The talmudic concept of “beyond the letter of the law”: Relevance to business social responsibilities [Book Review]

Journal of Business Ethics 15 (9):941 - 950 (1996)
Abstract
The idea of corporate social responsibility is neither new nor radical. The core belief is that business managers, even in their role as managers, have responsibilities to society beyond profit maximization. Managers, in pursuing their primary goal of increasing shareholder value, have social responsibilities in addition to meeting the minimal requirements of the law. Nevertheless, the call for increased social responsibility on the part of business managers remains controversial. At least two major perspectives on social responsibility can be isolated. The classical view, most closely identified with Milton Friedman, suggests that social responsibility is incompatible with a free enterprise economy. By contrast, advocates of increased social responsibility point out the desirability for voluntary (and at times costly) corporate activities which promote society's well being. The purpose of this essay is to briefly describe both the classical and pro-social responsibility perspectives. We suggest that while important differences in assumptions characterize the two distinct views, there is enough overlap and agreement to move the debate beyond the current stalemate. Specifically, we argue that the concept oflifnim mishurat hadin, an innovative and ancient Jewish legal doctrine which is usually translated as beyond the letter of the law, might serve as a model for modern legal and social thought. We examine talmudic and post-talmudic sources which apply this concept to the area of business ethics, and explore its applicability to the modern situation. Although the business ethics literature rarely refers to Talmudic and rabbinic sources, these texts reflect a sophisticated understanding of business practices and ethical problems.
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