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Jewish World Review
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/ 24 Iyar, 5766
Intention to mislead
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
In representing my firm, can I tell a white lie?
Q: My industry research for my consulting firm requires me to call
up companies to ask about their businesses. In order to allay suspicions about my motives, I tell
them I am a student studying their industry. Can I continue with this practice?
A: Jewish law takes a very negative view of misleading practices.
The legal term we use is geneivas da'as, or
"stealing judgment." The terminology reveals the underlying ethical
judgment: that misleading others is akin to
stealing from them.
Even passive misleading is condemned. The Talmud tells the story of
the great Talmudic sage Mar Zutra who
set out for the town of Machoza. On the way he met two distinguished
scholars, Rava and Rav Safra, and told
them how honored he was that they took the trouble to come and greet
him on the way.
Rav Safra gently disabused Mar Zutra of his mistake, saying: "Of
course if we had known you were coming we
would have taken even more trouble." Rava then explained that it was
unnecessary to make an explanation,
since Mar Zutra had no real basis to think they were coming to greet
him. But if the circumstances really had
pointed to this conclusion, there would have been an obligation to
make clear to Mar Zutra that they hadn't
exerted themselves on his behalf, to avoid creating a false sense of
obligation and gratitude towards them. (1)
It's true that an occasional "white lie" is sanctioned. The school
of Hillel teach that we should always praise the
bride at a wedding, calling her "comely and charming." The opposing
academy of Shammai objected: The
Torah tells us "Distance yourself from falsehood!" (Exodus 23:7) The
students of Hillel explain that she is
certainly comely and charming in the eyes of the groom, so there is
no misleading here. (2)
Likewise, our tradition tells us that Aaron used to make peace
between feuding neighbors or spouses by
telling each one that the other is sorry for his behavior and
anxious to make peace. In the end, Aaron's story
became self-fulfilling and the two sides would be reconciled. (3)
However, there are several important differences between these cases
and your question. The main difference
is that in the cases of Hillel and Aaron, the "white lie" is
actually for the benefit of the person being misled. The
bride is happy to hear herself praised, and the neighbors are happy
to be reconciled. This is much different
than your case, where the misleading statement is meant only for
your own benefit.
Another difference is that your practice is habitual. The Talmud
tells the story of Rav, who had a strained
relationship with his wife. Often when he would make a request, she
would do exactly the opposite. When he
began to relay requests through their son Chiya, Rav's wife began to
respect his requests. When Rav
mentioned this to his son, Chiya corrected him, explaining that he
reversed the requests! Rav praised his son's
sensitivity but instructed him not to continue, since this was an
ongoing practice and could accustom and inure
him to untruth. (4) He quoted the reproof of the prophet Jeremiah
(9:4): "And each one mocks his fellow, and
truth they tell not; they accustomed their tongue to falsehood, they
are weary from iniquity."
Since you work for a large firm, this practice is almost certainly
forbidden by your employer's code of ethics,
which is binding for you. Virtually all large firms today have
explicit clauses forbidding this kind of action. For
example, the code of ethics of the Society of Competitive
Intelligence Professionals requires members "To
accurately disclose all relevant information, including one's
identity and organization, prior to all interviews."
It seems to me that this practice is not only improper, but also
counterproductive. The companies you contact
are obviously suspicious that your call is from a competitor or
muckraker or the like. A vague explanation that
you are an "interested student" probably does little to allay their
fears. It's not like you say, "My name is Shira
Schwarz and I'm an MBA student at Shlepp State University, doing a
paper on your industry." If you were to clearly identify your name, your firm, and your objective, making clear that you are only a researcher and not an adversary, you would do much more to reassure them. A letter from
your firm's secure server, together with a
cc to some responsible individual, will go a long way to convince
them that you are on the up and up.
Try also to make the subject a beneficiary of their participation.
For example, promise to provide them with
some of the results of your research. Our Center does much research,
and when we ask companies for
information, we generally promise to send them afterwards a brief
summary of our findings.
SOURCES:(1) Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 94b. (2) Babylonian Talmud,
Kesubos 17a (3) Avos deRebbe Nosson chapter 12 (4) Babylonian Talmud, Yevamos 63a.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan
administration, is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, Jerusalem College of Technology.
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© 2005, The Jewish Ethicist is produced by the JCT Center for Business Ethics