Is Selling Dangerous Goods Permitted?

Responsa of the Week: Is Selling Dangerous Goods Permitted?

A weekly series by Dr. Meir Tamari about responsa regarding business ethics issues.

In order to demonstrate the work of the halakhic system and its moral considerations regarding a variety of issues in business and economics, I will present a number of responsa drawn from the literature. These represent questions addressed either by laymen or by rabbis or communities to rabbinical authorities and their answers. They cover a period of close to 2000 years and reflect Jewish life in all the countries of the Diaspora. Even though the answers may vary and conflict with each other so that one cannot draw behavioral conclusions from them, they demonstrate Jewish thinking and values in this field.

QUESTION:

From a student in an Israeli high school as to why he should bother to study and acquire an education, when he has the alternative of trading in ecstasy tablets and earning more money than he could in any profession he entered as a result of his acquired education.

ANSWER.

We should first ask what sort of society makes it possible for a normal rank and file 17 year old to ask why he should not trade in drugs and in that way earn a good living. In essence, this question lies at the very source of all business behavior as it involves the decision as to the morality of earning a profit, no matter how this is done. Seeing ‘economic mankind’ as the sole or even as the primary purpose of human being, is and has been one of the major causes of crime, war, inter-generational and interpersonal conflict. After all, nobody ever has enough wealth, for as it is said, “One has a hundred coins and still one wants two hundred.” So, if earning a profit and creating wealth are values in and of themselves, given the power of egoism and the human ability to rationalize immorality, then, legality, ethics, the fate of others, nationalism and many other human values may be expendable. If the end justifies the means, all else is subservient to that end.

We could easily substitute for drugs the trade in weapons to regimes that will use them to oppress their own citizens or to illegally harm their neighbors, or the trade in cigarettes, liquor, asbestos and lead products where these threaten consumer’s health, or industries that harm the environment. We should even include ‘imaginative accounting,’ the bribing of governments and the selling of defective goods and services in the list of questionable actions that are only justified by the fact that they are profitable. It seems that on the grounds of tikkun haolam, lifnei iver and of nezikim they would all be forbidden.

“The law of the land [governed by non-Jews] is binding [making all actions that are illegal, forbidden for Jews]” (Rava, and codified in all the Codes).

“It is forbidden to sell to gentiles [or for that matter, Jews who are considered violent men] weapons of war [excluding those needed for self defense] nor may [one] sharpen swords and spears [in modern parlance, repair] weapons; nor chains [to be put on the necks or feet of captives] nor lions nor bears nor anything that may be used to harm the public” (Mishnah, Avodah Zarah chapter 1, mishnah 7).

“Everyone who causes the blind to stumble in anything [in which he is not knowledgeable] and knowingly tenders him advice that is to his detriment, or those who strengthen the hands of evildoers [causing them to do forbidden acts].” Transgresses a negative mitzvah even as it is written, “You shall not put a stumbling block in the path of the blind; (Leviticus, 19:14)” Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotze’ach U Shmirat HaNefesh, chapter 12, halakhah14).

“A person is always liable for damages [caused by him or his property]” (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat, Sections 153-156).

“See how beautiful and excellent are all My works [G-d to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden]. Beware lest you spoil or ruin My world. For if you spoil it there is nobody to repair after you” (Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet, 713).

In the Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah part3, section 31, there are 3 reasons given for it being halakhically forbidden to take drugs.

The Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, section 111, subsection 14, says that trading in such goods is halakhically forbidden. This is also stated by the Rambam, in Hilkhot Rotze’ach U Shmirat Hanefseh, chapter 12,halakhah 14.

I’ve asked for other answers to this question and would like to share them with you:

The student’s teacher, to whom the question was addressed, told me that her answer was the following: All that the student will ever have will be the earnings from the ecstasy tablets. Yet he has to think of himself in the future, facing his children and grandchildren. How will he explain to them, the many people who were killed in order to simply earn a livelihood for him?

Re: Drug-Peddling as an Alternative to a Profession. Rabbi, Professor Yehudah Leo Levi

One may ask: “Why should I go to the trouble of learning a trade or a profession? I can make a much better living, with far less effort, by selling drugs.”

There are, however, a number of serious fallacies in that approach.

Whoever argues thus, should remember that eventually he will have to give an accounting for all the lives he has ruined during his stay in this world. He had the potential to contribute his share to make this a better world and, instead he spread ruin in his wake.

And not only before the Heavenly court, because there is a reasonable chance that he will be caught and suffer in prison, and in social standing, far more than he gained.

In addition to this, one of the most basic human needs, is the feeling of having realized one’s potential, of having accomplished, of having lived a meaningful life. There are whole schools of psychology who see this as the most fundamental human need, after food and shelter. Thus Viktor Frankl developed his “logotherapy,” when he noted that in the Nazi concentration camps, those people who saw a purpose to their lives had a much higher survival-probability than those who did not. Very close to this is Abraham Maslow’s “self-actualization” theory. He discovered that, after physical necessities and love & esteem, self-actualization was the most fundamental human need. Carl Jung’s “analytic psychology” similarly held that a lack of feeling self-fulfillment was the major cause of psychological illness.

In view of all this, the drug-peddler may possibly earn more money, but that money may fail to overcome his deep unhappiness due to a profound feeling of worthlessness, of failure, and guilt that he generates in his soul.

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Dr. Meir Tamari is the former chief economist of the Office of the Governor at the Bank of Israel, and the founder of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem.