The Jewish Ethicist: Legitimate Larceny
Is it okay to cheat in order to settle accounts?
Q. A store in my neighborhood is always ripping me off: overcharging,
giving poor merchandise, and so on. Sometimes I feel that the only way of
settling accounts is for me to play this same game -- for instance by
pocketing a few almonds, or taking a bunch of extra shopping bags. Is this
a proper response?
A. Your question illustrates that there are many reasons people engage in
questionable behavior. Often we assume that the main motivation for bad
morals in the marketplace is plain old-fashioned greed. Yet very often the
materialistic dimension in business ethics is relatively minor compared to
the human element.
We can learn this from the way the Torah describes the prohibition
on charging excessive prices, prices far beyond what is accepted for
comparable merchandise in other stores. The verse tells us: "And when you
sell something to your fellow or buy from the hand of your fellow, do not
oppress each one his brother" (Leviticus 25:14). The word used for this
transgression is "onaah," which doesn't mean stealing or cheating, but
rather oppression or distress. The focus here is not on the monetary aspect
but on the human aspect.
A simple example should convince us that very often this is indeed the
dominant problem in overcharging. Imagine that you come home and discover
there is a dollar missing from your wallet. You probably wouldn't be overly
troubled over such a small amount. Even if you manage to remember where you
lost it, you probably wouldn't make an excessive effort to recover
it. After all, your time is worth something too.
Now imagine that you come home from the store and discover that you were
overcharged one dollar for some item. They charged you two dollars for a
pack of gum! Perhaps you are certain that the mistake was intentional. If
you're like many people, you will indignantly march back to the store and
demand that they correct the mistake. If asked about this seeming paradox,
most people will answer honestly and straightforwardly: it's the principle.
A person can't bear to be wronged.
Our inner sense of justice is so strong that if we feel that we don't get a
fair hearing from the store owner, many of us are tempted to set things
right by making an "offsetting" crime against the store, as if two wrongs
make a right.
This kind of unethical behavior can be particularly difficult to overcome.
If a person is tempted to act unethically because of a tendency to
acquisitiveness, he can usually keep it in check by reminding himself that
he would do better to listen to the dictates of his conscience. But when
even our conscience convinces us that stealing is ethical, what will keep
our behavior under control?
The key to overcoming this kind of temptation is not to master our greed
but rather to master our emotions. We need to ask ourselves if we really
want to be subjugated to our base emotions like anger and vengefulness.
Even if our behavior could be justified, is a handful of almonds worth the
feeling that we have lowered ourselves to exactly the level of behavior
which we are condemning?
It is interesting to note that the prohibition on overcharging in the Torah
is not only worded in a surprising way, as we just pointed out, but is also
found in a surprising context. It is not included in the chapters
immediately following the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus, where we
find the foundation of the basic monetary regulations of the Torah. Rather,
it is found in the passage that discusses the freeing of slaves in the
Jubilee year. This should hint to us that very often the best way to
overcome the temptation to unethical behavior is to free ourselves from
slavery to anger, vindictiveness and suspicion and conduct ourselves with
generosity and dignity as befits free and noble human beings.
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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.
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