A Moral Business Employer-employee ethics begins in natural law
With a global economy and companies commonly operating in many other parts of the world, business ethics has become more complicated. Navigating through cross-cultural waters has become a necessary part of making business ethics relevant to business people who may have operations in many other parts of the world. The search for some sort of a foundation for business ethics that can be applicable to business-men and women around the world takes us into the theological area known as natural law.
In general, natural law refers to broad, general, objective and widely shared moral values that are consistent with Scripture and revealed apart from Scripture. Values such as justice, fairness, respect for an individual’s dignity, the obligation not to harm another, truth-telling, and the respect for life in prohibitions against killing, are some examples of virtually universally shared values that had an origin that predated Scripture.
Oxford University theologian John Macquarrie has put it this way: “In fact the very term ‘natural law’ is misleading if it is taken to mean some kind of code. The natural law is not another code or system of laws in addition to all the actual systems, but is simply our rather inaccurate way of referring to those most general moral principles against which particular rules or codes have to be measured.” To call them natural laws can be misleading, since they are the general principles on which our specific laws are based.
Perhaps the central passage in the Bible that affirms natural law is in Romans 2:1-16. After Paul appeals to creation to point out the sin of the non-religious, and, interestingly, to oppose homosexuality in Romans 1:18-32, in Romans 2:1-16, he proves that the moralistic person is also condemned before God because of his sin. The heart of this passage, as it applies to natural law is in verses 14-15, where Paul states,
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.
God appears to hold those without the law accountable for their sin in the same way that He holds the Jews accountable (Rom. 2:17-29). It is difficult to see how this could be just unless those without the law had some way in which they could know what was right and wrong. In other words, for God to legitimately hold the world accountable for sin, they must have access to God’s standard of morality, even if they are without special revelation.
This would be natural law, or general revelation applied to morality. God has revealed these values outside of Scripture and made them accessible to those without access to Scripture.
Paul’s teaching in Romans 2 is parallel to the oracles to the nations (Is. 13-27, Jer. 46-51, Ezek. 25-32, Amos 1-2), in which the prophets condemn Israel’s pagan neighbours who did not have the law, for many of the same things He condemned Israel, who did have the law. Unless the nations had some access to God’s law outside of the written law, it is hard to see how God can be just in holding people accountable for that which they have no knowledge.
To illustrate how natural law can apply to business ethics, consider employee rights. One of the most widely held universal moral principles is the dignity of the individual person and the corresponding duty to respect it. Human dignity is ultimately grounded in the image of God, but one does not need to be a religious believer to hold to genuine human dignity. This principle undergirds much of the American Bill of Rights and declarations of human rights made around the world in this century.
It is also the fundamental moral principle that obligates employers to provide safe and humane working conditions for employees. Workplaces that carry risk of injury to workers are problematic because it signifies a lack of respect for the dignity of the individual worker. Firms employing workers in third world countries have the responsibility to provide wages and working conditions that are consistent with respect for human dignity.
Further, when living arrangements are provided as part of the compensation, those quarters need to be consistent with human dignity.
That is not to say that employers overseas must provide conditions similar to those in the United States, but that the conditions must not violate basic norms of human dignity. This principle comes from natural law and is central to the discussion of employee rights. The need of firms to make a reasonable profit must also be considered alongside of respect for worker dignity. Of course, if workers willingly choose to work in substandard conditions, they are responsible for that choice. But in countries where workers have few employment choices, their vulnerability increases the moral obligation of employers to provide humane working conditions.
Respect for human dignity is also at the heart of society’s concern over sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. Because both men and women possess fundamental dignity from being made in God’s image, they are not to be the objects of sexual harassment. They are not to be treated as objectified sexual objects to be used for pleasure, but are to be respected as persons, significant because they bear God’s image.
Though there is disagreement on the definition of sexual harassment, whether the emphasis on it has gone too far, and how to protect the rights of the accused, virtually everyone agrees that sexual harassment is immoral because it violates a person’s essential dignity. Similarly, discrimination on the basis of race, gender or disability violates the respect for each person’s dignity that demands that they be treated fairly.