Business Ethics Perspective to Post Oct 7 events

I teach Business Ethics in a Business School. In the realm of Business Ethics, where complexities abound, there are profound lessons to impart to every aspect in society. Instances of ethical failures, spanning from corporate debacles like Enron, Wells Fargo, Volkswagen and Purdue Pharma, have underscored the necessity to research and teach Business Ethics.

As a thought experiment, I have been reflecting on many insights gained and taught in business ethics and how they connect to recent events in the middle east. In particular I reflected on the duality of complexity and moral clarity, mechanisms for moral disengagement and bias, and moral courage.

Complexity and moral clarity. Business ethics is an exploration of ethical dilemmas where fundamental principles of honesty, dignity, respect, and compassion must never be overshadowed by the intricacies of the situation. It’s a delicate dance between complexity and moral clarity, but we should start with clarity. As evident in cases like Volkswagen and Purdue Pharma, profitability should never take priority when there are clear signs of physical harm (and potential death) to customers. This is a clear moral boundary we would wish companies in a civilized world adhere to.

Similarly, with reference to Oct 7 events, we should start with clarity. Slaughtering babies, burning people alive, raping women, and kidnapping babies, kids, young men and women and the elderly cannot constitute “liberation.” Hamas is using the most barbaric terror against innocent Israelis and against the Palestinian population, including abusing Palestinian kids by indoctrinating them since infancy to pursue terror, and including using Palestinian civilians as human shields. This should be recognized by all humans as crossing the moral boundaries. This is also why we should be alarmed when professors in the US celebrate such atrocities or attempt to deny some atrocities despite strong evidence, or when a disturbing poll shows that over 50% of college-aged (18-24) individuals justifying Hamas.

Circling back to the idea of complexity, the aftermath of Oct 7 reveals a global narrative that is resistant to nuanced understanding. Those arguing that Hamas is a radical terror organization that should be dismantled are hastily labeled “pro-Israel,” “against Palestinians,” and ironically “non-liberal” or “oppressors.”  This dangerous narrative prevents young individuals from doing research, understanding the roots of the conflict, realizing that Jews are also indigenous to the land of Israel, and that there have been multiple times where a two-state solution (proposed by the UN in 1947 and accepted by Israel) was promoted (including one in 2000 that also offered parts of Jerusalem given to Palestinians) but rejected by the Palestinian leadership. Moreover, billions of dollars transferred to Gaza over the 17 years since Israel fully withdrew from Gaza have been used among other things to build tunnels for terror as opposed to building a better life for Palestinians in Gaza. At the same time, Israeli governments have made grave mistakes as well. While the Palestinian side has refused to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist in any part of the land, having Israeli settlements in the areas occupied after the 1967 war was not conducive towards a two-state solution.

Similarly, one can and should grieve all innocent lives lost in Gaza, demand to investigate very transparently any unintended harm to civilians, while at the same time acknowledge this is a very difficult urban warfare against a terrorist group, and acknowledge both Hamas’ refusal to surrender, and the astonishing lack of efforts by the global community, particularly some Arab countries, to compel Hamas to release the hostages and lay down its arms.

We should strive for constructive discussions in the academia that address concerns about Israel’s and Palestinian’s leadership actions while acknowledging the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian history and while recognizing that there is no moral equivalency between Hamas, a terror organization targeting civilians, and the IDF. Acknowledging both complexity and clarity, we can be both pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians, as articulated by Jamal and Yarhi-Milo. People of all backgrounds and around the world should unite, advocating for the release of the Israeli hostages AND dismantling/surrender of Hamas, AND a ceasefire, AND a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Zooming out from the immediate situation in Israel and Gaza, the broader issue of antisemitism comes to the forefront, and is also a reflection of the resistance to nuanced understanding. To be clear: criticism of the Israeli government is not synonymous with antisemitism. As someone who opposes the Israeli right-wing government, I have demonstrated against it on March 2023, in Washington DC, and I call for the resignation of Netanyahu and his government. However, denying Israel’s right to exist is antisemitic, as there are no calls for the annihilation of any other country, regardless of its government’s failures. Both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to self-determination in this land. Such form of antisemitism should be addressed in academic institutions.

Moral disengagement. Moral disengagement is a powerful yet unfortunate ethical trap that allows individuals to not even identify that the issue at hand is related to morality. Three very prevalent mechanisms of moral disengagement are blaming the victim, using dehumanization that leads to bias, as well as using euphemistic language – “sugar-coating” the language so the act does not feel unethical. We have seen blaming the victim de facto when Purdue Pharma executive Richard Sackler has been blaming the opioids victims, or euphemistic language when the practice of targeting physicians to buy these opioids was labeled as ‘education’.

We see elements of moral disengagement and bias in antisemitism. Blaming the victim was evident immediately post Oct 7, when some people blamed Jews for atrocities committed by Hamas, saying these babies and kids “deserved it”. We see the use of euphemistic language when people call Hamas terrorists “fighters” or the massacre “resistance”.

Part of dehumanization is de-individuation which is a severe source of bias. In the context of antisemitism, we are witnessing a general bias where people do not distinguish between individuals and governments. In a free society, when we deal with any person, we are to interact with them with dignity and respect while allowing each to proudly maintain their identity, be it national, ethnic, religious, sexual and more. Using “Zionist” as a slur word as an attempt to make Jews who live in the US ashamed of their national identity should not happen in a free country. In academic institutions (and beyond) we should be embracing diverse individuals with outmost respect and irrespective of their governments’ actions.

Moral courage. In many of the organizational fiascos, a minority of individuals had the moral courage to speak up internally or blow the whistle externally. However, moral courage entails expressing opinions in an informed and civil manner, going beyond the superficiality of social media or violent rally scenes that often diminish the impact of one’s voice. It is crucial to speak up with well-founded facts and avoid reckless labeling, such as mischaracterizing Israel as an apartheid state (20% of the Arab Israeli population is over represented – about 24%-  working as physicians, they have equal rights to vote, to be represented by parties in the Israeli parliament, and they serve on the Israeli supreme court and in the IDF), or as committing “ethnic cleansing” (which is factually untrue as this conflict is not related to ethnicity and Israel is not intending to kill innocent Palestinians) or as “colonizers” (when in fact the Jewish state is an outcome of effort for de-colonization from the Ottoman and British empires). These false labels are dangerous. Interestingly, using these labels represent almost the opposite of euphemism – it is using immorally-laden words in a non-factual manner that can unintentionally entice hate and unethical behavior. Similarly, I would denounce any labelling of all Palestinians as “terrorists” or “complicit with Hamas”. Let us educate our students to show moral courage that is also a responsible moral courage rather than calling for violence in the disguise of “social justice”.

Learning from the business ethics case, as educators we must foster critical thinking and nuance and complexity without compromising basic humanity and morality. We must make sure we explore bias, broadening our definition to include bias against people of any nationality. And we must urge our students to speak up in a responsible well-informed manner.

A couple of weeks post Oct 7, my seventh-grade daughter shared a fictional story she had penned at school about “overcoming differences at school.” It centered on a girl who came to the US from Iran and faced ridicule for wearing her Hijab, but ultimately found acceptance. Her narrative struck a chord, evoking both pride and sadness in me. Pride, as despite our personal grief at home over the atrocities of Oct 7, my daughter grasps the importance of never generalizing any religion or national identity as “bad,” and sorrow, considering how many adults in today’s world fail to grasp this fundamental lesson.

About the Author
Rellie Derfler-Rozin is an Associate Professor of Management & Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She received her PhD in Organizational Behavior from London Business School. She studies how the social context impacts employees' decision-making. Most of her research revolves around three specific areas: behavioral ethics, status at the workplace, and selection decisions and biases.