Although the stocks may have leveled, and many of the jobs regained, the spectre of the global financial crisis still lingers in the minds of most Australians, and people worldwide. Why did it happen? Could it happen again? What is the solution? In the words of Wall Street‘s Gordon Gecko, is greed, for lack of a better word, good?
These questions and more were posed to an expert panel at an event titled: God and Mammon: Need or Greed in the Big End of Town? Hosted by one of The University of Notre Dame, Australia‘s research centres: The Centre for Faith, Ethics & Society, the event included a lunch followed by a discussion panel, chaired by columnist Miranda Devine. The members of the panel included Telstra Chief Executive Officer David Thodey, Catholic Archbishop Cardinal George Pell, marketing expert John Moore and business consultant and former Wallabies captain John Eales, who discussed how business and ethics could interact in today‘s economy.
Major talking points included the salaries of corporate executives, a topic which, if it had the potential to make David Thodey feel uncomfortable, did not appear to do so. Cardinal Pell stated clearly his view that the exorbitant salaries of some executives should raise the eyebrow of anybody with an interest in ethical business practice. Also unethical, Pell argued, were the offering of low document loans to those who have no chance of repaying. Businesses, Pell argued, existed to serve the common good, not simply to make profit, and these loans represented profit at the expense of the common good. However, profit and common good are not enemies for business, Thodey suggested. “You can make profit for the common good, but it‘s when you make excessive profits that it comes unstuck.”
On the subject of bank loans, Thodey took a sympathetic approach toward the corporate world. In light of the government‘s criticism of the Commonwealth Bank‘s rate rises, he suggested that often decisions were examples of “letting the market decide one way or another”. He explained his view that many decisions were less ethical than they were made out to be, and that the market was a more determinate factor than many might think. To this he added that he didn‘t think business depended on pleasantries or on one‘s reputation as a person for success: “[it‘s] not about being a nice guy or not you have to have the strength to make the right decision.” But what that right decision might be, Thodey suggests, was most often up to the market.
Another view was offered by John Moore, whose comments suggested that the distinction between the public and private sphere between private ethics and “corporate citizenship”, as Thodey called it was hazier than what might have been suggested. One‘s personal view of morality can, and should, affect the way one interprets and responds to market influences. Moore‘s view is that the market is a causal force like any other, but how people respond to that causal force is an entirely moral question. Just because the market opens up chances for massive profits, doesn‘t mean businesses ought to follow it there. It‘s Moore‘s view that ethical responses in the public realm must be informed by thoughtful personal reflection.
However, this was not taken to imply that profit taking is inherently ethically questionable. As Cardinal Pell argued, citing Margaret Thatcher, No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well!” The emphasis was on profit as being necessary, given that it is accumulated wealth that can fund philanthropic activity.
John Eales echoed Moore‘s opinion that ethical and unethical behaviour is a choice of businesspeople, not an inevitable effect of the operation of market forces. He expressed his belief that in business, as in sport, the participants knew what the rules were, but some players chose to cheat. Both businesspeople and sportspeople needed to draw a line regarding what they would and wouldn‘t do, based on their own principles. Everyone draws a line somewhere: the difference between the ethical and unethical person is where they draw that line. He playfully cited AFL legend Leigh Matthews who, when asked what he wouldn‘t do to win a game, responded (hopefully tongue-in–cheek) “I probably wouldn‘t kill anybody.”
The Centre‘s Director, Associate Professor Sandra Lynch, said the event generated vibrant and well-focused discussion on a variety of issues. “Such issues as the balance between achieving profitability and contributing to the common good ought to be debated in a civilised society. We hope that ongoing debate of this kind will raise the level of ethical awareness in our communities and influence the decision making which occurs in business and the political sphere of life.”
“The Centre for Faith, Ethics and Society intends to follow-up this lunch and discussion panel with other events in 2011 which will continue this important conversation,” said A/Professor Lynch.
The Centre for Faith, Ethics and Society is an initiative of the University of Notre Dame, Australia. For more information, visit www.nd.edu.au/cfes or email nd.edu.au/cfes.