A co-worker insists that just because a workplace guideline is legal does not guarantee it is ethical. I maintain policies are neither legal nor ethical but should be understood as both-and. What do you think?
In an ideal world, policies pursued in the workplace and our lives will be both legal and ethical. Such is not always the case. Many people may lose their homes because mortgage brokers encouraged them to lie on applications and take out adjustable-rate loans that would reset to an unaffordable rate. Both were unwritten polices of the mortgage company. The first was both illegal and unethical. The second was legal but clearly unethical. As long as the primary motive by some companies is profit and workers fear retaliation, a dichotomy between legal and ethical workplace policies will continue. For that reason, federal and state governments have enacted “whistle-blower” statutes to protect employees who report illegal workplace activity. Someone who has been discharged or retaliated against for reporting an unlawful practice has legal redress and may recover damages.
Unfortunately, the dichotomy between the legal and ethical also exists in our daily lives. You may be called upon at some time to violate a law because your ethics and morality demand it. Can this ever be proper? The answer lies in the actions of one who was sinless and ethical. Jesus saw people being cheated by moneychangers in the temple and refused to allow his Father’s house to be a den of thieves. Turning over their tables and driving the moneychangers from the temple was illegal but also ethical.
Throughout history, individuals have faced that choice. Oskar Schindler violated the law by hiding numerous Jews, saving them from extermination in concentration camps. Individuals aiding runaway slaves in the Underground Railroad clearly violated the laws of their day. Who would argue they were not highly ethical?
Conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War faced this dilemma. Some went underground or fled to Canada. Some stood resolutely and refused to serve, knowing it required them to go to prison. Others served as medics, refusing to carry a weapon but putting themselves in harm’s way to aid other soldiers. In my opinion, those who fled were guilty of acts both illegal and unethical. Those who stayed and faced the consequences were guilty of acts that were illegal, but ethical. Those who made the third choice acted in a way that was both legal and ethical.
We must consider whether our actions are legal and ethical. One may be faced with choosing between them. If so, one must understand the requirements of both dynamics. If ethics wins, as it should, and one needs to break the law knowingly, one also must understand and accept the possible consequences.
Cynthia Holmes, attorney
Former moderator, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
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Right or Wrong? is sponsored by the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology. Send your questions about how to apply your faith to email@example.com.