A book review -- Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics

Monday, September 13, 2004

The stereotypical phrase describing American business is "it's a dog-eat-dog world."

This textbook is apparently designed for college youth, though many high school students could probably understand it easily enough. It would also serve as a launching point for a church study for business professionals.

The authors observe that "in the past decade or so, the moral climate of business seems to be pulling in opposite directions." Certainly debacles like Enron, TYCO, WorldCom and other businesses make the need for better ethics more apparent. Such events have led many business people to believe that sound ethics in business are more that a detached academic exercise with little actual impact or importance.

But, with countervailing forces, such as short-term stockholder expectations and global competition, it is more difficult to practice good behavior in the marketplace.

Rae and Wong argue that ethics applied to competitive markets is more complicated than simple platitudes, and is a challenging and multi-dimensional task that requires attentiveness to ethical norms and economic realities. They believe that ethical constructs derived from Christian faith can be communicated in a way that appeals to the broader, non-Christian, marketplace.

This book's content is not so much directive as thought-provoking.

Christians in the business world more often than not find themselves conflicted, with separate sets of rules for business and life outside of work. Some believe that profitability will not happen without leaving "private" morality at the door, as business demands shrewdness and the bending, if not outright breaking, of rules. What good behavior that is demonstrated is most likely motivated by self-interest, instead of ethics.

For decades, American Christians have tended to equate capitalism with Christianity, when that is like equating a rock with an apple. For most of us, to take a critical view of capitalism practices requires a brain that can be stretched.

In one chapter, Rae and Wong ask persons from various backgrounds how they would respond if they were a businessman ready to expand to international markets and required to submit a bribe to officials to have his bid seriously considered.

The responses are varied, and variably justifiable, and the authors proceed to describe the ethos of each of the respondents; those representing ethical egoism, utilitarianism, emotivism, deontological systems, and virtue theory.

Case studies are scattered through the text, addressing topics such as payroll pressures for a small, faith-based nonprofit organization; a family-owned amusement park business facing a lawsuit by two homosexual men because they were not allowed to dance together ---- quite suggestively ---- at one of the amusement park's dances; violent video games; Starbucks and fair trade coffee; responding to Wall Street rumors of your company downsizing when layoffs are not necessary to keep your company from going out of business; executive compensation; and selling eggs and embryos. This list could be expanded indefinitely.

Many of the chapters are written by contributors, offering a variety of viewpoints and interpretations. Some contributions are heavily annotated. Others are more simply narrative in nature, such as an essay about how sweatshops in China, while decried in the United States, have increased per capital income five-fold in southern China, much to the delight of employees.

An essay about human resource management raises questions about employee rights when, for example, an employee refuses to service a pharmaceutical industry client that manufactures abortion-inducing drugs, or the president of the company simply has a "gut feeling" that an employee is not trustworthy.

The expanding influence and impact of the Internet on business is also addressed, including a discussion on privacy, liability, and monitoring. Also not ignored is the bewilderment most of us, but especially men, have about what constitutes sexual harassment.

The authors should be applauded for attempting to address such a complex subject in the light of Christian principles. So should the business person who takes the effort to study this book.

Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics (Second Edition); by Scott B. Rae and Kenman L. Wong; hardbound; 473 pages, with credits; $45; Zondervan.

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