Is there such a thing as bad profit?
Isn’t any profit good? I decided to ask Google “is there such a thing as bad profit” and see what came up. I expected to see articles praising the goodness of all profits but actually I found many blogs, articles and social media posts agreed that, yes, there is such a thing as bad profit. You could summarize the generally held view in this way: bad profit is profit made at some else’s expense.
Really, it shouldn’t surprise us that many people (bloggers anyway!) seem to instinctively know that making money by exploiting others just isn’t right. In Romans, Paul says that,
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)
Paul says that not only do all people know God exists, but they know who He is, His divine nature. Part of God’s divine nature is His goodness and righteousness. Paul goes on to say in Romans 2:14-15,
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
In Paul’s view then, even non-believers know God’s moral law and what is required of them, it’s “written on their hearts” and their conscience also bears witness to their thoughts and actions.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised that non-believers would understand bad profits. But does the Bible have anything specific to say about this or is it only something we instinctively know?
The Bible has a lot to say about money – over 2,300 verses! In the book of Proverbs, Solomon addresses “bad profit”. In fact, his admonition against it is the very first piece of wisdom a father shares with his son, coming right off the bat in chapter 1.
10 My son, if sinful men entice you, do not give in to them.
11 If they say, “Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for innocent blood, let’s ambush some harmless soul;
12 let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
13 we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder;
14 cast lots with us; we will all share the loot”—
15 my son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths;
16 for their feet rush into evil, they are swift to shed blood.
17 How useless to spread a net where every bird can see it!
18 These men lie in wait for their own blood; they ambush only themselves!
19 Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the life of those who get it. (Proverbs 1:10-19)
In this passage, a father warns his son of the dangers of associating with evil, violent men for the purpose of material gain. These men entice the youth with the promise of camaraderie and easy profits by ambushing unsuspecting, innocent people to attack and steal from them. The father says that such a life ultimately leads to ruin and even death. One might picture the wickedness of gang life that entices so many young men.
Verse 19 makes clear that some gain, or profit, is “ill-gotten” with gang robbery as an example. Pursuit of ill-gotten gain ultimately takes the life of the one who pursues it.
Ill-gotten Gain and Investing
It is clear how this relates to organized crime or gang activity. But does this passage relate in any way to investing?
I believe it does. The passage pictures a group out to make an easy profit by ambushing unsuspecting persons. There are some types of company that do essentially the same thing.
The “big tobacco” industry is a classic example. The terrible and devastating health effects of smoking and the strong addictive nature of nicotine are well known. Yet, tobacco companies continue to market their products, especially to youth.
With the increased regulation and awareness of the dangers of smoking in western, developed countries, the big tobacco companies have increasingly sought to grow their market share in developing countries with fewer regulations. The companies invest heavily in online and point-of-sale marketing targeted directly at youth to get them addicted at a young age.
For example, a 2019 study of teenagers in Java, Indonesia found that 80% were exposed to cigarette advertising on YouTube, 58% on other websites, and 57% on social media platforms. Smoking by 10- to 18-year-olds in Indonesia has also increased from 7% (in 2013) to 9% (in 2018).
The big tobacco companies also use their political influence and deep pockets to influence developing country governments against increasing tobacco regulations.
The classic Wall Street view is that tobacco companies are good investments because of the steady profits. But isn’t this a classic example of bad profit?
Afterall, the steady profits come from those who are addicted to nicotine, who may have started smoking at a young age. The possible smoking-related health consequences for these people are dire. If we invest in tobacco companies, aren’t we really saying that we’re ok with making profit at the expense of others, particularly the poor and youth in developing countries? Their addiction is the investor’s gain?
There is a strong biblical case for avoiding investing in companies that make profits at the expense of others, tobacco being a clear example.
Investing for Good Profits
I don’t want to end on a down note, especially because the implication of bad profits is that there must be such a thing as good profits. The opposite of making profit from exploiting people would be making profit by meeting the needs of others.
There are many companies producing goods and services that improve people’s lives and make the world a better place – things like cybersecurity, biotechnology, or clean water technology. Christian investors can feel good about investing in and profiting from these kinds of companies.
What kind of profits are you making from your investments, good or bad? If you’re not sure what you’re profiting from, we offer a complimentary portfolio screening to help you find out.
For over 25 years Beacon Wealth Consultants has helped Christian investors like you to invest in a way that honors their faith. If you’re interested in aligning your investing with your faith, give us a call to learn more about our faith-based investing services!
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