Friday, 9 July 2010

Ethics and Morality

So … I found myself sitting in a traffic jam the other day and thinking about the difference between morality and ethics (I tend to incline to things like this but it’s not really dangerous and certainly not catching!). It’s a subject I’ve discussed in on-line discussion groups a couple of times in the past few of years, although I admit to being somewhat bemused by it at the beginning. Back in the Dark Ages (as my children might comment) 30 years ago, when I was studying philosophy, this never struck me as a subject which demanded much discussion. Ethics was basically just another word for moral philosophy. The difference between morality and ethics, in so far as it existed, was simply that ethics was more practical – applied morality, if you will. And, as I have never been particularly enamoured of the idea of purely theoretical morality (morality always having to do with humans and their practical positions, decisions and actions), a deeper discussion about this subject has always seemed to me to be rather superfluous.

But that was then and this is now and the world has moved on. In the years that have passed, many areas in the world seem to have realised that the complexity of the issues they have to deal with leads to situations where values come into conflict, where hard decisions present no easy options. And so, a new profession has come into being – that of the ethicist. In the medical area they have become a fixture, obviously, in a branch where life and death decisions must be taken daily, where many individual rights seem to be in conflict and where, nonetheless, some action has to be taken, usually quickly. But also in the area of business, where large corporations and their managers make decisions with wide-reaching consequences, ethicists are being increasingly employed.

It would be nice to think that all this has to do with an increasing consciousness of the importance of morality in life generally. Unfortunately, this is not true. The reasons are less high-minded and more complex. Much of it has to do with the ideology which has dominated the globe since the collapse of the Soviet system of so-called Marxist communism twenty or so years ago; free-market capitalism. This system likes to claim that it is based on competition and the general realisation was growing that such a system can only work well if there are agreed rules which all can follow. Now a basic rule-book is already in place in most societies in the form of civil and criminal laws, but this area is basically under the sovereign control of states and market capitalist theorists are generally not enamoured of extending state control into every conceivable area and level of business practice. So, instead, there has been a growth in generally agreed regulations (with overall state control only in areas where it has seemed unavoidable), although states have been involved in areas regarding the transnational agreements necessary to facilitate the spread of globalisation, e.g. dismantling of tariffs and subsidies.

In many ways, an even more pervasive development has been the spread of quality control and management, perceived as it is as a competitive advantage. A central part of this development has been the formal definition of goals and aims of enterprises and businesses. Such definitions have major PR and marketing advantages so they have to sound good. The primary goals of any enterprise working under competitive market capitalism – to make as much profit as possible, obtain an ever bigger market share and, as a result, beat your competitors – don’t look good in a company brochure or on their web site. So instead, you’ll see phrases like,

As a business that invests in more than 80 countries worldwide, BP has an impact on many local communities and economies.

We strive to make that impact a positive one by running our operations responsibly and by investing in the community in ways that benefit both local populations and BP.

The key test for any community investment is that it should create a meaningful and sustainable impact – one that is relevant to local needs, aligned with BP’s business and undertaken in partnership with local organisations…”

( I’ve taken this from the BP web-site because of topical relevance, but you’ll read much the same on the site of almost every large corporation).

Now much of this can be (rightly) taken to be just blah-blah, empty corporation-speak, but the logic of the quality management systems (QM) which have been installed mean that at least some lip-service has to be paid to the noble sentiments expressed by the companies involved. And this entails that conflicts may arise between such generally expressed goals and normal daily dirty practice. In a carefully managed way, such conflicts can be resolved with a blaze of positive publicity by those new paragons of corporate responsibility – the ethicists.

The financial services area has developed this to an art-form. Doesn’t this sound wonderful?

Our clients' interests always come first.

Our experience shows that if we serve our clients well, our own success will follow.

Our assets are our people, capital and reputation.

If any of these is ever diminished, the last is the most difficult to restore. We are dedicated to complying fully with the letter and spirit of the laws, rules and ethical principles that govern us. Our continued success depends upon unswerving adherence to this standard.

Our goal is to provide superior returns to our shareholders.

Profitability is critical to achieving superior returns, building our capital, and attracting and keeping our best people. Significant employee stock ownership aligns the interests of our employees and our shareholders.


This is from Goldman Sachs’ website. A little reading between the lines gives an alternative wording; “Those who come to us with their capital do so because they want the biggest possible return on their investment. We’ll do this for them by putting the brightest people possible to work on this without breaking the rules.” This seems innocuous, until we look at where it led to in the recent financial crisis. Many financial services companies have justified their risky, irresponsible practices with the ethical imperative to earn as much as possible for their investors and shareholders. “Our clients’ interests always come first,” and for a firm like Goldman Sachs their clients’ interests can be very simply defined in one word; profit. “Profitability is critical to achieving superior returns, building our capital [etc.]…”

This is ethics at its best … and morality at its worst. In the end, someone working for a financial services company can’t take the consequences of his/her investment decisions which may involve putting people out of work, supporting inhuman working conditions and starvation wages, ignoring environmental side-effects into account, if such issues result in reducing profits. He/she must ignore the long-terms effects of investments because the market doesn’t take long-term profitability into account; you have to invest in what is the best prospect today and if the prospects for returns on a particular investment decline tomorrow, then you take your capital (and the profit gained by it) out of that particular area and put it into tomorrow’s best prospect. To act any differently would be to break your first principle, to serve your clients’ interest; to protect and grow his/her capital. Unethical conduct, in other words.

In such circumstances, deeper questions of morality fall by the wayside. But morality has become a difficult issue, for many reasons. Many of the old consensuses have broken down, thankfully in many cases. Overarching ideologies such as taking up the white man’s burden to spread the advantages of superior western civilization throughout the whole world are no longer accepted. Religions and churches have become discredited. Frequently they have only themselves to blame, with the gap between preaching and practice making them seem completely hypocritical and with their strong tendency to limit morality (one of the most noble human inventions) to sexual behaviour, at least in the public perception.

But there may be an even deeper problem. Our modern societies are based on ideas which have their origins in the Enlightenment, ideas like tolerance, freedom of speech, opinion and religion, pluralism. But these very ideas would seem to imply that many areas of morality, about which there is frequently no general consensus, should be consigned to the private arena. Even more importantly, particularly given the history of human societies since the English Glorious Revolution of the late 17th Century and the American and French Revolutions nearly a hundred years later, religions of various stripe have laid claim to particular authority in the area of morality and the separation of church and state is one of the core Enlightenment values. Religion should be seen as a matter of private freedom and (in many cases, protesting, screaming and kicking all the way) the religions have been driven from their former positions of determining everything in society into the private area, taking morality with them in the process.

As someone who firmly believes in these Enlightenment values, I think this is a pity and I would dispute the rights claimed by religions to have a special authority with respect to morality. I would argue that it is perfectly legitimate for a secular society to define large areas of morality for itself and to continually develop this morality within the basic categories which it claims for itself; dialogue, consensus, tolerance and mutual respect. This is a morality which is not static and changeless, but dynamic and evolving for the evolving open society from which it comes and in which it is practiced.

For our contemporary societies this morality, and the ethical codes for application which we would derive from it, would base itself on values such as tolerance, respect, freedom, solidarity and, perhaps most importantly, responsibility; responsibility for each other, for the planet on which we live, for the future we want for our children and grandchildren. Given facts such as globalisation, the myriad ways in which we have all become interdependent on each other and the stress that a population of almost seven billion (and still increasing) places on our material, social, political and energy networks and environment, it is, I believe, vital that we rediscover our need for plausible, practical public morality, based on more than a rudimentary respect for life and a highly developed sense of the sanctity of property. If we don’t, I see us running a high risk of making our planet into a very sorry place for most people to live in the next hundred years.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Francis - this is Neil. Great to read you as ever mate. I'm churning out about 3,500 words a day on the novel (not my epic - a cop pot-boiler for some cash). You've probably seen some of the junk at my blog. Mostly I've just been trying to write some loose ideas of the kind you write much better.
    I've been struck for many years that the sense many people make just doesn't transfer into social doing, including work focused on the difficulties. Habermas is largely right, but doesn't help a lot. Our system is rotten at core and capitalism seems to be returning to nasty mode. God-awful bureaucrats are everywhere, as though Kafka is writing the script.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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