Can Philosophy Stop Bankers From Stealing?

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Yves here. I hate to be more strict that usual, but I ask that you read the entire post before commenting, since I know some of you will be inclined to react to the headline (which came from the Institute for New Economic Thinking and I didn’t have any bright ideas as to how to tweak it).

The problem is that the proper headline of this piece would be “Can Morality Stop Bankers From Stealing?” And these days, that sounds like the answer Maine natives allegedly give when asked for directions: “You can’t get there from here.” It seems impossible to go from the openly corrupt world in which we live now to one that values reputation, probity, and fair dealing.

Yet dramatic swings in values can happen in a generation, or even less. The conservative 1950s in the US were followed by the 1960s. The libertinism of France on the eve of the revolution led, after the upheavals of the revolution proper, to an era of circumspection under Napoleon and the Restoration (this may also have had to do with the rise of the bourgeoisie, since the casual sex of the Parisian aristocracy was in no small measure due to the fact that most marriages were arranged. The implicit deal seemed to be as long as you procreated and didn’t embarrass your spouse, it was routine for both men and women to have many lovers). And as I often joke, when I was on Wall Street (the early 1980s), it was criminal only at the margins.

The Sanders campaign has already had an impact, in that it has made socialism, or at least social democracy, popular among the young. It’s apparently cool for kids in high school to call themselves socialists, and I know parents roughly my age who are haute technocrats who lament that their college age kids are pinkos. Long-standing high unemployment levels among the young will do that sort of thing.

It is also important to recall that the shift in social norms to our current weird idea that markets are more important than communities or social relationships did not just happen. As I recounted in ECONNED, extreme conservatives started working in the 1960s to roll back the New Deal. Their ideas were codified in the Powell Memorandum in 1971, which envisaged an open-ended, long-term campaign, backed by ample corporate funding, to make society at large more business-friendly and cut social programs. One of its core elements was the funding of think tanks to give right-wing programs a veneer of intellectual legitimacy. Another initiative that came out of this campaign was the law and economics movement, which has succeeded in undermining the fundamental idea of jurisprudence of equity and has indoctrinated lawyers and jurists to regard economic efficiency, aka expediency, as paramount.

Although I cannot prove it, I suspect the demonization of the “impractical” liberal arts education comes out of this movement. Liberal arts, contrary to the attacks often made of them, are analytical, but the analysis is qualitative, not quantitative. And the idea that economics is somehow by contrast rigorous, as readers know all too well, is spurious. As Deidre McCloskey and other economists have pointed out, mathed-up economic arguments, which are viewed as more sound than verbal presentations, in fact routinely put the key parts of the argument in a narrative, and use formulas only for fairly trivial parts of the exposition. And that’s before you get to the fact that taking economics leads students to become less altruistic (being trained to see people as atomized actors might have something to do with that result).

But the first step, as this article indicates, is to start calling things by their proper names. And there is now much less inhibition about calling out predatory conduct and using words like “fraud”, “stealing,” and “corruption”. And yes, it’s hard to talk about getting bankers to behave in a more upstanding manner when we have Presidential contenders that are sorely wanting in that category.

By Lynn Parramore, a senior research analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

Does the question of morality have a place in the realm of banking and regulation? That it feels awkward to even raise the issue is convenient for bankers who engage in reckless and harmful activities every day without fear of punishment.

Ed Kane, Professor of Finance at Boston College, believes it’s vital to discuss moral questions, in plain English, without abstractions. Following his own advice, he is blunt in characterizing some of the behavior in the banking industry in recent years: “Theft is a forced taking of other people’s resources,” he says. ‘That’s what’s going on here.” Kane urges a deep inquiry into our culture to understand why bankers so commonly get away with crimes in the United States.

In 2007, just before the housing bubble burst, Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein wrote to a colleague to discuss how the bank could deal with toxic mortgages — ”
cats and dogs” as he called them — on the books. Blankfein’s bank went on to sell the toxic junk to unwitting investors who were told they were sound, while taking short positions on the very same securities. As the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report noted, one structured finance expert compared Goldman’s practices to “buying fire insurance on someone’s house and then committing arson.”

Still, Blankfein and his fellow bankers later pocketed billions of dollars from the American people in the form of a bailout. They profited at the expense of their clients and society. Nobody went to jail.

In Kane’s view, the word “should” — used in the moral sense — needs to be reinserted into the vocabulary of bankers. Today’s executives may spend a lot of time considering the question, “Could we get away with it?” but there is little focus on the question, “Is it right to do it?”

In a new paper for the Institute for New Economic Thinking, ”
Ethics vs. Ethos in US and UK Megabanking” Kane argues that when bankers make reckless and harmful choices while counting on unlimited taxpayer support to bail them out, they are plainly stealing. He calls it “theft by safety net.” Through the safety net, Kane explains, big banks demand that the public provide protection and relief from distress. They put great pressure on the government, which acts as a middleman in the robbery, just as in a “protection racket.” As Kane puts it, “the government then, by dint of its authority, takes the money from hapless taxpayers.”

Why is this not considered a crime? Because, says Kane, politicians nearly everywhere are bought off by bankers. Plain and simple. The regulators who might intervene are more worried about their careers and hopping through the revolving door between government and the industry.

In Kane’s view, pernicious cultural norms within banks and regulatory agencies have crowded out fundamental moral principles. Regulators in both the U.S. and the U.K. are fully aware that the reckless pursuit of profits is one of the main reasons for the expanding scale and frequency of financial crises over the last 50 years, but they tend to approach the issue differently.

Kane sees things as much worse in the U.S., where, he observes, authorities are stuck on the idea of toughening corporate-level rules: capital and liquidity requirements, corporate fines, periodic stress tests, and so-called living wills. That’s not enough, says Kane. The British have done this, but they have also supplemented corporate restraints and punishments by defining a new crime called “reckless misconduct leading to the insolvency of a bank.”

Besides that, Kane notes, it has been long been illegal in the U.K. for an individual director to allow a corporation to issue new debt if he or she knew or should have known that the firm was insolvent. In the U.S., Dodd-Frank Act allows a limited clawback of stock-based bonuses in the wake of a bank failure, but it does not make individual bankers criminally responsible for actions that they should have known were reckless. Prosecutors typically settle lawsuits and bankers find ways to put taxpayers on the hook.

In the U.S., Kane argues, the Dunning–Kruger effect — a cognitive bias named for two Cornell researchers in which people can’t recognize their own weaknesses — compounds the problem. If you don’t recognize your inability to make sense of things using an ethical code, for example, then how can you overcome the shortcoming? Part of the problem is that ethical codes have to be taught and practiced. “College education in the U.S. has been much more watered down,” observes Kane. “In the U.K., people still have some training in philosophy that helps them to see the ethical implications of their actions.”

Philosophy for financiers? Yes, says Kane. “When I present these ideas in Europe, I get much more enthusiastic reception than in the U.S., where people have this relativistic view of ethics.” He argues that in America, there is a common perception that whatever feels good at the moment must be okay and that this kind of thinking justifies nearly any behavior. “Kant is still a force in modern philosophy,” says Kane, “and he tries to develop an objective, non-theological reason for not hurting other people.” Hurting others to please yourself, says Kane, is the essence of theft. It’s a problem caused in part by ethical blindness.

“The regulators in the U.S. just don’t see things ethically,” notes Kane. “They see that they have tools, and they can do things with them to help them weather a crisis. They use the tools to put taxpayers in the hole. Even worse, this behavior worsens booms and busts and misallocations of resources that leave a lot of people unemployed when the bubble breaks. I’ve looked regulators in the eye and they tell me they just don’t get it — they don’t see the transfer of value to fat cats that bailouts entail through an ethical lens. They view it through the norms of their employer.”

A code of ethics, says Kane, is what connects us. Acting in one’s self interest may be the mantra of capitalism. But the self is not an autonomous unit; it is connected to other selves, as Kant emphasized: “Kant says that you can’t escape that connection,” says Kane. “Think of a couple in love. The other person’s happiness is part of their own.” On the other hand, “narcissistic individuals don’t see themselves as connected. They do whatever makes them feel good in the moment and are unconcerned about the fallout.” That, says Kane, is a dangerous way of thinking and at odds with thousands of years of thinking about how to approach morality. “All religions deal with that in not terribly different ways. It can’t be right to make yourself happy by hurting someone else.”

As Kane sees it, holding accountable the individual, rather than the corporation, is hugely important to dealing with crimes in the banking industry. “Individuals are the ones who act recklessly,” he points out. “Banks don’t act recklessly.” The punishment of the individual is not a matter or revenge of retribution, it is about deterrence.

Kane believes changes are needed in the culture of banks and regulatory agencies, but of course by the time people enter jobs in those institutions, they are already well into adulthood and their ethical frameworks have already taken shape. Is it too late?

“It really gets down to our family structure,” says Kane. “Many children are not being disciplined. They’re not learning about their obligations to other people. They’re learning only about the obligations of other people to them. When they sense that their parents are lying and cheating, well, it’s seen simply as a betrayal.”

The educational system in the U.S. doesn’t help. “The thing that our schools teach better than anything else is how to copy. Who to copy from. How to get away with it,” says Kane. Getting stu
dents to think about ethics is about more than simply adding an ethics course to the curriculum. It’s about changing the incentives: “What people teach in ethics is the history of ethical theory. They don’t teach operative ethics.”

Kane believes that students need to be taken through numerous real life scenarios in which they can apply ethical principles. In business schools, students get bombarded with case studies in which they look at a company, identify a problem such as poor sales, and try to figure out how to solve it. But, he argues, they need to go through well-designed ethical case studies. When your bank holds toxic mortgages, what should you do? What would Kant’s model suggest that you do? What does the Golden Rule indicate as a course of action?

According to Kane, no amount of policy tweaks or added regulatory staff can solve this basic problem of ethics and cultural norms. There is no way around the necessity of inculcating an ethical perspective on the choices we make.

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  1. charles 2

    Partnerships with unlimited liability for investment banking,
    Prohibition of funding long term assets with short term liabilities for commercial banking,
    MMT and monopoly of currency creation for the Treasury,
    Dustbin of history for Central Banking.

    You can add philosophy if you want, but I really don’t see the necessity

    1. Si

      Couldn’t agree more! Unlimited personal liability for actions is what focuses minds. Moral codes have to be rooted in consequences.
      No consequences no ‘ethical’ behaviour.

  2. hreik

    Philosophy was my college major b/f I entered Med School. It’s not too late to try to educate students of any age, but it has to start at home. It must. That’s where you get your moral compass. It has to be felt, in the gut. School can help. Home is better. That’s where you learn to see with your “Neshama” (Hebrew for pure soul).

    Wisdom of the Fathers:

    If you see with your Neshama and not your eyes, you never make a mistate

    Antoine de Saint-exupéry:

    It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye”</blockquote

    1. Katharine

      Nice quotations! You’re right, of course, that it needs to start at home, but surely part of the problem is that a lot of people come from terrible homes, well-off but conscienceless. Schools need to play a role too, not only repeating but modeling the golden rule, providing access to stories of people behaving with mutual consideration, or having the courage to act honorably, and including creative writing and class discussion exercises of the what-would-you-do-if or how-would-you-feel-if variety. Even children too young to think ethically have a strong sense of fairness and appreciation of kindness, and a strong capacity for identifying with characters in stories. These can and should be cultivated.

    2. Katharine

      Nice quotations! You’re right, of course, that it should start at home, but the problem seems to be that too many people come from terrible homes, well-off but conscienceless. Schools need to be involved early. Most young children have a strong sense of fairness and appreciation of kindness, as well as capacity for identifying with characters in stories. These should be cultivated, not squelched.

    3. Jeff

      But before Antoine came Joseph Conrad, and his Heart of Darkness asked what moral compass is left when there is no moral North to guide us by? And his Kurtz also gave the answer: “the horror, the horror…”
      That’s what we asked for, that’s what we’ve got (for some definition of “we”, before Lambert corrects me).

      1. Enquiring Mind

        Leviathan awaits, although modern education at school, on the street, at home, on a little screen or wherever doesn’t much cotton to awareness of such concepts. The atomization of ideas and ideals of neo-liberalism has a side-effect of reinforcing relativism to the detriment of human values developed over centuries, leading to an entropic mess.

  3. inode_buddha

    Interesting article, thank you for this! I plan to save a copy…. Had a conversation with my Dad about this sort of thing back during the crisis. We concluded that it (the economic crisis) was ultimately due to insufficient upbringing. There are always those who view the rules as a personal challenge and game the system, thereby wrecking the game for everyone else. IMHO the way to fix this is to remove limited liability for corporate officers, and as Yves points out, to start changing the language we use.

    1. perpetualWAR

      Relating to “changing the language we use,” I nearly keeled over when the Washington Attorney General Ferguson’s office issued a press release regarding a settlement due to “surrogate signing”!!! I called up his office and said give me the LEGAL term defining “surrogate signing.” When the fumbling attorney on the other end of the phone failed to define this bank term of propaganda, I said, “Surrogate signing is a bank propaganda term for FORGERY! And how shameful for your office to use a term of propaganda rather than a LEGAL term in your press release. You cannot begin fixing the crimes until you label them correctly. Please urge Ferguson to do the right thing and label this crime correctly.”

      Of course, the bank whore Ferguson, did no such thing.

  4. allan

    The title of the post rang a bell. A few years ago, after the financial crisis, I heard a business school dean (now a college president) give a presentation on a related theme: Markets are inherently ethical! A version of this fundamental contribution to human knowledge is available online. You have been warned.

    Markets and Morality

    Responsibility is best fostered by the free and open bazaar of reputation competition.

    Contrary to what we so frequently hear from the media and politicians, free markets are the single most potent force for promoting morality. Why? Commerce civilizes by fostering repeat interaction.

    In today’s era of instant communication, it is much more crucial than before for a business to ethically engage customers, employees, and the public. Repetition creates a future that improves individuals’ present-day behavior. Much as religion relies on the notion of an after-life to encourage temporal virtue, the prospect of reputational damage and lost future business promotes morality.

    Alan Greenspan approves of this message.

    As a bonus, this guy’s B-school gave Jamie Dimon a CEO of the Year award.

    1. perpetualWAR

      Was this Foster School of Business at UW?

      That bank whore school brought Jamie Dimon to Seattle just in time for Occupy to go whole hog on that crook.

  5. Cleisthenes

    Twas always thus:

    “Since the finance aristocracy made the laws, was at the head of the administration of the state, had command of all the organized public authorities, dominated public opinion through the actual state of affairs and through the press, the same prostitution, the same shameless cheating, the same mania to get rich was repeated in every sphere, from the court to the Café Borgne to get rich not by production, but by pocketing the already available wealth of others, Clashing every moment with the bourgeois laws themselves, an unbridled assertion of unhealthy and dissolute appetites manifested itself, particularly at the top of bourgeois society – lusts wherein wealth derived from gambling naturally seeks its satisfaction, where pleasure becomes crapuleux [debauched], where money, filth, and blood commingle. The finance aristocracy, in its mode of acquisition as well as in its pleasures, is nothing but the rebirth of the lumpenproletariat on the heights of bourgeois society.”

    – Karl Marx, The Class Struggles In France.

  6. Tom Gandolfo

    Can Philosophy Stop Bankers From Stealing?

    Yes ! Enforce existing Racketeering Laws and put those guilty in Jail !!

  7. Ulysses

    “Today’s executives may spend a lot of time considering the question, “Could we get away with it?” but there is little focus on the question, “Is it right to do it?””

    Yes. The sad truth is that while most of the humans you meet are decent, ethical people with a functioning moral compass, they are also powerless in this system dominated by sociopaths. Many of them have been conditioned to calmly accept that they cannot do anything to change this. They may be able to have a small positive impact on their immediate surroundings, but the day that the meek shall inherit the earth is a long ways off.

    Waiting for the wealthy and powerful to develop consciences is not an effective response to the crisis of our times. Nor, for that matter, has it ever been an effective strategy to improve the lives of everyday people. The lives of everyday people improve when authoritarian bullies lose power in a radicall transformation into a more cooperative and egalitarian society.

    “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

    — Frederick Douglass

    1. lesliec

      When I taught high school I would often tell my students “just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you should” and when discussing cheating asked them to imagine a world where your doctor cheated to get through medical school, the engineer designing your car/the highway cheated to get through school or to save on costs, mechanics cheating on your repairs, etc. etc. Some students got upset with me for making them scared or for just thinking (this was a private prep school $$$ to attend)

    2. Lexington

      The sad truth is that while most of the humans you meet are decent, ethical people with a functioning moral compass, they are also powerless in this system dominated by sociopaths

      Would that it were so.

      Most human beings only maintain the veneer of respectable petit bourgeois morality because they never face serious temptation to stray too far outside of it. If you want to know what people are really like when you strip away the veneer google “Milgram Experiment”. Or read a history book.

      Of course people contravene ethical principles a thousand times a day and most never give it so much as a second thought. How many iPhone users ever consider that their precious baubles are produced in Chinese sweatshops by workers who are little better than indentured servants? What about the cheap clothing that fills mall fixtures like Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch? Did you know the US has 5% of the world’s population but consumes 25% of it’s oil output? How many Americans lie awake at night thinking of hundreds of millions of people in India and China who will never have the opportunity to attain an even remotely equivalent level of conspicuous consumption because of their unconscionable hoarding of this irreplaceable resource? For that matter the US expends as much power on air conditioning alone as the entire continent of Africa does for all purposes. But really, any day now we’re going to get serious about global warming. Just as long as it isn’t my lifestyle that takes a hit.

      The examples could be multiplied out of time but they all come back to the same basic truth: the real enemy of virtue isn’t a handful of sociopaths at the top of the food chain but the millions of more or less ordinary people below them stewing in the miasma of ethical complacency. The sociopaths are only the highest and most perfect expression of what lies latent in each of us.

      1. jonboinAR

        Yeah! Could someone explain to me again how to open an FT page without subscribing?

        1. Lexington

          Copy and paste the headline in Google to find a non paywalled copy.

          Though you can get access to a fixed number of articles a month with a free subscription.

          1. jonboinAR

            Sorry, I was speaking ironically. Perhaps in your reply to me, so were you. I can’t tell.

      2. James McFadden

        Evolution has also endowed us with altruism, compassion, and other emotions that counter our darker sides. Don’t discount these. Without them, societies would not be possible. Moral training is about staying in contact with our better half and revealing the dissonance between our purported beliefs and our actions. One can be inoculated through training and reflection to resist social conditioning and self delusions that leads to behaviors uncovered by Milgram.

  8. Uahsenaa

    Hogwash. Imbuing capitalism with a paternalistic nobility (be nice to the peasants, stick to your principles) is painting the turd. Why? Because the fundamental problem is not, in fact, a sense of fairness but that some are enfranchised while many are disenfranchised. Perhaps this is my Foucauldian bias, but I am not wont to take any argument concerning ethics seriously that does not begin by addressing questions of power: who has it, how did they get it, and what is their means for exercising it?

    Otherwise what you get is bread and circus: so long as the food and entertainment are abundant and available, you never have to give up your power or acknowledge the basic problem of people’s being alienated from their labor and sovereignty. The few times in human history when capitalism has been responsible it was strongly subject to power that emanated from outside it, to restrain it. When the class who benefit most from a capitalist system are more or less identical to those who have any semblance of power over it, then you get the system we have now.

    I’m not super fond of being the “vulgar Marxist” in this conversation, but it needs to be said. Talking about ethics without addressing who has sovereignty and how power is wielded is ultimately pointless.

    1. diptherio

      True dat!

      On the one hand I agree that fundamental change starts internally, i.e. with a shift in ethics on the personal level. On the other hand, convincing executives and managers to be a little more considerate of others, or the environment, within an overarching context of “look out for number 1,” is just trying to slap a band-aid on the cancer. It’s not just the ethics of the 1% that have gotten horribly out of whack, it’s the ethics (or lack thereof) of society at large. The CEOs are simply the natural end of the “ethics” of the invisible hand and American exceptionalism. This whole country has an ethics problem.

      When CEOs and business ethicists can claim, with no sense of irony, that ethics require business managers to place “shareholder” value above all else, and when 80%+ of the population nods in agreement, it’s not just the bankers who have an ethics problem. Getting bankers to have a sense of morality is not going to fix anything in the absence of a social shift in consciousness towards a state where we require truly ethical actions from the big-wigs and hold them accountable when they fail. The child-like mentality that excuses corporate malfeasance and executive rapaciousness is the bigger ethical issue that needs to be addressed. Making excuses for criminals – or for the politicians and regulators who aid, abet, and justify those crimes – is our major moral failing in this country.

      You want to know who needs a new philosophy, America? Take a look in the mirror.

      1. Uahsenaa

        Precisely, finance itself, as currently structured, meaning not just a service like any other but as the means by which resources are allocated in society, is or has become, if you want to frame it that way, a fundamentally amoral if not immoral enterprise. And we are moving further and further into a world without cash, where you will have no choice but to opt in if you want to engage in any form of commercial transaction beyond barter.

        This is Marx 101, for Pete’s sake: enclosure as the means to prevent people from having the choice to simply opt out. Building a better oligarch does nothing to change that.

    2. tegnost

      “…I am not wont to take any argument concerning ethics seriously that does not begin by addressing questions of power: who has it, how did they get it, and what is their means for exercising it?”
      Yes, in the current situation it’s ok to get to the top through cheating, bullying, unfair assymetries of education, nutrition, sleep, etc…but once you get there you need to develop a sense of responsibility to your lessers. I see this as a zeitgeist piece in the same way I see B.I.G. as a zeitgeist effort….we know we’ve profited at the expense of everyone else, but of course we deserved to profit which is why we profited so we’re infallible of course but look at these people who have the potential to ruin it all by smashing it because it’s so unfair to them because they can’t see, being “low information” how what we’ve done is so wonderful and they’re grumbling which they really have no right to do and it’s uncomfortable to hear from those low infos that we aren’t the great ones we are so what to do with these stupid people who, if they were worthy, would be rich like we are because everything is fine fine fine I saw it on pbs and listen to it all day on npr (which, now that I think about it might be the “church” for these people because it is kinda sermony over there) Look at the “twenty minutes of action” in the rapists dad’s affluenza (the fact that that word is part of the usable vocabulary is incredible) defense, why should he care about the girl, doesn’t everybody do it? If she’s a good person she’ll get over it and if she doesn’t then of course it’s her fault because she didn’t get over it. This is pure panglossian nonsense but that is where, ethically, the powers that be in our country are and they don’t want to hear it from losers. Also those losers have no money to buy our wonderful product, but if they had money who is to say they’d spend on what we want them to spend on? Remember, low info means stupid, so basic income, but we’ll divide it up amongst ourselves because we can’t trust them to spend the way we want, 3000 to be paid for healthcare, a portion of food stamps, a portion of rent, a portion of transportation because no problem imposing a moral structure on the lessers, they need it, if they didn’t they’d be rich like us, since they’re not they make bad choices so we who are better have to make their choices for them and so you can see it’s taxing so we of course should be paid for it, so we have to force them to buy our stuff because free market capitalism is the best. Lastly I’m astonished that my tech friends think these robots will create a new utopia, really aren’t robots something that never needs to be treated ethically? just machines, just another way to erase the responsibility of those in castles in the sky. Gods among humanity, rulers of the robots. All Hail Lord Blankfein and his Rapacious horde! Rally to the flag of the Great King Bezos who layed waste to the tax base and summarily Crushed the Evil Bookstore with His Mighty Steamroller the Interweb (which we of course, you know, made for him) Do as the Hillerites commandeth and bow down before the force of our unremitting fraud and greed, be one of us or suffer the consequences. Ethicism has been replaced by atheism, the religion of self aggrandizement. So yeah, short form, they’ve created a ridiculously unfair situation by cheating, and now they’re trying to think of “messaging” that will keep the guillotines in the museums.

      1. Uahsenaa

        I’m glad you brought up the basic income. I thought of that too when I read this, filed under “bread.”

        Not to mention the funny, if it weren’t so sadly true, irony that Sec. Clinton was nominated the first “whatever” largely by means of massive voter disenfranchisement. Way to go, I guess… I suppose in that system, you have to see your struggles in someone else, because you’ll never be vindicated in your own.

    3. Ulysses

      “Talking about ethics without addressing who has sovereignty and how power is wielded is ultimately pointless.”

      Well said! Unfortunately far too much “ethical thought” merely rationalizes inequities of whatever system is currently in power. This is true for religious-based ethical teachings as well as atheistic doctrines. When the gods are allowed the “freedom” to be arbitrary, capricious and cruel, why not human rulers?

    4. Jim


      Is it possible that cultural disintegration might, in part, be logically prior to the manipulation of consciousness by capitalism?

      Could there be other causes of our cultural disintegration?

      Mbuna below at 11:05 AM. argues the source of morality is culture. I believe he is on the right track.
      What needs to be carefully fleshed out are perspectives on the nature of consciousness, the linkages between the individual brain/mind and our collective consciousness/ how mind might emerge from brain/how do controlling cultural symbols(infused with taboo) and releasing cultural symbols (infused with desire) interact in our particular culture? Which type of symbolic is now in charge in our contemporary culture?

      1. Uahsenaa

        [Puts on academic helmet]

        Is it possible that cultural disintegration might, in part, be logically prior to the manipulation of consciousness by capitalism?

        Possible, sure, anything’s possible in the absolute sense; probable? likely? sliver of a chance?

        Normally I would take the wishy-washy route, but for the sake of argument, I’ll say no. Why? Well, there are two axes of inquiry here: 1) the problem of synergistic relations being described in a priori and a posteriori terms (i.e. cause and effect as temporal relationship), and 2) consciousness having a fixed nature. But I’ll start with 2.

        2. Consciousness is malleable, it has to be otherwise ordinary human development from infancy to death would not be possible. If it’s malleable, then it’s inappropriate to speak of it having a “nature” or “core;” at best, you could say there’s a range. Moreover, it can be molded and distorted by any of a number of things: trauma, behavioral conditioning, gross and minor changes in physiology, ideology, and so forth. Also, these don’t exist in isolation from one another. Trauma can have so-called psychosomatic effects, which themselves can solicit changes in mood. Except, it’s somewhat unreasonable to talk about any one of these as temporally (and thus causally) a priori because they activate and therefore manifest all at once. As Freud put it, the unconscious is without history. The manipulations of ideology (of which our modern form of state sanctioned, somewhat laissez-faire capitalism is one) exist within that matrix of consciousness shaping cause/effects, because it’s actually misleading to think of them as having a clear categorical distinction, so something like ideology can be cause and effect in the same moment. I guess if you wanted to you could possibly identify some kind of Aristotelian primum mobile that sets the whole interconnected apparatus in motion, but I actually consider that to be a distraction from simply observing the inter-relation of these cause/effects in the here and now and where dilatory to human progress disrupt/dismantle/restrain them. Capitalism is an easy target, because its means to immiseration is pretty clear cut.

        1. Which is to say, for me, any asking after a “logical prior” (like priors on a rap sheet) has to be in the context of seeking after these causal/effectual inter-relations and the potential harms they do. Otherwise, you’re just navel-gazing, which, I have to admit, can be its own pleasure.

        PLUS, cultures are not uniform. Right now, I live in a working class neighborhood (a domain of cultural solidarity) with large numbers of African-American and Latino families (a possible domain of cultural conflict given my very much whiteness) in a liberal enclave (Iowa City) in a state with many areas run by downright looney tunes right wingers (I’m looking at you, Steve King), in a part of the country many on either coast regard as either backward or irrelevant. I live in a city, much less a state and nation, that is politically and religiously diverse. Outside of a shared legal framework that, nevertheless, impacts you differently depending on which cultural subsets you hail from, it’s not entirely clear to me from where anything but an entirely fuzzy and largely self-contradictory morality would emerge.

        PLUS PLUS, you need look no further than the contemporary situation of native/first peoples in North America to see just how effectively and efficiently disintegration can be imposed from without.

        1. Jim

          What if the type of homogenization presupposed by industrial mass production and distribution was achieved in the U.S., at least partially, through cultural and political processes associated with the successful Americanization of succeeding generations of immigrants? Or to put it somewhat differently, wasn’t a type of American nationalism also a crucial ingredient (along with capitalism) in the formation of our collective and individual consciousness?

  9. nony mouse

    attributing to individuals and “families” what is mostly a societal, systemic issue is a mistake.

    we have the system we have, which produces the people who try to scramble into place within it. trying to claim that the “sociopaths” are the ones keeping the rest of us from reaching Utopia sounds a really false note in my ear, even if there are sociopaths running the show. i would pose the thought-exercise that if we removed all of the Jaime Dimons in the world, what would then happen? some other, equally grasping climbers would clamber to the top.

    although I do like Yves point about qualitative analysis. but that’s not the paradigm we exist within. those issues have been all termed “relative”, like matters of taste, preference, quality etc. our system is only concerned with certain metrics, and the metrics are not at fault because they were chosen by individuals who happen to have been raised in ethically negligent homes. our system has certain imperatives which favor these people and these kinds of outcomes, but it also favors this kind of behavior in EVERYONE. it is at least 500 years old, if not as old as non-migratory human societies.

    i hate this sorta crap. and i am not against ethics. also, they do teach “ethics as practiced” or what i call “how to get there from here” aka-what one should do. or, at least Portland State’s Aleksandr Jokic does!

    1. nony mouse

      also, though i hate responding to myself, is this not just the same as those kind of aspersions cast towards “the poors” and their “culture of poverty/dependence”? i see the same kind of questions, and the same kinds of results. and i tell you this: if these people were functioning within a system that did not filter for this kind of thing, and in fact motivate or produce it in people, then they would just be singly faulty individuals within a functioning community.

      i will not get into learned behavior, social psychology and all of that because those are not the issues i disagree with. i am not even against the aims of this paper. i am against saying that it is a fault of character that we have a world as screwed up as it is today, when it is the fault of the system and what it is set up to produce. individuals get enough blame as it is. actually, most of the mindset of “the poors” that i have encountered (having grown up there) is one of shame and self-blame.

      1. Jim

        You are indirectly raising an issue which Freud and John Dewey tussled over–the role of culture/ in containing human impulse/instinct.

        Dewey tended to see the conversion of human impulse to culture as a process of integration, or the setting of impulse into a new controlling situation which he called habit.

        For Freud, however, residues of human instinct/impulse persist beneath the surface of socially acceptable behavior. If cultural sublimation fails impulse tends to erupt from character.

        Dewey locates in society the cultural principles that Freud assigns to human nature. Their divergence seems to account for differences in ethical vision.

        For Dewey social organization not instinct is the key limitation on the perfectability of human nature–For Freud the power of instinct/impulse embedded in human nature is the key limitation of the perfectability of human nature

        Dewey is more optimistic than Freud and accused Freud of reducing social results to psychic causes.

  10. Readoutsider

    I’m not sure that training at home is enough to overcome the powerful institutional bias we see now towards profit as the goal, the commons or public interest be damned. IMHO this attitude gained currency with the Reagan presidency. Before that it wasn’t ok to be openly greedy and selfish and think only of yourself. After that you were a sucker if you thought any other way. And it’s just snowballed from there without enough regulation etc to curb the atrocities. I work in finance and institutional groupthink plus siloed thinking warps the ethics of many good people.

  11. larry

    The only criticism I have of this piece is the use of the term, taxpayer, by Kane and the possible meaning Parramore might attach to her use of the term, the people, when referring to government money. And in the context and the intro by Yves, this is an important distinction. First, there is no such thing as the government using taxpayers’ money to pay for anything. That isn’t what taxes are for. Taxes are used to control spending, redistribute income (which hardly happens at the moment, but it used to), and to drive the use of the currency. It is not used for revenue. It isn’t needed in the fiat currency we now operate under. Second, government money is public money, that is, it is our money as a collective. In the neoliberal age of excessive individualism, the notion of the collective needs to be reasserted. So, when people say that the government used “our money” to bail out the banks, they are right, except it isn’t our tax money they are using, it is money that they have created “out of thin air” on our behalf. Since they are using “our” money, they have to justify what they do with it, though many of them don’t seem to believe what they do is any of our business.

    Bailing out the banks as a set of institutions may have been necessary to prevent the colossal failure of the entire banking system, but to not have a single top banker be prosecuted is obviously a failure of the justice system. There are a lot of failures here. One central one is to fail to place conditions on the bailout. They were just given the money, even though some of them delusionally thought that they didn’t need it. This is a failure of regulation and government oversight.

    A study that might put bones on Yves’ intuition that neoliberal philosophy is behind the sense of uselessness of the so-called liberal arts is Paul Verhaege’s What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society. I wholeheartedly recommend it. It is completely non-technical and a delight to read. The author is a psychologist at a university in Belgium.

  12. NotTimothyGeithner

    “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

    The famed “Lord’s Prayer” ends on a line where God is implored to lead us not into temptation. Not that I go for religion of any kind, but the fundamental problem is the temptation to steal. Besides if they managed to get to business school without any kind of ethical outlook, they are simply failed people.

    Even for many of the bankers, they are accountable to the shareholders. Screwing customers and communities is their job as the shareholder system and gross wealth inequality demand. When your livelihood depends on believing X, well…

    I could care less about the heart of a banker as long as he is more afraid of going to prison than missing out on a chance to screw the little people.

    1. diptherio

      “Besides if they managed to get to business school without any kind of ethical outlook, they are simply failed people.”

      No, they are simply Americans. And they do have an ethical outlook (everyone does), theirs just states “do whatever you can get away with to increase your wealth and social ranking,” and that is the ethic that most of the country assents to, unfortunately (nobody will admit that, of course, but watch their actions to find out what people really believe).

      1. NeqNeq

        Every bit of empirical data we have about ethical beliefs and behavior seems to be out of step with your “do whatever you can get away with to increase your wealth and social ranking” statement.

        Unless you mean social ranking and wealth in such an abstract way that it becomes an untestable hypothesis… Like those who claim that behind every observable instance of altruistic behavior lies the mere impulse for personal gain from “esteem” or “good feelings”.

  13. larry

    I should add that Parramore also later on in her thoughtful piece used the term, taxpayers’ money. This is a serious mistake, as it is one of the foundation stones of the neoclassical economic paradigm, which is cousin to the more general neoliberal political paradigm. Misconceptions like this one is one, though only one, of the things that is wrong with the way in which modern society is organized. Not being straight on this prevents one seeing how the government and our economy could be better employed for the benefit of all, not just the rich. Beardsly Ruml, in 1946, in his “Taxes for Revenue are Obsolete” saw this clearly. It fundamentally means that the government can not go broke or run out of money, which neoclassical economists and their lackeys say can happen. It can’t.

    Lots of undesirable effects flow from neoliberalism, one of them being neoclassical economics. Check Verhaege for a discussion of many of them. I probably don’t need to add for this group that neoclassical (macro)economic theory has no relationship whatsoever to the reality in which we live. Not a single proposition in it is true.

  14. Patricia Marino

    As a moral philosopher with an interest in economics I would say 1) the general idea is spot-on but 2) relying on the inner moral compass of individuals is too limited. The general idea is spot-on because banking, like everything, is already based on implicit values and ethical guidelines — the problem isn’t self-interest vs. ethics, it’s a bad ethics vs. better ethics. Just as an example, policies governing market behavior are often justified by appeal to cost-benefit style utilitarian reasoning, but utilitarianism is far from neutral and is a controversial moral theory (ignoring, as it does, justice and fundamental rights, among other things). With respect to 2), as many commentators have already pointed out, relying on individuals to self-police is part of what got us into this mess. I agree a shift in values is necessary, but I think it will have to go further than teaching people business ethics. Thanks for running this interesting piece!

    1. diptherio

      “As a moral philosopher with an interest in economics…”

      Isn’t that refreshing? Usually, it’s only the immoral philosophers who take an interest in econ! ;-D

      1. Vatch

        Adam Smith wrote his ethical opus The Theory of Moral Sentiments prior to writing his economic work The Wealth of Nations.

        1. Patricia Marino

          Exactly! And you can see in Wealth of Nations implicit appeal to background ideas about decency, human motivation, and what makes a good society. It’s a more nuanced book than it’s often taken to be.

    2. NeqNeq

      If you are a moral philosopher:

      1) you recognize that Kant’s system is also controversial and not neutral (at least on some definition of neutral… the term is ambiguous at best and possibly downright vague). Your colleagues are not all, or even predominantly, Kantians. So controversy wrt to theory is not a negative mark on utilitarianism or consequentialism (which is the more apt category for the justifications you are referring to). Kane’s reliance on a form of Deontological argument (but not Kant as he seems to think) is fine so long as it is understood that it will only appeal to those who share the same intuitions and is not the only system around. However, Kane equivocate s “ethics” with “Kantianism” which is fallacious.

      2) Since you publicly donn the philosopher mantel, i assume the argument is what matters to you and you are not merely signaling your own moral compass/intuition. In the working paper that is linked, Kane utilizes a bastardized version of Kant to make his case. In some places Kane is saying that an action should be blameworthy because of the consequences, as if consequence is of any particular concern for Kant. Additionally, Kane does not mention anything about the debate regarding what is entailed by not treating humans as merely means. The avoidance is strange since Kane rails about loopholes, and “merely a mean” is ambiguous enough to allow for all kinds of behavior which Kane would find objectionable. There are many other points of departure, which should make you question the quality of the argument Kane is trying to make.

      I do not mean any of this as an attack on you. Rather, as philosophers, we have a duty (imo) to advance well reasoned arguments or at least not support poor arguments merely because we agree with the conclusion. Otherwise we engage in mere persuasion and the discipline can be folded into marketing departments.

  15. Vatch

    I think it would be great if business students were required to study a few major ethical works. This would give them some context when they’re in the real world, and must make decisions that have actual consequences. This would prevent some of the bad behavior that we have seen. But it wouldn’t stop all of it. Aristotle emphasized the importance of good habits in his Nicomachean Ethics, so if a person hasn’t been trained properly by his or her parents, that person won’t be reformed by a semester of ethical philosophy.

    In 19th century Britain, the upper classes received a classical education at schools like Eton, followed by universities such as Cambridge and Oxford. They were all exposed to Aristototle, Cicero, and others who had some things to say about ethics. This education didn’t stop them from horribly exploiting the majority of British people in grim Dickensian factories, nor did it prevent them from exporting food from Ireland during the Irish famine. The British upper classes also pillaged India, Africa, and other parts of their empire.

    I think an education in philosophy has great value, but it’s not a panacea. To control the bad behavior of some people, we need to provide a serious threat of prison time.

  16. Mbuna

    The ideas in this piece are, from my perspective, deeply connected to yesterday’s discussion regarding consciousness. The author of this piece as well as those quoted are deeply blinded by their own ignorance as well as centuries of cultural erosion so in effect this blindness is not their fault. First and foremost it must be understood that the source of morality is culture and the source of culture is connection to the Source (yes Consciousness itself!) and that connection is made via religion/spirituality.
    There is a reason why every religion has some kind of moral code yet this connection is now completely
    hidden from western philosophy and education and everyone still thinks the rational mind will solve all the problems. It will never happen without profound self-understanding which is now taboo in western society. Western culture (more accurately described as lack of culture) is completely secular and thus largely obsessed with power. At this time the vast majority of religious institutions are themselves disconnected from the Source- they are corrupt and largely interested in their own survival above all else. So we are in a huge crisis to which there is no immediate answer.

    1. Jim


      I largely agree with you contention that “…the source of morality is culture and the source of culture is connection to the Source (yes, Consciousness itself) and that connection is (largely) made via religion/spirituality itself.”

      Would be interested in your sense of what spiritual discipline consists of?

      My experience (in which I am mostly a failure) is that spiritual exercises may result in an interruption in a seemingly compulsive emotional move through the gradual creation of some type of observer consciousness. Spiritual exercises of various types(different types of routines) help to disable such compulsions. I believe it was Pythagoras who supposedly demanded a five year silence in his pupils at the beginning of their studies.

  17. Some Guy

    A starting point is to question what makes banking from other different businesses (say, running a grocery store chain).

    Obvious differences are the ponzi nature of banking and the dependence of the economy on banks (too big to fail, etc.), but I think something that gets overlooked is that where most businesses thrive on a simple ethics of ‘sell as much as possible within the rules’ – this doesn’t work for banking.

    The problem is the time lag and the positive feedback in (secured) lending – a bank (say WaMu) can go on a spree of irresponsible lending but it looks profitable long enough to pull everyone in until you get a giant mess that unravels badly.

    Banking requires an ethic of restraint due its nature, but this ethic of restraint is in conflict with standard commercial ethics of ‘sell as much as possible’ and it doesn’t survive well in a very competitive environment.

    There are two stable solutions: 1) The old American way, keep the banks small and non-systemic – you don’t fix the boom bust nature of banking, but you isolate the main street economy from it, and market discipline can be applied to weed out the idiots. Or 2) The Canadian way – have a few big banks that dominate the market with an understanding that the government will leave them to their profits as long as they behave themselves and collude as needed to avoid ramping up stupid lending and making a mess.

    The American system broke down entirely with Glass-Steagall repeal and the rise of giant banks who followed the hyper competitive American spirit of business. The Canadian way was breaking down similarly with a corrosion of lending standards but the American system blew up first and helped pull Canada back from the brink (somewhat) for a while.

  18. Horatio Parker

    Christianity shot itself in the foot in its early struggles with Gnosticism; spirituality only being achievable through belief in the miraculous. This approach, besides alienating many a thinking person, has the effect of relegating the self and consequently justice and ethics to a lower tier.

  19. Alex morfesis

    Ithiki is the actual greek word for ethics…ithaki with an I instead of an a…no idea how the I became an e…

    but people do not get an mba(Move the Business to Asia) and run off to wall street because they love humanity, so the notion anyone on wall street or some current position of power is “ethical” is sadly quite amusing…

    Simple…make it illegal for e&o and directors liability insurance to be sold to the top 25000 enterprises globally and like magic, there will be change…

    Otherwise, it is just a tax writeof….

    1. Vatch

      The English language has about twice as many vowel sounds as there are vowels in the Roman alphabet that we use, so transliteration and spelling become problematic. The first letter of the Greek word for “ethics” is an eta, not an iota or an epsilon. I suspect the Roman letter “e” was chosen because that’s what the Italian word “etica” and the Latin word “ethica” start with.

      Disclaimer: I am not fluent in Greek, Latin, or Italian. At best, I’m a novice, and that’s probably an exaggeration, especially for Italian.

    2. makerowner

      The English word ‘ethics’ was borrowed from Ancient Greek, in which the ‘eta’ was pronounced something like the English ‘e’. A later sound change in Greek led to the ‘eta’ being pronounced ‘i’ in Modern Greek, as you pointed out.

  20. JustAnObserver

    There’s only one question, IMV, that needs to be answered.

    A person somehow makes themselves $billion, legitimately or through some kind of theft, screwing the “little people”, dodging taxes, whatever. From a practical point of view they, and several generations of their descendants are, as we would say, “sorted”.

    Why then do they continue the same (or even worse) actions for their next $billion, and the one after that, and … ?

    My view is the same as that of Uahsenaa above, and inherent in the Frederick Douglas quote.

    Its all about *power* and the perception that power is a unbounded linear function of the number of billions.

    Hence the ethical or moral questions have to be about power and the means, legitimate or not, used to acquire it and and the constraints (or internal restraints) on its exercise.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Fish rots from the head. Look at the example our politicians and business leaders are giving to the rest of the populace. Is it any wonder why we’re awash in corruption in this country?

      Sure, teaching ethics and philosophy might be nice but it won’t solve the problem.

      I’ll accept increased ethics as a carrot as long as it comes with the stick of a few decades n the big house if the philosophy doesn’t take.

  21. washunate

    I very much agree a sense of broadly shared morality, of values, of unifying social cohesion, is important. But I think this article is remarkably naive about how that works. One of the great strengths of human evolution is that we have a plethora of non-standard behavior; some small group deviates from the majority on almost every possible dimension of how our brains work. This diversity has worked great for us, generally speaking, driving our exploration and advancement in a host of ways. But it has some specific limitations when we are trying to artificially create social norms and behaviors that are not inherent in the nature of the universe itself, because one of the nonstandard behaviors is psychopathology, the lack of caring for how one’s violation of social norms and behaviors affects others.

    A system has to be designed and maintained with the understanding that a few people will not voluntarily comply, and a few other people will actively subvert the good will of the general population for their own personal ends. A system that doesn’t recognize that basic condition of human nature is not a serious system.

    A code of ethics, says Kane, is what connects us.

    That’s where I fundamentally disagree. Sure, rule of law is what connects most of us. But that’s irrelevant. What connects all of us is a code that is enforced. It’s the enforcement mechanism, not the code itself, that matters.

    The notion that AT&T executives going through well designed case studies would make them refuse to cooperate with illegal government spying, or that Goldman Sachs executives would refuse to participate in the housing bubble, is ludicrous on its face.

    Rather, what you have to do is prosecute people for violating the desired social norms and behaviors. Criminals aren’t walking around free because there is no desire amongst the general citizenry to make arrests. The problem is not a broad lack of ethics or morality or whatever. Rather, criminals are walking around free due to decisions made by a small number of people at the highest levels of public policy.

    This is a problem of power, of collective action, not philosophy.

    1. Jim

      “What connects all of us is a code that is enforced.”

      Two important attempts at this were the Christian church and the Communist Party.

      These two credal organizations seem to have largely failed and we seem left with Weber’s bureaucracy as the surviving authority structure.

      Is it possible to create a new type of credal organization without ending up with self-deification and a continuing fascination with power?

      1. washunate

        Agreed, I think the speed at which we secularized is an underappreciated part of what has been changing in the Reagan-Obama era. The lack of church elders, people who can speak with respected authority in communities, is noticeable if one is looking for it. That’s not to romanticize the past, just to point out the absence of credibility today in many of our institutional structures exists precisely because we eliminated other sources of credibility without replacing them.

        I also think part of what Kane misses is that we do possess a legitimate alternative, foundational creed on this side of the pond, one that our aristocratic friends in London lack to this day. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United Sates are such radical documents that even over two centuries later, they still restrict authoritarian impulses to such an extent that the powers that be must ignore, overturn, and otherwise shove aside their core principles and proclamations.

        That’s not to say they’re perfect; indeed, they embody the notion of the need for continued progress within the texts themselves. But the point is that we violate our sacred texts not due to a lack of shared philosophy. Rather, it’s a testament to a lack of ability to enforce our shared philosophy on the minority who dissent. That’s an entirely separate and unrelated problem that Kane either seems unwilling to address or, perhaps, to which he is being purposefully obtuse. The problem is not individual morality. The problem is the system we collectively inhabit. Systems analysis seems to be something against which the intellectuals of our time instinctually revolt. It must be something wrong with the individual.

        Part of the answer, I think, is that government is too powerful to manage. It’s not so much that we need a new credal organization, I would say, as that we need to streamline what we’ve got, to close the gap between what our system actually does and what the creed we already have lays out. That is a much smoother glide path (IMO of course) than the more tumultuous and discontinuous creation of something wholly new.

  22. NeqNeq

    While I can get behind his two explicit policy/legal prescriptions (imposing criminal sanctions on certain behavior and formalized fiduciary responsibilities which apply only to TBTF entities), I am not particularly convinced by his arguments for them, nor with the idea that ethics courses are effective at driving the behavior he wishes to see.

    First, there is little evidence that suggests ethics courses produces ethical behavior. There is empirical evidence that those with the most ethic training, philosophers, do not deviate substantially from the general population. That isn’t necessarily a problem (outside of mere optics) because knowing what one should do is not sufficient for actually doing it. Ethics, as a system of inquiry re: justification of normative claims, is valuable in helping us determine what is “right” needs to occur but it is naive to think that it will motivate.

    Second, I think Kane misdiagnoses a fundamental problem of our current system. It is not merely base hedonistic impulse or relativism which constructs our moral framework, but rather legalism. By legalism I mean the tendency to equate what is legal with what is moral/ethical. That diagnostic error is important because the bulwarks and remediations that are effective for a relativistic society are different from those in a legalistic society. Ultimately, I think Kane’s prescription will be ineffective, because you cannot compose a law which 1)can’t be gamed and 2) is general enough to encompass all behavior you wish to target but none of the behavior which is borderline acceptable. In principal his recommendations are great, but the devil is always in the details…something nhe is short on.

  23. shinola

    The direct answer to the title of this article is NO! I would add to that:
    What planet are you from if you are proposing this is as a “serious” question?

    I agree with washunate (@1:46) that enforcement is the key.

    I had an Econ. prof. back in the ’70’s who claimed that the USA is actually a plutocratic system. His proposed remedy for corruption in gov’t (which is where the blame finally rests) was 2 pronged:

    -Pay our elected officials & law enforcers handsomely – their pay should be more in line with CEO’s & corp. officers
    -Strict enforcement of bribery & corruption laws with draconian penalties.

    His reasoning on this was that if you pay them well enough they will be harder (more expensive) to bribe.
    If they are caught participating in any sort of bribe taking/influence peddling, there would be little empathy for them since they were already quite well paid.

    This came from a guy who claimed to routinely carry $50 bills in the glove compartments of his Mercedes (plural) to “avoid” speeding tickets.

    I can’t confirm the glovebox money but I do know he drove multiple models of Mercedes.

  24. Adam Eran

    Says Yves: “I suspect the demonization of the “impractical” liberal arts education comes out of this movement.”

    Personally, I’d call this the (Jungian) shadow of the enlightenment. Newton discovers what is approximately physics, and all other disciplines fall all over themselves in trying to emulate science…or more accurately, science-olatry. Sort of an ultimate irony since Newton spent more time writing theology than he ever did with physics.

    There’s even a theology behind “this movement”: God has an invisible hand, doncha know. We’re all religious, some of us don’t know it, though.

    One of the most recent pseudo-sciences to be inflicted on the public is MBA think. If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. As (philosopher, and former management consultant) Matthew Steward writes, the foundations of MBA education are frauds. Frederick Winslow Taylor cooked the books from his “experiements” so the outcomes validated his preconceptions….and inspired by him, rich people founded Wharton School of Business to educate others in this advanced superstition called “scientific managment.”

    Stewart says management is not a science; it’s a liberal art.

    Incidentally, according to Jung Chang’s biography of Mao, he too discouraged liberal arts education, but welcomed all the STEM he could get. It’s apparently easier to boss the STEM herd around.

  25. Jim

    The Donald has recently characterized himself as a fighter and counterpuncher.

    If our culture consists of both releasing symbols (infused with desire and impulse) and controlling symbols (infused with taboo and thou shalt nots) where does Trump culturally fit on this spectrum?

    What does he stand for culturally? What type of Charismatic is he?

    Is he part of our ongoing culture of impulse release or is he a representative of some new/emerging impulse control?

  26. ekstase

    Reading the article and the very interesting comments here, it seems that yes, we should be teaching the difference between right and wrong. The humanities force us to consider this, and as others have suggested, that may be the reason it is being belittled. But I think there are two types of miscreants. One are the go alongs to get along, (IBGYBG). The other are the hard core rats, often formed in childhood by unfortunate circumstances that our society is not yet ready to look at. The latter can not learn this stuff in school or anywhere else. Thus the need for policing. But the former group might gain some much needed courage to do the right thing if they saw it as a value to the rest of society. All of the arts reflect the world; they are like a mirror that we need. Getting rid of them, belittling them, it’s just sad. They are one of the best ways to convey the reality that all human beings are interconnected. The cruel insanity of denying this can apparently even destroy a planet.

  27. makerowner

    My university requires business students to take a “Business Ethics” course taught by the philosophy department, and though I haven’t TA’d for the course myself, several of my friends/colleagues have, and what they’ve told me about it doesn’t bode well for the premise of this article. Best case scenario is the “will this be on the test?” type student who memorizes the definitions and forgets everything the day after the final exam.

    1. Parker Dooley

      Tell them it won’t be on the test … then make it 100% of the final grade. Teaching by example!

  28. dk

    A code of ethics, says Kane, is what connects us. Acting in one’s self interest may be the mantra of capitalism. But the self is not an autonomous unit;

    When we are connected by a codified ethos, we are soon undone. Ethics has value as a method of analysis, less so as a code generator, because the codifications themselves lose relevance over time. Small minds cling to literate interpretations (absent reason); clever ones find loopholes to crawl through (and don’t tell anybody).

    And Kane goes on to describe the underlying principle of mutuality, and existential circumstance whose effective force the narcissist’s denial doesn’t actually change. We can see today that our economic oligarchy of narcissistic elites is busily destroying essential components of the economies that generate their wealth, gradually undermining their own power.

    A recognition of mutual interests has to be coupled with the analytic faculty to recognize the mechanism of mutual interests at work, along with the actual and continuing effort to constantly apply that analysis. Transparency for executive action and administrative function is needed so that the analysis can be applied.

    But reliances on codes removes the rational intention that codes intend/hope to convey. When the spirit is forgotten, the letter becomes corrupted (sometimes without actual specific intent). Teach critical though, of which ethics should be understood to be an applied example.

    1. dk

      But then there’s the little problem of population. As population/resources rises, resource competition begins to weigh against collective interests, and return on contribution to the collective diminishes.

      There are some things that ethics can’t fix… at least, not the codifications ethics we’ve been presented with.

  29. notabanker

    I am definitely seeing this play out in the UK. It’s been stressed by the regulators for years, and coupled with Structural Reform, the approach between the UK and US is a marked difference. The UK regulators want the management teams inside of the legal entity structures and they are holding them personally accountable via the Senior Regime laws.

    There is also a fundamental realization that good conduct is good business. Trading and PPI fines have basically eaten all of the profits for years. Consequently shareholders are punished with pitiful ROE and stock is trading below book. To retain profits and get a decent multiple, they are going to have to behave.

    Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but these aren’t trivial checkbox exercises to comply.

  30. satx

    Yves, Lynn, really?

    Ethics, morality mentioned on same page with BigFinance?


    G M A F B

  31. Tim

    I’d say no, as Wall St. is very, very insulated from society and its social mores, and furthermore, they have their own mores which revolve around success at making money, no matter how.

Comments are closed.