Business Ethics: Should Religion Stay in Its Lane?

Business Ethics

I’ve known a few people who’ve made a living as business ethicists and two of my problems with their tendencies are: 1) They tend to adhere to the ethics of relativity (but not really); and 2) They work hard to completely disassociate any religious or traditional moral code from business ethics.

To be sure, in this diverse world where people of many faiths come together to work, it would be inappropriate to try to impose a single religious code on all. It would create the perception that only one religion matters in a society that has safeguarded freedom of religion.

Still, I’d argue that this effort to blindly disassociate religion from moral values is an attempt to follow the path of least resistance. It’s an effort to avoid some of the sensitive issues that could arise primarily for the sake of avoidance. To do that is to ignore the reality that ethics is supposed to be hard. To try to incorporate ethics into a professional setting without addressing the multi-layered and complex issues of ethics is a check-box mentality. It’s merely an attempt to say you have a commitment to ethics without actually having that commitment.

The Ethics of Relativity

So, let’s go back to those two concerns of mine, starting with the ethics of relativity. The truth is that corporate ethical standards are not situational. Standards, as the word means, apply to all with no exceptions.

Even if you think that you are not bowing to a master in your business ethical codes, even by framing those codes as situational, that’s not what you’re doing. In order for an ethical code to work, there has to be a higher purpose, a master if you will. The code either serves a deity or a non-deity master, but it does serve a master.

For example, if you have built your corporate ethics around Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) principles, then the masters are built right into the name. Your corporate behaviors are expected to be subservient to the environmental, social issues and governance areas. These are man-made, of course, but they represent that higher purpose. There are standards within these principles that apply to everyone. So, the notion that ethics are situational is dispelled.

Imagine sitting in an ESG committee meeting and challenging the very existence of climate change. You’d be looked at in much the same way as if you went into a church and challenged the existence of God.

In that context, if you are part of a religious faith, you have a deity. Your code openly and unapologetically serves God. The Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christian faith is one of the best examples of this. Ten rules to follow if you are to meet God’s expectations. These are standards that apply to all, no exceptions.

If you drill down, there are clear differences between common ESG principles and the Ten Commandments for obvious reasons, but there is some degree of overlap.

Protection and promotion of a clean environment, of life, of honesty and kindness are represented in both. Yet according to current and broadly accepted etiquette, to point to the similarities is not acceptable because it opens the door to legitimizing religion in a non-religious setting.

This reinforces, however, that there are standards that transcend the business and work environment.


Distancing Ethics from Religion

The other concern I have, which is related to the first, is the ubiquitous effort to ban religion from discussion of corporate ethics. It’s like trying to ban any mention that the meat you find in your grocery store was once part of an actual cow or chicken. To pretend that there is no relationship between traditional faiths and professional ethics undermines the true significance of ethical behaviors. It’s the ethics of emptiness.

From the earliest times, mankind established its moral codes rooted in the worship of gods. These moral codes eventually became laws that gave an evolving civilization its structure and order so that it could further prosper and grow. Unlike all other animals, humans are the only ones capable of seeing beyond themselves and their surroundings in a reflective way, in a deeper way.

The relationship between religious law, basic morality, and civic laws has been interdependent. These are not mutually exclusive codes that evolved independently on their own in social silos. To try to disassociate them now, and to presume there is no relationship is contrived ignorance.


The moral codes of faith are grounded in a common belief in God. Without God, the teachings, the philosophies and the rules are pointless and meaningless.

The U.S. Constitution, which is just words on paper, is what has held the country together for almost 250 years through a Civil War, many other wars, much turbulence and much change. How can that be?

Because those words represent a basic human value system that is rooted in faith concepts. Without a sense of higher purpose, the Constitution falls apart, and so does the country. The moral codes of faith and the civic morality of our Constitution have more in common than some may want to admit.

Both codes are reliant on a sense of higher purpose, that there is something bigger than us, to which we must defer.

What’s the Reason for Business Ethics?

In that spirit, to try to establish a code of ethics for an organization or an industry, and to frame it as ethics for the sake of ethics misses the value ethics brings to the table. There must be a higher purpose. There has to be something that’s bigger than the individual, the organization and the industry. That something is not simply the objective of adhering to high standards. Rather, it has to be the reason for having the standards in the first place. What is that reason?

Good ethical codes are based on shared values that are uncompromising and are framed as more important than all else. No member of the organization is exempt.

If you do this, inevitably, you will have to give credit where it’s due to some of the world’s most dominant religions and philosophies which have advanced mankind over many, many centuries. The foundational tenets that have guided the human race not only should inform ethical business practice, but they should be credited for their roles.

ethics counsel

The Individual and Business Ethics

Let’s suppose that you have faith in God and you practice that faith. Or, on the other hand, perhaps you may identify with one religion but you’re not all that “religious” about it. Regardless, somewhere along the line you were instilled with a moral code that is rooted in faith. You are not obligated to leave that at home when you go to work.

I’d argue that even if you’re not trying it still reveals itself to others in the way you carry yourself, your integrity, the values you bring to your work. I’d further argue that you should not be afraid to say from where those values and teachings originate.

I believe that if you do, others may bring some of themselves to the discussion and you will finally break through into the sort of meaningful discussions about ethics that the discipline of corporate ethics usually intends but rarely delivers.

Tell people about your personal ethics and moral code, why it matters to you, and why in the end, it’s bigger than you. Listen to others when they do the same. As you do, you’ll see how much you have in common at a much deeper level.

As more people within the organization do this, respectfully and with the protection of the organizational culture, the organization itself will truly embrace the kind values that so many organizations like to say they embrace. This is when your organization will discover its own higher purpose through its own people. Through you.

What do you think? Just let me know.

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