Markets and morality
18 January 2012
The “occupy” groups around the world that have replicated the Wall Street prototype are gradually dispersing. There seems to be moderate public sympathy for their message but not for the inconvenience of their occupations. In itself that may be a metaphor for our attitude to ethics. A worthy notion but its persistence can be irritating.
A Pew Research Centre survey shows that only 50% of respondents in the United States now view capitalism in a positive light, reflecting a 2% slide since 2010. Interestingly Kiwiblog yesterday sought to champion capitalism in the face of the bad rap that various distortions, of crony capitalism and the like, have created. But capitalism, which stimulates innovation and creates wealth, must have a tight relationship with ethics. Adam Smith said as much in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that preceded his Wealth of Nations. What seems to be happening in too much of the world is that practitioners of capitalism have thrown ethics out the window; too often the relationship between morals and markets is disintegrating.
A US ethicist Rushworth Kidder prosaically observed that “When those within the system let themselves imagine that markets and morals can operate independently, the raiding parties of greed and avarice swarm…through the system. To keep up, companies shift their focus from ethics to compliance. Ethics continues to recede.”
The contribution last week to the News of the World enquiry of a former editor may typify business attitudes. Kelvin McKenzie’s attitude to integrity was evident in a statement that as editor, he didn’t spend much time on ethics or privacy. His view was that most things should be published “if it sounds right, and it feels right”.
It seems self evident that behaviour that illustrates a slide in ethics will affect public confidence in business, just as unethical behaviour by officials will undermine trust in government. And the media this week have carried numerous reports of such corruption; including US Marines abusing their warrior ethic by urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters, of 13% of British scientists admitting to firsthand knowledge of researchers deliberately falsifying data, of junior academics protecting careers rather than than reporting bogus research.
Integrity is a state of mind; it is not a set of rules.