Employment and ethics

Recently, I talked to a man whose non-profit employer had restructured his job, significantly diminishing his title and responsibilities. The man understood that he was stretched too thin to meet expectations: he had a full-time job, another part time job, and the part time job at the non-profit from which the employer took away major responsibilities. However, what hurt was how the employer handled the change. The employer neither acknowledged the man’s key role in keeping the organization alive during a difficult transition nor had a personnel evaluation process to afford the individual time to improve before the reduction in status.

That conversation pointed my thoughts toward the Hawaii state emergency agency employee who was fired for initiating last month’s false alert of an imminent nuclear attack on the island. The employee had a record of difficulties on the job that culminated in intentionally or unintentionally triggering the alert.

What does the Bible have to say about employee management?

The short answer is: Very little. The Bible says nothing explicit about employee supervision and management except that a laborer is worthy of her/his wages and should not be defrauded (I Timothy 5:17; James 5:4).

The longer, more accurate answer is that the Bible is neither a rule book nor compilation of God’s dictates on how people are to live. Many secular ethicists and even some Christian ethicists inaccurately describe Christian ethics as “divine command ethics,” i.e., Christians find in the Bible a God-given set of precepts or commandments that govern life. Major problems with this approach to the Bible include:

1.     Deciding which commandments to obey literally and which to interpret metaphorically or in other, non-literal ways, e.g., the command for women to stay in separate dwellings during menstruation;

2.     Choosing when, if ever, to make an exception to a commandment, e.g., should one honor a physically abusive parent?

3.     Not having rules applicable to many contemporary situations, e.g., personnel management.

In the 1950s, Episcopal priest and ethicist Joseph Fletcher developed what he dubbed situational ethics. Christians were to live by two rules: love God and love one another. The Biblical warrant for highlighting these two commandments is strong. Jesus identified them as the two great commandments. Incidentally, the widespread Christian emphasis on the Ten Commandments lacks a similar warrant. Nowhere in the New Testament do the Ten Commandments receive a similar endorsement. And in the Jewish tradition, the ten are simply ten of 613 equal commandments in the Torah.

Ethically, Fletcher’s situational ethics restate utilitarian ethics, i.e., the right is that which will produce the greatest good (or most love) for the largest number of people. As with utilitarian ethics, situational ethics that adopt love as the norm for guiding behavior and choices entail applying that norm to daily life with its countless situations, contexts, and decisions, requiring repeated judgments about what appears likely to result in the most loving outcome(s) without being able to know the actual outcome of one’s choices. Emotions, knowledge, personal preferences, and many other factors invariably color those judgments in ways that an individual will rarely understand. Furthermore, nobody can look into the future. Although many Christians find Fletcher’s call for love to be the norm for Christian ethics, in practice the theory has proven highly problematic and led to poor moral choices. Ethicists find situational ethics only slightly better than the frequently asked but truly unanswerable question, “What would Jesus do?”

Instead of emphasizing rules or calculations about the most loving course of action, Christian ethics for most of two millennia have emphasized virtue ethics. Virtue ethics aims to create a person who embodies the four cardinal virtues (justice, courage, temperance, and prudence) and three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love). The Apostle Paul lists the three theological virtues in the last sentence of his much beloved discourse on love (I Corinthians 13:1-13). Since Thomas Aquinas, Christian ethicists have accepted the cardinal virtues as the minimum summary of Christian virtues, contending that other virtues such as honesty and fidelity are derivable from the cardinal and theological virtues.

Professional Christian ethicists continue to argue about the best catalogue or list of virtues. I find those arguments boring.

Rather, I’m primarily interested in helping people so inculcate the virtues that living virtuously is a function of habit and not of choice. Rarely does an individual consciously make an ethical choice. Indeed, neuroscientific research suggests that even when a person thinks s/he has consciously made a decision, that decision was made subconsciously milliseconds prior to the moment of conscious choice. Shaping behavior forms habits and over time shapes character, forming a person in Jesus’ image.

Good personnel policies are valuable in helping to ensure that employees are treated in a Christlike, healthy, loving way. Yet, as happened with the disgruntled Hawaii state employee who triggered the false alert of an impending nuclear attack, good personnel policies are no guarantee of good outcomes. Ultimately, we depend upon character, not rules or calculations about the greatest love.

May your habits be Godly!


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