Ethics of Shrewdness

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The Ethics of Shrewdness

"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.
Therefore be as shrewd as snakes
and as innocent as doves."
Matthew 10:16

Michael C. R. McLoughlin, August, 1997

Abstract

The marketplace is a a difficult and dangerous environment for the Christian. It can be a place of compromise or a place of persecution. It is a place where Christians must make difficult ethical choices and fulfill important moral roles. To survive and prosper in this dangerous environment the Christian must heed the advice of Christ who sends his people into the world as sheep in the midst of wolves. Christ's advice is to be shrewd but innocent. Innocent shrewdness is discovered in the context, commission character, and community of the Christian in business. The ethics of shrewdness are practiced by the Christian who knows the moral challenges, plans to overcome them, uses wise judgment to avoid offense and actively seeks to lead others out of the darkness.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Christian Survival in a Marketplace of Moral Relativism

Ethics may be "in" ; but "Christian" Ethics are definitely "out". In the late 1990's concern for corporate social responsibility and for ethical decision making is a growing trend in our culture.[i] At the same time, Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship observes a increasing divide between secular and non secular ideas of morality. On one hand, there is an obvious need for accountability in public and private life. On the other hand, postmodern culture has abandoned the Judeo-Christian ethic as a means for that accountability.[ii] In the name of tolerance and moral relativism, a new intolerance has arisen in society that shuts out ethical decision making based upon a belief in absolute truth.[iii] A pluralistic Society says, "Yes, we need to have values, we need to have standards by which we can hold people accountable, but we don't want a Christian belief system imposed on us!" This is true in the marketplace. A Christian manager can argue against a decision to secure a foreign contract via bribery because it is potentially damaging to the company's reputation if made public, but he would not be allowed to justify his ethics by stating that he believes bribery to be just plain wrong. By whose standards does he believe it to be wrong? If he says, "By God's standards." he risks being labeled a religious fanatic and may face the loss of his job for his "religious convictions."[iv] Media scorn, that is regularly heaped upon Christians who call for morality in public, business and entertainment life, has created a climate of hostility in the marketplace towards Christians who espouse "absolute" ethics. In this climate of intolerance to Christian belief, the Christian in the marketplace is faced with difficult and dangerous choices. Under the pressure of competition and the need to succeed, he or she is encouraged to be "shrewd" in business dealings. Shrewdness is a virtue in business decision making.[v] The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word "shrewd" to mean "sagacious, sensible, discriminating, astute, judicious"[vi] However, many unethical business practices are considered to be shrewd business dealing such as bribery, cutting corners or cheating to achieve the end result – success.[vii] Although the sage in Proverbs does not approve of the practice he acknowledges its effectiveness. "A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it ; wherever he turns, he succeeds." (Proverbs 17:8) If one is not "shrewd" in these matters it commonly believed that one will not succeed or stay competitive in business. Absolute ethics would restrict this form of shrewdness in business decisions. Thus a Christian's adherence to an absolute standard of morality is not only seen as "religious fanaticism" it is also viewed as...
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