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The Jewish Ethicist: Distant Danger

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

Is it ethical to sell cosmetics that pose a minor health hazard?

Q. Some of the cosmetics I sell contain ingredients that are now suspected of increasing the risk of disease. Can I continue to sell these products?

A. It is certainly unethical to sell clearly dangerous merchandise to an unsuspecting customer. But nowadays the situation is not always so simple. Scientists are constantly discovering new and increasing remote health hazards in common products, while consumers are displaying increased sensitivity to these distant dangers.

Products that constitute a clear and present danger to health may not be sold even to a willing customer. The Torah commands us, "Be very careful of your soul" (Deut. 4:15), and our Sages explain that this obliges us to take care of our health (Talmud, Berachot 32b). Another verse states that we should not place a stumbling block before the blind (Lev. 19:14), which means causing another person to falter in his personal obligations.

So peddling a clearly dangerous product, like selling glue for sniffing, is completely forbidden since it helps the customer to do something totally improper.

However, the health hazards that are typically discovered in common products are seldom of this nature, especially in advanced countries where personal care products are subject to regulation. It is very unusual for risks to be so great that use would be actually prohibited to an informed customer.

In this case the ethical dilemma is not the danger per se, but rather the chance that you may be misleading the customer. Can you let "the buyer beware," or do you have to take some responsibility for product safety that meets customer expectations?

Jewish law clearly states that merchants are responsible to provide products that meet reasonable customer expectations. This responsibility is not because of any particular customer need but rather because a genuinely ethical exchange is one in which there is complete understanding and agreement between the sides.

As an example, the Talmud teaches that it is forbidden for a kosher butcher to sell non-kosher meat to an unsuspecting non-Jew (Talmud, Chullin 94b). Even though non-Jews have no need for kosher meat, and even if the price is fair, the seller may not disappoint the customer's reasonable expectations -- and it is certainly reasonable to assume that meat sold by a kosher butcher should be kosher meat.

So your dilemma boils down to the following question: Do your customers have a reasonable expectation that the products you sell are free of known hazards? This will depend on many factors, but the most important is whether you or the manufacturer have worked to develop an image of purity and safety. The average customer who buys an unknown product off the shelf does not expect that it exceed regulatory requirements. If this anonymous transaction describes your relationship with your customers, then you may sell the problematic merchandise.

But if you or the manufacturer have sought a reputation for healthy and pure products, then you have simultaneously fostered expectations on the part of your clientele that your products go beyond the letter of the law and meet a higher standard.

You should examine your advertising and marketing materials and your sales pitch to determine if you are communicating a message of healthfulness, purity and responsibility over and above what the law requires. If you have cultivated these expectations in your customers, then you shouldn't sell the problematic products to your unsuspecting clientele. You should either delicately inform them of the potential problems or else pass the products on to a more anonymous selling network such as a drugstore.

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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