How right does the right thing have to be for us to do it?
Rabbi Safra was one of the leading sages in Babylon about 1700 years ago. He was also a diamond merchant who, on one occasion, acquired a particularly large and valuable stone.
Hearing of Rabbi Safra’s acquisition, another gem merchant approached him one day after prayer services and offered to buy the stone at what he considered a fair price. The merchant did not realize that Rabbi Safra had not yet finished reciting his own silent prayers, which he refused to interrupt even at the risk of losing the deal.
Receiving no answer, the merchant concluded that he had offended the rabbi by not offering enough for the stone, and so he increased his price. When the rabbi still did not reply, the merchant raised his offer even higher.
Finally, Rabbi Safra concluded his prayers. “I will sell you the stone,” he told the merchant. “But I will sell it to you at the first price you offered.”
“I don’t understand,” the merchant replied.
“When you made your first offer, I thought to myself that it was a fair price. The reason I didn’t answer was because I could not interrupt my prayers. But once I made up my mind that I would accept your first offer, it would be wrong of me to accept anything more than that.”
Should the rabbi have revealed this information, or should he have said nothing and sold his stone for the best price he could get?
Among my favorite movies is the original Magnificent Seven, with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. In one pivotal scene, some of the villagers have a change of heart and ask the gunslingers they hired to protect their town to leave. Several of the gunmen suggest they should do just that.
Chris: You forget one thing. We took a contract.
Vin: It’s sure not the kind any court would enforce.
Chris: That’s just the kind you’ve got to keep.
What’s always fascinated me about this dialogue is how hired guns are debating the ethics of defending a town full of people who no longer want to be defended, of honoring a contract they accepted for payment far below their normal fee that the other side wants to annul.
The subtext of the story is this: in order to live with the ruthlessness of their chosen profession, the gunmen compensate by setting higher standards for themselves in other aspects of their lives. Implicitly, they understand that if they are going to operate outside the law, they have to create their own legal code to prevent them from descending into moral anarchy and forfeiting their own humanity.
True, it’s just a movie. But the sentiment expressed by the characters is one immediately relevant to real life. If we abdicate moral authority to a system of laws, then we conflate two entirely different principles: on one side, the utilitarian purpose of our legal system as a baseline for preserving social order; on the other, the essence of morality – to elevate mankind toward the realization of its innate noble character.
As a rule, it’s useful to define ethics as the awareness of how our actions influence the world around us. The case of Rabbi Safra however, teaches the need to remain aware of the impact our actions have on ourselves.
Every time we act with even the smallest measure of deception or lack of integrity, we damage the sensitivity of our own moral compass by diminishing our own commitment to honesty and truth. If you’ve already made up your mind to complete a deal at a fair price, you’re not being true to yourself by taking advantage of circumstances to exact something extra from the transaction, even if you are entirely within your legal rights to do so.
Keeping our word – even when it’s unspoken – is foundational to the well-being of a civil society. It is in line with the classic definition of integrity: doing the right thing, even when no one else is watching.
When have you had to choose between what feels right and what the law allows you to get away with?
Excerpted from Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity. Harvard Business School Professor of Ethics Joseph L. Badaracco calls it “a remarkable book – full of engaging case studies on a wide range of topics and full of practical wisdom.” For more information, click here.