The Return of Ethics: Panglossian Banking?

The financial crisis has led to a lot of talk about the failure of ethics in the banking sector. Greed overtook wisdom, we’re told. No doubt this is the case. Yet whilst bankers are to blame, it’s hopelessly naïve to suppose that a ‘return’ to some golden age of ethical business will solve all our problems.

There is a parallel with the expenses claims of British parliamentarians. Caught with their hands in the till, some cried out that the system was to blame for letting them get away with it. For all the cheek of that response, there is a lesson in it.

Individuals must take responsibility for their sins. But if we’re serious about making sure that these things cannot occur again, it really isn’t enough to call for more ethics in business. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that this is a way to avoid having to enact any real change. As the crisis seems to be settling down, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling has shied away from significant reform of the regulatory system and chose instead to blame bosses for being irresponsible. ‘Don’t worry,’ we seem to be being told, ‘we’ll just ask bankers not to be greedy any more.’ Forgive me, but I had hoped for something more robust.

It must be conceded that in sharp contrast to the plans of the British government, Barack Obama’s planned reforms are substantive and bold. But on a global level, concerns are growing that the opportunity for broader reform that this crisis provides is being missed as optimism returns alongside talk of ‘green shoots of recovery’. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), often described as the central bankers’ central bank, published its annual report on Monday. According to the FT, the BIS:

said it was vital that thought be given to the ongoing structure of the financial system while the patient was still on life support. Efforts so far, it concluded, had been a “messy mixture of urgent treatment designed to stem the decline, combined with an emerging agenda for comprehensive reform to set the foundations for sustainable growth”.

It highlighted two main risks: first, that not enough will be done to ensure a durable recovery from crisis; and second, that the emergency action to stabilise the financial system will undermine efforts to build a safer system.

The G8, too, is jumping on board the ‘return to ethics’ bandwagon. MBA graduates have set up their own code of ethics, taking inspiration from the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath. This is welcome. We do need to create a public environment in which ethics and responsibility are more emphasised (and more respected), but to expect a firm whose raison d’etre is the pursuit of profit to apply the brakes is painfully naïve. Business (and politics) should be conducted on more ethical grounds. This year’s Reith Lectures, given by Michael Sandel, address this point well. But in the meantime (between now and hell freezing over), we need rules that acknowledge people’s tendency to ignore ethics, especially in the heat of the moment. The great theorists of capitalism itself, such as Adam Smith, knew well that the system wasn’t moral. But neither is capitalism immoral – it’s simply amoral. If we want a moral system, we have to bring in the morality ourselves. But to expect bankers to do so on their own is to invite a conflict of interest. We do not expect the players at Wimbledon to make line calls on their own shots and, similarly, we should not expect the financial sector to judge the morality or wisdom of its own practices.

This is an important moment, but it’s not a moment of a new ethical kingdom, or of a new form of capitalism. Instead, we need to return to an older scepticism about the role of private interests in our society and the degree to which the doctrine of self-regulation is a realistic solution.