As part of his Ph.D. course work, the minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Skaneateles asked if I had ever had a business related ethical dilemma I took to a clergyman for advice. The press has recently "discovered" there are ethical issues in business. The minister was compiling views on the role of the church in teaching business ethics. His issue was whether the church should take a "practical" view, and lay out and teach rules for moral and ethical conduct in business. I had an issue some years ago - a big one - concerning a business I was creating, UNDEROOS children's underwear. So I responded to his question in the letter below:
December 24, 2002
The first moral or ethical concern that pops to mind, and I did take it to my pastor at the time, concerned a product I was developing. I was afraid the product was too good. I know that sounds odd, but my research showed the product had enormous appeal to children – as well as their parents and grandparents. I was sure if the product was launched it would be a commercial success. I owned all rights to the product and was developing it entrepreneurially, so it would be a great financial gain for me and my family if it succeeded. But, I worried about several dimensions of the product;
It was exploitive. The appeal was very strong and directly to children. It glorified mythological heroes. A child might hurt themselves thinking they had super-human powers. I had already softened my concerns somewhat by reviewing the product with Yale's head of child psychology, who said, “No sane child will think they can really fly.” That helped somewhat. But I brought the product and my concerns to my pastor. I was in a pretty fundamentalist church at the time – Assembly of God. I showed the great old, conservative pastor the packages and products – Superman, Batman, Shazam, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Captain America Underoos. Underwear that's fun to wear. I expected the worst. He looked at the colorful superhero uniforms. His face lit up in smiles and he said, “How wonderful. Children will love them. Maybe you can do one showing the empty tomb?” I explained my concerns. He dismissed them in practical terms.
Reassured, I went ahead and sold the business on plan to Union Underwear, makers of Fruit of the Loom underwear. It worked out well.
I think that was the only moral or ethical business issue I took to a clergyman. I've run into lots of issues, but the answer was always obvious on reflection. The church has been helpful to me with these moral and ethical business issues, but not by preaching about these issues but by helping me discover a spiritual framework within which to work out the path. Jesus said, “I am the way.” He didn't say, “I am the rules.” I had rules – which I never could keep - as an observant Orthodox Jewish boy. But in Christ, I am freed from the rules, the Law.
So, I take a somewhat contrarian position on the Church “going practical.” I think the church should focus on showing Jesus and helping folks discover, validate and develop their spiritual natures. There is so much in the social and business world that discourages and even sneers at the transcendent, I think the Church needs to be careful to not join in by being perceived as a non-transformational, pragmatic moral institution. I think the church should be the lighthouse guiding, instructing and supporting spiritual transformation. I would be concerned a focus on correct ethical conduct, moral discernment and rulings on justice would diminish the role of the church. Pharisees, we have aplenty. We need more Jesus.
If the Church does its job, the spiritually mature business person will know how to handle the inevitable conflicts, disappointments, failures and decisions that pop up every day. If the Church becomes the ethicist, can it teach Jesus?
I suspect this is a minority point of view, but I'm glad you asked. A very happy Christmas to you and the family, and I hope you have a rewarding wind-up to your doctoral studies.
All the best,