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“We are paid to make money, not to be moral.”

This was the defense of a banker – as seen in a BBC interview Monday 7th November. Later that day, the long-awaited St Paul’s Institute report on its survey of London-based bankers was published. In advance of this a decision was made to interview a young woman from within the profession to get her response to the suggestion that there was a lack of morality in the City of London. I was so staggered by some of her responses to this challenge that I felt bound to try to draw out the logical consequences of what she had said. What follows is exactly that. At the same time I sent this to someone I knew working in the City and with a senior position in banking. He was at first unwilling to accept that someone had actually made such a statement, so seriously did he disagree with what she had said. His views, and possibly those of an older generation, are not those of the person being interviewed. Which of the two is more representative of the majority working within the City I do not know. The report itself suggests that it may be that the young woman’s views are shared by many in her profession, hence the cause for concern that there is a poor appreciation of the need for a moral dimension to this sphere of activity. No wonder then that the protestors outside St Paul’s who have just been issued with an eviction notice feel that they need to remain in order to challenge what they see happening. What the young woman said was this!

“We are paid to make money, not to be moral” – so what could she have meant by this?

  • We are paid to be immoral
  • Making money is always immoral, or incompatible with being moral
  • Making money can sometimes be immoral in these particular ways and under these conditions – then specify
  • Making money for myself is all that counts
  • Making money for my institution is all that counts
  • Doing what I am paid to do is all that counts
  • Making money is a means to an end, that end being?
  • Argument takes the same form as “I am paid to kill people, not to be moral” – the defence of the professional assassin
  • The responsibility for what I do lies with my employers and not with me
  • Can financial institutions then be moral or is their raison d’etre also incompatible with being moral?
  • Is there a real defence along the lines of: “banks and financial institutions provide a real and vital service to the wider economy and therefore to greater human well-being”? Specify how and when this happens.
  • The danger of the wrong sort of defence is that it reinforces a politics of envy rather than encouraging a sensible and realistic understanding of what financial institutions do and where they fit into the wider picture – it is surely in everybody’s (enlightened) self-interest to open up this much wider debate.
  • Portraying bankers etc as the villains of the piece deflects discussion from the real economic issues, but then this sort of crass “defence” does exactly the same and invites the obvious criticism that this is simply individualism and personal greed gone out of control.
  • As the young woman being interviewed said “we are all greedy” – so presumably the only guiding principle for society is “the survival of the greediest”?
  • If this is NOT to be the case, what are the alternatives and how might they relate to “being moral”?

I gather that the clergy at St Paul’s have restated their intention of continuing the debates begun by the protestors, which is to be commended at least. But there still appears to be a vacuum where an agreed basis for moral discourse ought to be, and a massive gap between the concerns of the protestors (on both sides of the Atlantic), the politicians, and the professionals within the banking and financial services sector. What are the values that might shape our collective behaviour and how can they play a role in public debate if people perceive morality to be only an individual and private concern? Is it already too late to begin the discussion? As markets across the world continue to shiver in the draught caused by the fear of another recession, the need for that public debate on ethics becomes ever more urgent.


John Reader is Rector of the Ironstone Benefice in the Diocese of Oxford and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation (University of Chester. UK). His first degree was from Oxford (Philosophy and Theology); then an M.Phil from Manchester University, and finally a Ph.D from the University of Wales, Bangor on “The Problem of Faith and Reason after Habermas and Derrida”. He has taught on a number of courses and been Director of Pastoral Theology at an Anglican theological college. His books include Local Theology (SPCK); Blurred Encounters (Aureus); Reconstructing Practical Theology (Ashgate) and Encountering the New Theological Space co-edited with Chris Baker (Ashgate). He is also a visiting scholar at OxCEPT based at Ripon College, Cuddesdon.

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