Accounting Ethics and Religion

mother teresa of calcutta prays during a religious serviceReligion is a topic that is not found in most of the literature on accounting and business ethics.  For some reason many of us regard religion as a deeply personal topic that we had hoped to keep separate from our professional lives.  Yet, when the subject is ethics, we should recognize that for a large segment of our society the religious and the ethical are so closely entwined that to ignore the former is to distort the latter.  Dynamic ethical agents are simply unable to completely compartmentalize their lives.

For one whose ethical foundation is religion, the roots are either overtly or subliminally established in theology.  Traditionally, theology has claimed to take it’s ultimate authority, indeed it’s fundamental validity from “divine revelation.”  By this we mean that certain truths are not discernible by the unaided human mind but rather are known because God made them known in a special way.  The religious background of the vast majority of the people in the United States is either Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant.  We shall therefore, find ethical principals that are rooted in religion in one of these three traditions for the most part.

The theology of these traditions is not itself uniform, but may be divided into conservative and liberal.  Conservative theology finds divine revelation primarily in the Bible.  for the Jew this consists of the Old Testament plus teachings of the great rabbis throughout the ages.  For the Catholic the entire Bible is authoritative and the Catholic Church is seen as the only accurate interpreter of this divine revelation.  The protestant claims the Bible alone has the divine revelation and leaves it to the reader to interpret.

Liberal theology, in all three traditions, now tends to abandon the classical idea of divine revelation and makes religions essentially a dimension of human experience.  Theology becomes a reflection on that experience thus has no reference point outside that world of experience.  Even within the liberal and conservative spectrums, vast differences may be found both in theology, and more importantly for our purposes, in ethical principle.

We should always consider the religious aspect when confronted with ethical dilemmas.  Our own religious beliefs may be coming into play in ethical decision making.  Even this is not the case, the chances are great that we are constantly dealing with people whose religious views have an impact upon the ethical dynamic.  We are not necessarily recommending advocacy of religion as much as awareness of the impact that religion can have in everyday practical ethics.