Ethics@Work: Exodus ethics

As this column appears in the business section of a major newspaper and not in a peer-reviewed ethics journal, I try to keep theory to a minimum and bring it out of the closet only when it is needed to illuminate practice.

As this column appears in the business section of a major newspaper and not in a peer-reviewed ethics journal, I try to keep theory to a minimum and bring it out of the closet only when it is needed to illuminate practice. But as the Passover holiday approaches, I want to write a column about the significance of the Exodus for business ethics. Ethics, or business ethics, is not a monolithic discipline. There are various approaches to getting from "is" to "ought." Quite often different approaches reach similar conclusions by diverging paths; occasionally the different approaches reach different conclusions. Two approaches you will certainly learn in an introductory ethics course are "duty ethics" and "utilitarian ethics." In duty ethics, there are certain fundamental principles that are inherently obligatory. They may not be breached, except (according to some versions of duty ethics) when they are trumped by higher duties. (For instance, the duty not to kill may be overridden by the duty to defend one's country.) In Kant's version, these duties to others stem from man's rationality. In pure utilitarian ethics, the person is bidden to always seek the "greatest good of the greatest number," even though this may involve acts that are usually harmful like lying or stealing. This obligation is contingent on man's subjective volition and desires, which define their "good." (Since animals also display volition and desires, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, utilitarianism provides an intuitive way to weigh ethical obligations to animals, as emphasized by philosopher Peter Singer.) Another approach to ethics that has been gaining popularity in the last few decades is "care ethics," pioneered by feminist Carol Gilligan, which places the emphasis on demonstrative acts of caring and consideration for others, especially those within a closely knit group like a family or community. Here, duties stem primarily from the concern of the actor and not the object of ethical behavior. Official pronouncements on ethical topics from the European community seem to mention "dignity" in every other paragraph, and I discern a distinct trend towards the evolution of "dignity ethics." The essence of dignity ethics is that humans have inherent worth, which is not dependent on rationality, volition, or care. (It would not be very easy to extend this approach to animals.) In my view, Jewish tradition presents a distinct approach to business ethics. I would call this approach "exodus ethics." The Torah motivates a large number of ethical imperatives by reference to the liberation from Egypt. The corresponding ethical obligation is to relate to others as freemen, that is, equal responsible citizens. Example: a common business-ethics question is overwork. When does it become unreasonable or unethical to demand additional work from employees? (Wow, this would make a great exam question.) In duty ethics, overwork would exist when some specific duty is breached. Perhaps work above some level is dangerous, or illegal (obeying the law is generally considered a duty.) In utilitarian ethics, the relevant question would be if the benefit to the customers exceeds the inconvenience caused the employees. Care ethics would ask if demanding overtime displays disregard for others. In "exodus ethics," the question is not on the quantity of work but on the nature of the employer-employee relationship. The relationship should be one of equals, not one of one-sided domination. The book of Leviticus (25:42-43) states that the people of Israel "are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold like slaves. Do not dominate him with crushing labor." (My translation, naturally.) "Crushing labor" does not refer to the amount of labor, and this is appropriate given that the motivation of the commandment is the nullification of servitude. Slaves do not, on the whole, work more hours than free people. Examples would be busy work or work that comes to "put the worker in his place" (e.g. asking a senior manager to prepare coffee for a meeting). There are a number of other workplace rules in Jewish law and tradition that exemplify "exodus ethics." For example, compared to the way other agreements are enforced, Jewish law is particularly lenient in allowing workers to withdraw from an employment agreement. The explicit reason is that making someone work is similar to servitude. This result would not be so logical according to duty ethics (must uphold agreements) or utilitarian ethics. As Pessah approaches, we should be aware that remembering the Exodus does not stop with eating matza and bitter herbs and reciting the Haggada once a year. It also means conducting ourselves with ethics at work all year long! The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.