The fifth factor of the 8-fold path, and the last of the ethical training group, is right livelihood. As formulated, this was meant to apply to the way we support ourselves in the world, the way we make enough money to live and fulfil our obligations. By extension, we can apply these principles to whatever activities we fill our days with.
Right livelihood is concerned with ensuring that one earns one’s living in a righteous way. For a lay disciple the Buddha teaches that wealth should be gained in accordance with certain standards.
(1) One should acquire it only by legal means, not illegally;
(2) one should acquire it peacefully, without coercion or violence;
(3) one should acquire it honestly, not by trickery or deceit; and
(4) one should acquire it in ways which do not entail harm and suffering for others.
The Buddha mentions five specific kinds of livelihood which bring harm to others and are therefore to be avoided: dealing in weapons, in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants (AN 5:177). He further names several dishonest means of gaining wealth which fall under wrong livelihood: practicing deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery, and usury (MN 117). Obviously any occupation that requires violation of right speech and right action is a wrong form of livelihood, but other occupations, such as selling weapons or intoxicants, may not violate those factors and yet be wrong because of their consequences for others.
Bhikkhu Bodhi, from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html#ch4
The example of wrong livelihood that leaps to mind is that of the banks and mortgage companies (mostly but not exclusively in the USA) that pushed irresponsible mortgages and other financial instruments onto naive people, inflating many housing markets way beyond sustainability and ultimately causing (as one factor) the worldwide depression that started in 2008 and hasn’t ended yet. Many people, overtaken by greed, encouraged others to jump, and jumped themselves, into a pool of delusion. Because it was a mass delusion of unlimited growth potential, hardly anyone noticed that it couldn’t end well. There was a sense of excitement, like lemmings heading over an unseen cliff. But make no mistake, as individuals we are responsible for the results of our actions, so we need to resist the herd mentality and use a different measure:
Is what we are doing legal? Is what we’re saying and showing honest? Or is there some deception involved? Are we creating peace or disharmony? Are we generating harm or benefit, for ourselves and others?
The factors of the eight-fold path are:
1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration