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Home > Business Ethics Viewpoints > The Morals of Money—How to Build a Sustainable Economy and Financial Sector

Business Ethics Viewpoints

The Morals of Money—How to Build a Sustainable Economy and Financial Sector

by Roger Steare

Introduction

Roger Steare is a corporate philosopher and visiting professor of organizational ethics at Cass Business School, City University, London. Roger studied philosophy at Royal Holloway College, London University, where he was tutored by Lord Conrad Russell, son of philosopher Bertrand Russell. He worked for Midland Bank (now HSBC) in the City between 1979 and 1981, and then had stints as a social worker and executive coach before becoming chief executive of the City recruiters Jonathan Wren, a subsidiary of Adecco, the world’s largest recruitment firm, in 1994. He left to found Roger Steare Consulting in 1998, and has specialized in ethics since 2002. His ethicability® framework has been used or endorsed by organizations including HSBC, Tomorrow’s Company, and the Institute of Business Ethics. He is the co-founder of the Soul Gym at Worth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in West Sussex, a director of the Centre for Applied and Professional Ethics, and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts. Roger is interested in astronomy and lives in Sevenoaks, Kent.

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Economic Growth and Sustainability

The credit crisis of 2007–2008 and the subsequent economic recession were the direct consequence of serious ethical failures. Banks lent money that they didn’t have to borrowers who wanted goods and services they couldn’t afford or didn’t actually need. Human greed and fear were the fundamental drivers of the crisis. Unfortunately, however, the crisis is certain to be repeated, unless or until human beings learn to exercise greater restraint, courage, humanity, and judgment.

The ethical failures that lay behind the crisis go to the heart of modern economic theory. If we want economic growth, we must also accept economic decline. We inhabit a closed planetary ecosystem with finite resources. While solar radiation, wind energy, and gravity offer virtually unlimited energy resources, fossil fuels, fresh water, fertile soil, a benign climate, and biodiversity are either limited or fragile.

In 1950, there were two billion human beings on the planet. In 2008, the world’s human population had risen to nearly seven billion, and the United Nations estimates it will have risen to nine billion by 2050. Many more people want better material lifestyles.

But if we accept that our planet has a limited and fragile ecosystem, how can it support this constant and infinite economic growth? I know it is not a particularly popular view, but perhaps the philosophy of perpetual economic growth has more in common with the cancer cell—a terminal disease—than it does with sustainable organisms. Only a minority of economists, such as Herman Daly, Juan Martinez-Alier, and Robert Constanza, acknowledge that the economics of infinite growth is essentially suicidal. Amongst politicians, only the Green movement accepts the alternative that Daly describes as “steady state” economics.

Current accounting standards are another part of the problem. These are only capable of accurately describing 20% to 25% of the full economic value of any enterprise. The alternative of “triple bottom lineaccounting standards is beginning to address this issue, but we are still left with a massive void—our failure to measure the value of human relationships, with all stakeholders, that are the core fundamentals of all human activity.

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Restoring Trust

So what does all this mean for financial services firms and for financial services centers? Quite simply, it depends on whether or not these arguments are persuasive or not. But, given that “trust” is the greatest asset a financial services firm or center can possess, I recommend that prudence, restraint, fairness, and other moral values should once again become the foundation stone for those who look after other people’s money.

How is trust restored? Well, firstly it is going to take time. Patience here, as with most things in life, is a virtue. But having worked closely with a number of enlightened financial services firms, professional bodies, and regulators since 2003, I would like to share with you this is not just wishful thinking, but the evidence of my experiences and insights. I have worked with over 6,000 senior executives from over 100 different private, public sector, and not-for-profit organizations. Together, we have explored:

  • why we do right and wrong;

  • what we mean by doing the right thing;

  • how we decide what’s right;

  • how we build a culture of integrity.

 

This journey of exploration offers insights into over 2,500 years of moral philosophy; about 50 years of behavioral and social psychology; some brain physiology; the concept of moral leadership; and last, but not least, a decision-making framework which is road-tested with relevant and realistic business dilemmas.

The experience is both meaningful and memorable for participants because it gives them the opportunity and the permission to think and speak constructively about issues that go to the core of who they are as human beings, and how they behave within their organizations or communities. This often comes as a relief to those who feel that we have created a world today where other people have taken it upon themselves to tell us what’s right, instead of trusting us as moral adults to work it out for ourselves. In the media, these people include politicians, journalists, and commentators. At work, there are regulators, lawyers, compliance officers, HR executives, and, of course, bosses.

I would contend that regulation alone is no substitute for moral character and moral leadership.

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Moral DNA

In 2008, we constructed and published the ethicability® Moral DNA Test to understand how people prefer to make moral decisions. Between July and August 2008 over 20,000 people from 162 countries completed the test, which was supported by Cass Business School, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and The Times in London.

Those who work in financial services scored lower than average, indicating greed, fear, or moral immaturity. But the test measures not just our overall ethics score compared with others, it also describes how we make moral choices based on three moral dimensions: Rule compliance, social conscience, and principled conscience.

Rule compliance means obedience and is the first conscience we develop as young children. Don’t think—just do as you’re told—or else. Social conscience means altruism and is based on the idea that doing the right thing is doing what’s best for others. This part of our conscience appears to be almost fully developed by the time we are in our teens. Finally, principled conscience means character or virtue. Doing the right thing is about making decisions based on how we apply principles such as courage, fairness, and honesty to the choices we make. This appears not to develop fully until we are in our late 50s.

When things go wrong, the response of governments and regulators is to treat us like children and try to change behaviors by devising even more rules and regulations. But the test results clearly demonstrated that this only serves to increase the risk of more wrong-doing, as it means people take less personal responsibility for their actions. Instead of bothering with this, they will simply check if it’s okay with compliance or HR.

Then, if things do go wrong, they don’t blame themselves, but blame the system or the market. The response of government and regulators to wrong-doing has been to add ever-increasing volumes of rules and regulations that tell us what’s right and how to behave. We can no longer be trusted to know what is right or, indeed, to do it. We have to be told.

If we do the right thing, we are rewarded. But if we do the wrong thing—and get caught—then we are punished. And, if the transgression is newsworthy enough to get the attention of politicians, we will get even more rules, structures, and processes to tell us what’s right.

It is my experience that in order to do the right thing in any organization, people have to have the following:

  • a clear and moral purpose

  • a clear set of moral values that guide behavior

  • leaders who set a personal example consistent with these values

  • a living community of employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders, and others, in which people will able to resolve together the inevitable challenges and conflicts which are faced in every endeavor

 

They will be guided by the values of the organization, the personal example of their leaders, and a shared approach and framework to ethical decisions. This approach should permeate every human aspect of business from recruitment, through training, appraisals and rewards.

The challenges that we face today in business are not economic, social, or political—they are ethical challenges that demand a more mature response. Moral grown-ups in business don’t need others to tell them what’s right, they ought to be trusted to discuss it and work it out for themselves. A great customer proposition is not delivered in the form of complex rules and procedures; it is delivered by mature adults who really do care about other people and the quality of goods and services they buy.

But the greatest challenge of all will be to confront the brutal truth that our current assumptions about economics are fundamentally flawed. This planet that we all share is a closed ecosystem with finite resources. Yet the other assumptions we make are that human beings have unlimited wants; that growth is good; that we can all strive for what we want rather than what we need.

This economic philosophy of growth for its own sake is as bankrupt as the philosophy of the cancer cell. “Homo economicus” is riddled with malignant growths. We need to re-discover the philosophy of “homo sapiens.” We need to find the wisdom to confront this awful truth; and then deploy our intelligence to find a new and sustainable model of moral capitalism, founded on a moral financial sector where trust is the ultimate reserve currency.

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Further reading

Books:

  • Bakan, J. The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Toronto, ON: Penguin Books, 2004.
  • Bellini, J., and K. St Clair. The Bullshit Factor: The Truth about Corporate Disguises, Lies and Denial. London: Artesian Publishing, 2006.
  • Collins, J. Good to Great. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
  • Common, M., and S. Stagl. Ecological Economics: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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