The Jewish Ethicist: Falsifying Data
Is it okay to mislead if it doesn't lead to any damage?
Q. I'm an engineer working for a large company. Every so often our manager pressures us to falsify or omit data in order to improve the standing of our research program within the firm. The misleading data couldn't endanger anyone and don't reach customers -- only internal management. Is this ethical? JS
A. There's no question that the greatest harm of falsifying data is when the misleading information can lead to danger, as occurred in a number of tragic incidents. When that happens, letting the information go through transgresses the commandment, "Don't stand idly by the blood of your brother" (Leviticus 19:15). In fact, even if the misleading information could result in monetary loss, then this commandment is also violated. This would happen if the company wastes money on your program on the basis of the misleading data.
And since the verse tells us not to "stand idly by," this means that even if you are not the one falsifying the information you should strive to take active steps to prevent this hoax. (Though you don't necessarily have to risk your job for this.)
But even if no damage is done to anybody, it is still forbidden to lie or mislead. The Torah also tells us, "Distance yourself from any false matter" (Exodus 23:7). An extension of this idea, the prohibition to mislead, applies even if a person doesn't explicitly state a falsehood. The Torah is emphasizing that all of our interaction with others should be based on truth and right.
Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, discussing a parallel question, explains the matter as follows: The Torah is not only concerned with the welfare of the "victim" of the lie, who may possibly suffer some loss as the result of his or her misconceptions. The Torah is equally concerned with the spiritual welfare of the liar, who is degrading his own spirit by accustoming it to untruth. "The Torah objects not only to the state of the victim, but also to that of the perpetrator. He should not accustom his spirit to trickery, so that it shouldn't turn him from purity, which is based on the foundations of truth".
One consequence mentioned by Rabbi Waldenberg is that even if these deceptions are common, a person should not engage in them.
Business ethics is not only a matter of taking responsibility for others by not taking unfair advantage of them, it is also about taking responsibility for ourselves, by accustoming ourselves to true and eternal values which develop and nourish our spirit and character.
SOURCES: Sifra on Leviticus 19:15; Tzitz Eliezer XV:12
Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.
The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at www.besr.org.
Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.