Making Money & Morality
Wendy Churchill is a lovely British lady who writes a weekly newsletter on random subjects. In this one, she has addressed issues that too often are ignored in business today and has done so in a way that I couldn’t better. She has graciously granted me permission to reprint it here.
With the exception of one or two ‘snips’ of irrelevant ‘newsletter necessities,’ this is entirely unedited. Please enjoy…
“What do we mean when we say someone is ‘good’?
And has the goal of being good slipped too far off our agendas in recent years?
The philosophy of Virtue Ethics can offer us a few valuable pointers as a starting point for our search…
This week I have been reflecting on a very interesting article about ethics written by one of my old philosophy lecturers, Jonathan Rée.
I remember him as a very happy and soulful man who cheered up the cold, grey lecture room by playing Wagner on an old reel tape recorder and sitting on the desk swinging his trainers underneath it.
And as I sit here today on a cold grey morning wishing I had remembered to bring up my slippers, it strikes me that as well as being cheerful and a keen teacher, he may also have been a very good person.
Good enough, at least. to want to write an article on what it actually means to be good.
Morality in the past was of utmost importance
For Victorians in the 19th Century, the subject of morality was given central importance. While most would say that the sexual repression and prudery went too far, there was also a low tolerance of crime and a strong sense of social obligation that lead to many great acts of philanthropy and an aspiration towards kindness and good behaviour.
Enormous amounts of personal wealth were given to set up charities and to charitable causes while families like the Cadburys in Birmingham did much to improve the living conditions and welfare of their workers.
Such ideas as respectability and morals remained strong, of course, throughout certainly the the first half of the Twentieth Century. Even the apparent relaxing of prudery and stiffness in the sixties had the aim of making life for everyone better by challenging the current views on moral behaviour.
But do we even care about being ‘good people’ these days?
But I do wonder what the state of our relationship with morality is today?
Unless we are religious then we do not really have a strong idea of what it means to be good as a set of social beliefs or mores.
How often, for example, do we judge people by how good they are these days or chastise ourselves for our own lack of kindness? Are we not more likely, perhaps, to judge both ourselves and others in terms of qualities such as intelligence, wealth, wit, attractiveness or whether or not we are ‘interesting’?
Our newspapers are full of views about over-paid hedge fund managers and industry fat cats yet our indignation at their ridiculous pay and bonuses tends often to contain more of a sense of jealousy or lack of fairness in the distribution of wealth than a moral outcry.
Going back a few thousand years to find what we’re missing
So what exactly is missing? Is it the desire to be good? The need of a new and more relevant vocabulary of morality? A new leader or moral spokesperson? Or a new set of aspirations?
In fact, what a lot of contemporary thinkers on the subject seem to be doing today is going back to a very old idea of morality. Which brings us (finally) back to that article written by my trainer-wearing philosophy lecturer.
In philosophy, ‘virtue ethics’ forms one of the three major approaches to ethics in which virtues or a general moral character is emphasised over any idea of duties or roles (deontology) or the consequences of our actions (consequentialism).
Harking back to Aristotle in particular but also others, virtue ethics believes that man should aspire to being the right kind of person with the right kind of characteristics, rather than worrying too much over the right or wrong of a specific action. In order for a good, happy, and harmonious life to be attained for both oneself and also the society as a whole, we should aspire to “concrete qualities of character such as courage, generosity, gentleness, confidence and the capacity for friendship and love.”
We are scarily guilty as a society of the Seven Deadly Sins
In the idea of the cardinal virtues found in Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Aquinas, the four virtues we should aim to have are temperance (moderation), justice, courage and wisdom. The opposite to these are then the seven capital vices (or seven deadly sins as we know them): pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth.
Pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth? Doesn’t that, in fact, make for a rather accurate description of a lot of the minor sins that many of us suffer from today?
For while few of us are rotten, I think many of us have a sense that we could be doing better. Not just because we want to be better people in a moral sense, but also because we know that it would make us happier and more contented ourselves to be more free of these sins.
Please write in with your views on the subject
For today I am going to leave you with these initial thoughts on ethics and allow us to all go away and perhaps think about it a little more.
Please, please, please write in to me with any ideas you have on the subject – especially any thoughts on which virtues in particular we should aspire to and what exactly that virtue means. You can e-mail me with your stories, tips, feedback or suggestions for anything you’d like to hear more about at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Then in a few weeks time I will come back to you with a collection of your thoughts and my own further readings on the subject.
All the best for another week.
Life is a Bag of Revels
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