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The Jewish Ethicist: Bad Business

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Do I have to give up my job if I think it entails aiding immorality?

Q. I work in a routine job in a business that I consider immoral. Do I have to give up my job because I am aiding immorality?

A. This very important question was submitted by a number of readers who work in industries such as casino gambling, cigarettes, armaments, and so on. It is beyond the scope of this column to pass judgment on which industries are actually problematic; this particular column is devoted to guidance to individuals who according to their own judgment feel that their employer is involved in an unsavory activity and are trying to evaluate if they are unethically abetting this activity.

The main criterion we need to apply in these cases is the three levels of connivance established by Jewish law (see Selling Term Papers) These three levels, in decreasing order of gravity, are:

1. Enabling a transgression. If the transgression could not take place without your participation you are enabling the wrongdoing to take place. This is categorically forbidden by the Biblical injunction, “Don't place a stumbling block before the blind” (Vayikra 19:14). This could apply if you have a talent that you devote to the success of your employer.

2. Abetting a transgression. This means that you take an active role in the unethical activity, but if you didn't do it someone else would. This is a less severe level but still ethically problematic. One reason is that the “somebody else” can excuse his own participation by pointing out that you would take the job otherwise. In the end each person justifies his participation by pointing to the other, and no one is exercising moral leadership. We need to carefully evaluate the example we are setting before putting ourselves into such a situation.

3. Condoning a transgression. Normally we are obligated to protest wrongdoing; whenever we remain silent and even benefit from it, there is a good chance we may seem to be condoning it.

The ethical status of condoning depends on the extent of identification we show with our participation as well as our ability to make an effective protest. A manager is obligated to show significant identification with the employer, but a bookkeeper usually doesn't have to. If an organization is already the subject of protests then taking a stand against their actions is likely to have some effect; if you are alone in your objections than realistically quitting your job is not likely to be an influential statement.

Let's take some examples to see how we would apply these criteria. One reader had a senior marketing position for a tobacco company; his job was to convince people to start smoking. This is a responsible job which certainly requires identification with the employer, and so would constitute “abetting”. His personal conviction was that it is unethical to persuade people to smoke; given his active role this person should start looking for a new position. However, this is a second-degree connivance, and in the meantime he doesn't necessarily have to risk poverty by quitting outright.

If this person has talents that the employer wouldn't find in a replacement, it may be considered “enabling”. In this case he should immediately resign his current responsibilities. Perhaps he could request a transfer to some other, less responsible position in order to maintain his income.

Another reader is employed by a casino operator in a routine job, like a bookkeeper. This reader considers casinos immoral. This is not “enabling” since there are plenty of bookkeepers in the world, and it is not “abetting” since a bookkeeper is not taking any active role in the immoral aspect of the business (she is not a croupier, for example).

The problem of condoning is also not severe. Plenty of people don't consider casinos immoral, so quitting her job in protest is unlikely to have an impact. And in most cases such businesses don't demand that low-level employees show any special identification with the company. It follows that this person needn't quit her job.

A few employers expect employees at all levels to display identification with the business, for example by wearing special clothes even outside the workplace. In this case there would be a problem of condoning. A problem could also exist in a business where effective protest is already widespread; in this case taking a job could be viewed as granting legitimacy to an unethical activity. (Example: routine job such as janitor for an organized crime syndicate.)

Another reader is employed in a perfectly legitimate business, but the owners use their profits for immoral activities. Here there is no problem of abetting or condoning since the employee is not involved even indirectly in immorality. In rare cases there would be a problem of enabling, if the employee has a talent without which the boss wouldn't make enough money to carry out his crimes.

Of course our aspiration should be to find a job in which we feel we make an important contribution to humanity, but realistically we cannot always realize this aspiration. In the meantime, we should shun employment that actively makes the world a less ethical place. At the same time we should recognize that even if our jobs are less than ideal, we make the world a better place as we use our salaries to support our families and contribute to charity.

Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 151;Yoreh Deah 334:48 in Rema; Mishneh LeMelekh Laws of Lending and Borrowing 4:2.

This week's column is dedicated
in honor of

Prof. Alfred Marcus
by Michael G. Sher.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

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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