Assent and Corporate Ethics: The Sinai Question

I wrote a blog post over at Silicon Hutong earlier this week (“The Company Code: Morality, China, and Facebook“) that examined the moral issue around Facebook entering China. While I wrote the post for a secular audience, issues of Torah and Halakah were swimming in my head. It was one of the most difficult posts I have written in seven years of blogging.

One of the issues I wanted to cover, but in the end removed, was the question of assent. When Hashem gave the Torah to Bais Yisrael at Har Sinai, He did not give the Torah until the entire people had confirmed that they would accept the Law (Parshat Yitro). I claim neither Torah nor legal scholarship, but what that implies to me is that a law, a commandment, or a moral code cannot be made binding on anyone – even by the Almighty Himself – unless that person agrees to take that law upon himself.

As troubled as we may be about the potential for Facebook to conduct itself in China in a way that does not meet our approval, we have to ask ourselves whether we can hold the company to a moral code to which it has not formally subscribed. Indeed, I would question whether we can hold the company accountable to a moral code that has not been explicitly spelled out for the people in the company with ultimate decision power: the company leadership and its board of directors.

There are those who would suggest that a common sense of right and wrong should be enough to tell a company what it should and should not do. The history of the corporation, from the South Seas Bubble to the Global Financial Crisis, belies such assumptions. Leaving aside for a moment whether a company can, in fact, be held accountable for moral transgressions, we must recognize that a corporation itself may posses legal personhood, but it does not innately posses a moral compass, or a sense of right or wrong.

There are others who might suggest that merely by operating in the context of a nation or culture, a company gives its implicit assent to conform to the moral codes of that society. In today’s global and multicultural business operating environment, however, it is often impossible for a well-meaning company to identify a prevailing moral code in a single country like the United States, and infinitely more difficult when doing so across national boundaries.

Many companies, particularly small- and medium-sized businesses, that operate in accordance with set moral standards. Salesforce.com, In-and-Out Burger, and Google are among the most prominent examples. What each of these hold in common is that they take the time to spell out the moral strictures under which they will do business, and they extend those principles into the very core of the company through everything from operating manuals to the behavior that is rewarded at bonus time.

The solution is clear: it is not enough for us to simply expect (read “hope”) that a company will naturally operate ethically, nor to impose upon it a code of behavior ex post facto, but to articulate to each company at the outset a requirement that they adopt, publish, and make a part of their operations a clear moral code, one that reaches into the very fabric of the organization. In this, you have not only assent to a code, but collective ownership of and accountability for each aspect of those behavioral guidelines.

As outsiders, then, before we can criticize a company for its immoral behavior, we must first make clear that we expect it to frame what constitutes right and wrong (beyond simply “obey the law,”), or make clear that if they do not, we will do so for them, and then, if they do not set their own standards, we must make clear the code by which we expect them to operate.

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