Some thoughts on “Sins” and “Transgressions” and Corporate Responsibility

I’ve been thinking about the difference between “sins” and “transgressions.”

(I could write of my own failings; there are many! – but here I‘m thinking about “corporate responsibility”).

There have been times when companies have made mistakes. Terrible mistakes. Mistakes that hurt people, misled people; mistakes that did not live up to what a good, responsible company should do.

And when a company does this, but it is unintentional, it is a mistake. Here’s a thought from The Checklist checklist_200-s6-c10Manifesto by Atul Gawande; a thought that I agree with:

Failures of ignorance we can forgive. If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort. But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated…

So, an “accidental” failure can be accepted. People, and companies, are not perfect.

And when such a mistake/failure occurs, the best companies, the ones that act responsibly, announce the mistake, correct the mistake, and make sure it does not happen again.

And then there have been other times when companies did things that hurt people; misled people; (at times, even killed people). And in such instances, they were willing to do such things out of a raw profit motive. Think Volkswagen, for the latest example.

Let’s borrow a little religious terminology. In the Christian arena, there are two kinds of wrong, against-the-will-of-God acts. One is called a sin; the other is called a transgression.

A sin is a wrong act, but not necessarily done on purpose; i.e., with intent to do wrong. Sin is “missing the mark,” not living up to what you aim to be. Oh, it is still wrong. But it was a weakness, a slip, not an intentional “I set out to do something wrong on purpose” act.

A transgression is different from a sin.  A transgression is an intentionally wrong act. Think about it this way: “what I am about to do is wrong. I know it is wrong, I am going to do it anyway.” Intent is at the heart of “transgression.”

Now, it is possible to move from sin into transgression. You do something wrong accidentally; you discover that you have done this wrong thing. And then, you continue to do it because it would cost too much to fix it. That is now a sin moving into a transgression.

Here’s an example: let’s give the benefit of the doubt, and assume that in the early days, tobacco and cigarette companies did not know that their product was harmful, even deadly. Their product was deadly, but they did not know it was. That falls into the category of “sin.”

But, there is no doubt that they discovered it was in fact harmful, even deadly. And yet, years after that discovery, they kept it hidden, they misrepresented (what a nice word for “lie”), and they covered up what they knew and when they knew it. Now they crossed into transgression – intentional wrongdoing for the sake of profit.

Now, here’s the problem. It is easy to look back and say, “that company, even that entire industry, was so motivated by profit that they were willing to hide, cover-up, misrepresent, in order to protect their profit.” But, when a company is currently guilty of such “transgression” we are, for some reason, more reluctant to use strong language to condemn its actions.

Such company acts are wrong, unethical, immoral.  Such lack of ethics are acts that we should all call out, and never tolerate. Not at all.

Sin we can understand. Transgressions are a different matter altogether — too irresponsible, too harmful, and too wrong to tolerate.

Those are some of my thoughts…


(Note to Greek scholars and Bible experts — yes, I am aware that at times, the Greek words are used in different ways.  But the overall distinction that I point out seems to capture the spirit, the meaning behind the different words…).


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