prescribed products and supporting equipment, thus gaining a happy repeat customer who will return many times to buy additional goods and services, besides speaking well of him to others in town. MedA, on the other hand, has only the costly and hard-to-mitigate negative publicity generated by a vocal and dissatisfied ex-customer.

Stark as the contrast between these two providers may already be, this discussion is about ethics, not marketing strategy, and this is at its root an ethical issue. MedE (E could also stand for Ethics or Excellence) displayed Biblical Business Ethics (BBE) throughout his involvement with this customer. BBE is primarily the embodiment of the Second Great Commandment, to "love your neighbor as yourself" [Matt.22:39]. Jesus explained some of the implications of this commandment in his famous parable of the Good Samaritan. In a business context, BBE consists in empowering the customers (and suppliers and business partners) to implement wise choices without taking away from them the locus of control. MedE provided to his patient the necessary medical information without presuming to understand the financial and other issues to which he had no access, then left the final decision to the patient. MedA simply ignored these other factors without even making enquiry -- indeed he rode roughshod over the factors he was given. There is a medical ethics problem with ignoring relevant medical data in a diagnosis, but again this is about business ethics, not medical. BBE was demonstrated by the Apostle Paul in his pastoral letter to Philemon, where he gave logical reasons to encourage his friend's compliance to the request Paul was making, but left the final decision to him [Phm.14].

By contrast, MedA displays what I call "Taliban Business Ethics" (TBE), or sometimes "big guy syndrome." This behavior is familiar to anybody who has watched a larger and stronger child dominate his schoolyard playmates. Such children often grow up without the humility and social skills that make a cooperative society possible. We do not have MedA's schoolyard records to examine, but a little of this same behavior shows up in other contexts today, notably that church choir he sings in. In a business or social environment, TBE recognizes being in a position of power over other people and uses that position to force on them decisions they would not make for themselves nor give informed consent to. Jesus explicitly forbade such behavior in his disciples [Luke 22:25,26]. When asked for Biblical support for his ethic, MedA replied but did not defend it from Scripture. He cannot, for it's not there. He might have found something like it in the Quran, had he looked for it there [Surah 11:28 and 32:20 and others seem to promote it], hence the name "Taliban Business Ethic". The Christian ethic empowers people by God's Holy Spirit (and by education) to do good, but does not compel them; the Taliban (and generally most Muslim governments, when they enjoy a position of political power) force their ethics on the whole population, and kill or maim those who do not comply. MedA had decided before his customer ever showed up in the examining room what his diagnosis would be, and if that was unacceptable (or not affordable, or whatever), MedA (the "A" could stand for "Arbitrary" or "Arrogant") didn't care if the customer couldn't drive and died in an automobile accident, or stumbled on an obstacle and broke his leg; all that mattered was the exercise of his will over the customer.

The fundamental difference between BBE and TBE is the highest value of the businessman. When the highest value is Self and exercising one's own power over others to dominate them, you get TBE; when the highest value is the welfare of the other person (including their inalienable right to self-determination, that is, giving them the right to hold their own Self highest), then BBE follows. God Himself exercises BBE (and not TBE) with respect to His creation: people are given enough information to choose rightly, but the choice is theirs and not forced on them, for example in Deut.30:19 and others (Calvinists alone argue that God follows TBE, except of course they use other terminology).

The American society was built on Biblical ethics, with all the freedom to choose that implies. If people choose wrongly, they will suffer the natural consequences of their error. It is not us or the government imposing on them penalties, but the Natural Law of consequences. If their choice is not wrong but only deemed to be wrong by the authority figures, then society as a whole benefits from the advantage and diversity. An example of this in action was Surgeon General C.Everett Koop, who remained a faithful servant of all the people, even to the extent of allowing them the (now known to be) harmful choice of condoms over abstinence in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Many Christians would have preferred him to use TBE in that situation, but most people praised his decision to apply the Biblical principles of BBE.

I have not yet seen an opposing opinion, but when/if I do, I will link it from here.

Although this essay refers to real persons and events, they are not the point, but rather the ethical issues are. The real situation is somewhat more complex than the simplistic picture painted here. MedA obviously has customers who are satisfied with his autocratic way of treating them, or he couldn't continue to be in business, and I know of at least one person dissatisfied with MedE's service. In any case, a copy of this essay was given to the major participants for review and correction, and all the suggestions they offered were incorporated, before it was posted 2003 July 22.

Tom Pittman