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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

Table of contents

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.

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 line” accounting 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.

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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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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