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?