The problem of moral leadership


I’ve been meaning to write for weeks on issues of access to the profession that came up at both ALT and SLSA, but that has rather got pushed to one side by some very day to day concerns, but also some larger niggling thoughts, arising out of the the current economic crisis, so I’m going to park access for now and talk about the stuff that is really starting to bother/interest me.

One of the things that unites commentary about both the banking crisis and the recent scandal over MPs expenses is the tendency to see these phenomena as a failure of regulation. In other words the argument, at its simplest, seems to be that neither of these groups of people would have behaved the way they did, if the rules hadn’t permitted it. I think that this is both absolutely spot on, and at the same time utterly banal and wrong! The fact that, at the same time, people outside Parliament have been so enraged by the perceived greed and venality of the expenses systems, and that MPs themselves saw nothing wrong in that same system perfectly illustrates the power of a collective ethos and the capacity for ‘groupthink’ within any social group or institution. In an environment where everbody else is doing the same thing, these issues often simply do not occur like moral choices, or any kind of ‘big decision’ about which one needs to stop and think. If we are honest about it, these are simply high-profile instances of a very common human phenomenon. These are not particularly bad people, or necessarily bad institutions (though some may be). David Luban writes extremely well about the plasticity of conscience and the power of social pressure in the context of the corporate scandals of the early noughties in a collection of essays that are worth re-reading in the present context (see Deborah Rhode (ed) Moral Leadership: The Theory and Practice of Power, Judgment and Policy , Jossey-Bass, 2006). I think this helps us to understand what has been going on, though not in order to condone it. As Luban observes, understanding moral failure does not mean we have to forgive it. I’m not really saying let s/he who has never sought to exploit the rules (whether it be around tax avoidance, benefit claims, business expenses, or any other perks) to their own financial advantage cast the first stone. I am saying that our psychology makes us very, very, good at persuading ourselves that we are not really being bad. In sum, our moral compasses are less than reliable guides, and no system of external regulation is ever going to solve this problem. You can keep playing by the rules, because that may enable you also to keep playing with the rules in an endless game of creative compliance that is geared to minimize our own cognitive dissonance: that is why the playing by the rules defence is so banal and ultimately wrong.

This brings us, I guess, to the crux of the problem. If rules, though useful to a degree, are no adequate substitute for a good moral compass, and moral compasses are also potentially quite unreliable guides, what do we need to do? This is a big question. Certainly we need to revisit the rules, and we need to do so in a way that offers greater transparency into how important social institutions operate – whether they be banks or legislatures or other key social and economic institutions. Where rules are written and enforced behind closed doors, there is surely a greater risk that those rules will lack social legitimacy and adequate connection to standards of common morality. We also need a greater commitment to moral leadership. We need more not less moral accountability, and somehow to re-establish the idea that the buck stops where real, personal, moral responsibility lies. Let’s spell it out: moral responsibility means taking responsibility for one’s failure to see one’s own moral failings; following a set of rules that are of dubious moral legitimacy is no defence, even if that wasn’t obvious at the time.

Of course the other thing that is troubling here is that many of those we are being highly critical of are the products of supposedly ‘good’ schools and our leading universities. What is their role in developing – or failing to develop – this moral capacity for leadership?

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2 responses to “The problem of moral leadership

  1. The most recent issue of Private Eye has a cartoon in which Gordon Brown is returning his broken moral compass to the shop where he bought it…

    While I tend to look at these things from the perspective of professions, your argument could lead to a regression to an earlier mean. The hint is in your last paragraph where you talk of ‘good’ schools and universities and their failings. If we go back to when you and I were students our moral world was more circumscribed in that we faced no regulatory hurdles but a bewildering realm of hidden moral and ethical hurdles which we learned to navigate. And so developed our aptitude with a moral compass…perhaps.

    One could argue that opening up education and the professions to all that want to apply has watered down principles and shared morals. This is a simplistic and I hope erroneous view. But where in our educational process have things gone awry? Is it a question of scale or resources? Did smaller groups in universities and professions behave better than those in megafirms now? Maybe, but we don’t really know.

    One phenomenon that we now live with is the ability to dig out information more thoroughly than in the past. Both legally and technologically.

    Ultimately, we have to face differences in class and culture that we hardly encountered before. The possibilities of difference are much greater and so presumably is the range of of moral behaviour.

    One small start–let’s teach legal ethics properly.

    • It seems to me that most of the people we have been talking about here are, broadly, of our generation, so in that sense the hypothesis, as I’d rather frame it, certainly not a conclusion, is that the traditionally perceived good schools and universities in the 60s and 70s may not have been so great at enabling us to construct and test our moral compasses. Now that doesn’t preclude a regression to earlier mean argument, but it would have to be an earlier mean than you seem to indicate here – a return to “Victorian values” perhaps, and yes I would be reluctant to endorse that use of my argument if it were to imply simply the belief that there is some earlier golden age that was morally superior. The argument that widening participation has diluted the moral gene pool (as it were) of the universities and thence the professions does of course surface from time to time – though more privately than it once did I think, and for good reason, it carries not just that same doubtful romanticism for a golden age when the professions were all “people like us”, but because the underlying assumptions are often unattractively classist, racist and/or sexist. My point was intended primarily as the start of a meditation on whether there has been some element of institutional failure of moral education, and if so, what should we do about it, and, hardest question of all, would it make a difference anyway. Sounds like the call to another post….

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