“Markets Don’t Make Morals” (And Robber Barons Ain’t What They Used To Be)

Ahh, the good old days. The golden era of goodness & truthfulness in business. Back before business turned Evil and Greedy. Back when a man’s word meant something. When business was guided by men who understood what it meant to pay a fair wage. When the wealthy eschewed opulence and instead lived simple, humble lives. Yes, those were the days…

Surely, no one believes that, right? Well, oddly enough, some people think something close to that. Their message is that things are bad, and getting worse. We’ve lost our way. Etc etc. For example….

Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth), writing for The Times: Morals: the one thing markets don’t make

The continuing disclosures about excessive pensions and payoffs, salaries and bonuses for people at the top stir in us feelings for the oldest of human bloodsports: the search for a scapegoat. But they ought to lead us to think more deeply about the values of our culture as a whole.

Often, these past months, I have found myself going back to one of the most painful conversations I have had. It was with one of Britain’s leading industrialists. He had led his company to consistent success for decades. When I met him he had retired and was near the end of his life.

He was not a religious man but he was a deeply moral one. He spoke of the principles that had guided him in business and of the salary he had drawn. It was not negligible, but it was modest. What pained him was that his successor had awarded himself a salary ten times that amount, while systematically destroying the company he had so carefully built.

I recall another conversation with a successful investment banker. He told me that the first thing he had to establish was his character, his reputation for trustworthiness and honesty. Without that, he would have been unable to trade. Nowadays, he said, deals no longer depend on character but on lawyers.

Ah, the power of anecdotes! And what, pray tell, do these anecdotes teach us? This:

Common to these stories is the gradual disappearance of the cluster of principles that went by the name of morality. Whatever its source — religion, conscience, custom or code — it meant that there are certain things you don’t do because they are not done….

Now, admittedly, it’s been a bad year. Things look grim. But the idea that this is part of some decades-long trend, some inexorable march from virtue to villainy, is simply unsupported. Don’t get me wrong: encouraging people to think about the values that often do, and always should, underpin business is a very good thing. But I’m not sure it helps to suggest that the current crisis is the fault of a long-term historical trend, rather than the result of a particular set of circumstances resulting from a combination of bad decisions on Wall Street and weak government oversight.

4 comments so far

  1. Bob Ryan on

    Chris, while I agree that the Rabbi’s comments “do not a historical trend make,” may I suggest that you are missing an opportunity to be proactive in the ethics arena when you suggest the “current crisis is the result of a particular set of circumstances resulting from a combination of bad decisions on Wall Street and weak government oversight.” The circumstances do not create the crisis, but rather precipitate the occasion for crisis. If we, the people, in the evolution of those circumstances were to have spoken up, asked probing moral and practical questions, and held each other accountable for ethical action, I suggest that the crisis would have been averted, or at least diminished in scope. The fact is that each of us must begin to see and own responsibility for the circumstances that affect our lives. I believe THAT is what ethical decision making is all about. And that is the real point of the anecdotes.

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Thanks for your comment.It’s clearly not an either/or. When I say “circumstances” I’m not talking about the weather: I’m talking about circumstances created by people making choices.As for taking responsibility: if the Rabbi’s point is that we’re responsible for everything that happens to us, he’s wrong. And if his point is that we’re responsible for things we have some control over, well, that’s not much of a point.

  3. Anonymous on

    Even in a sea of immorality, there is always a niche market for those who sell their wares honestly and honour their promises. Wise managers and owners out there are looking for the person who is honest with the small things like expense accounts, is polite to those with menial jobs and who follows old-fashioned phone and correspondence etiquette. I know a man whose character and honesty was so great a bigger manufacturer poached him from a smaller one because they knew the banks he dealt with as a CFO all trusted him not to exaggerate or lie. You can’t learn that in four years of undergrad and an MBA. It mostly comes from one’s parents and circumstances. How do you recognize such people? Well the Bible (proverbs?) says you will by his cheeful countenance, his walk and his manner. The light in his eye. Studious and discerning but not curious. (studiositas vs. mere curiousitas)(Josef Pieper citing Aquinas or the Platonists I think). Kevin McDonald

  4. Dan on

    Once I asked a friend of mine, who researches religion in America, if there was ever a time when people DIDN’T say morals were in decline. His response was that during the Great Awakening people did feel like morals were in ascendancy.Objective vs subjective morality could vary a lot.


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