Is business really ethical?

Isn’t the Biblical ideal to engage in productive activity, not in trade where each person tries to take advantage of the other?

Q. Is business really ethical at all? It seems to me that the Biblical ideal is “each man under his vine and under his fig tree” (I Kings 5:5) — each person engaging in productive activity, SC

A. It’s true that the blessings of the Torah are usually directed to the individual farmer or herder, not to the trader. Indeed, the first time we encounter the word “trader” in the Torah it refers to the slave traders who sold Yosef into Egypt. (Genesis 37:28.)

Yet we also find that our tradition immensely esteems the role of commerce. When Yaakov arrived in Shechem, the Torah tells us that he “graced” the city (Genesis 33:18). How did he do this? Our Sages explain that he established the foundations of commerce by establishing coinage or a marketplace.

In order to understand this approach, we have to understand the role of commerce in human society. Why is commerce necessary to get goods and services to people in the first place? After all, the Creator could easily have arranged the world so that all our needs are fulfilled without commerce or even without effort, as in the Garden of Eden.

One aspect of the importance of commerce is that it gives people a motivation for cooperation. When each person or each nation is self-sufficient economically, then there is a tendency for each to be isolated or even hostile. However, when they see that there is an opportunity for mutual gain through trade, then people learn to accommodate each other and get along.

So we see that the wicked Lavan learns to get along with Yaakov since he needs his help as a hired hand (Genesis 29:14-15); and when Yaakov made his gesture of friendship through commerce with the residents of Shechem, they responded by offering to let Yaakov’s family “live and trade” there. (Genesis 34:10.)

Of course there is still a special importance to agriculture. Rabbi Yair Bachrach explains agriculture’s special status as follows: even though all of our earnings are only through the blessing of God, the miraculous, Divine contribution is particularly evident in agriculture. This is because it seems that we are getting something from nothing, as crops grow from rotting seeds buried in the ground.

However, ultimately we have to recognize that earnings from business are also a Divine blessing, and not just the fruits of luck or of our own cleverness.

According to this approach, we can understand the special importance of business ethics. Jewish tradition is very strict about this aspect of our law, stating, “the punishment for cheating in measures is even greater than the punishment for sexual immorality.” If the true purpose of business was to create prosperity, then we could excuse some laxity in business ethics if business was more profitable that way. But if the entire purpose of commerce is to create brotherhood and mutual trust, then anything which contradicts that is not only inexcusable in itself, it frustrates the very purpose of commerce in the first place.

Business is not only ethical, it is one of the most important ways that God gave us to foster coexistence and understanding among human beings. But this is dependent on business being conducted in an ethical way, in a manner based on cooperation and not on exploitation.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33b, Yevamot 21a; Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 331:19; Responsa Chavot Yair 224.