Global Financial Crisis Root Problem Not a Failure of Regulation but Ethics

The issue of corruption and profiteering where the ends justify the means creates global instability in my view.    Through our systems we encourage competition and the mindset is to close the deal.  Ethics, values and sociology are not taught in business schools, so many graduate without a deep understanding of the society within which they work and the real corporate social responsibility.   Money is what has driven the system from governments to businesses to individuals, as all feel it is the goal of life. 

The true goal of life is reaching your potential, living your dreams as an ethical well rounded person.  These are the people we admire as our cultural heroes, they are the social barometers who inspire us to believe that we are much more. Gandhi (non violence), Martin Luther King (civil rights), Nelson Mandela (freedom), Rumi (love poet), Aung San Suu Kyi (democracy), Lao Tzu (wisdom), Buddha (peace) and many more were the lights of humanity, they showed people a higher way. 

If the purpose of living all comes down to money then we have indeed lost our reason for being.  The ethical issue in my view is not a side issue it is centre stage. When people take their eyes off demand and supply curves on static screens and look up to see others around them, they will be awakening from the illusion of material wealth. They will discover the true wealth is our inner integrity and humanity.

The ethics of the global financial crisis

By Simon Longstaff


This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 74 summer 2008

As the leaders of the G20 group of countries sat down to discuss their response to the world’s economic woes, Simon Longstaff asked that they bear in mind that the root cause of the problem is not a failure of regulation but of ethics.

Yes, regulation was more lax than it should have been in the USA, where the financial contagion began its spread. However, in ordinary life, the absence of a police officer on every corner would never lead us to expect (or excuse) an outbreak of theft or violence. So why should we be asked to assume that we can expect worse of American mortgage brokers and ratings agencies than we would expect of ourselves?

Yes, markets have been powerful engines driving increased prosperity for millions around the world. However, there is a world of difference between genuinely free markets and their counterfeit form – the laissez faire jungle in which self-interest mutates into the degraded forms of greed and selfishness. No market can ever be truly free without a strong ethical base. To lie, to cheat, to use power oppressively – all of these things distort a free market and all of them are the product of a failure of ethics. Too often people forget that the progenitor of ‘the invisible hand’ was not an economist. Rather, Smith was Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. As such, he had a profound understanding of the ethical foundations of markets and was deeply suspicious of the ‘merchant class’ and its tendency to arrange affairs to suit its private interests at the public’s expense.

Yes, schemes for the measurement and reward of performance can shape behaviour and yes, they are an important part of the story of how it came to be that so many good people made so many bad decisions. However, such systems are not the product of alien worlds. They were consciously designed by human beings – reflecting beliefs and choices about our essential motivations and character. The self-evidently perverse consequences of schemes that rewarded shonky behaviour are not something to be denied; those who commissioned, designed and implemented these schemes cannot now wash their hands of responsibility, and blame the ‘system’ as if it existed beyond their designs.

At its core, ethics is about making conscious choices in line with an explicit framework of values and principles. It is this reflective engagement with the world that stops individuals, organisations and institutions from stumbling, blindly, into ethical ‘death traps’. Indeed, I reckon it will now be some time before anyone asks me again, “Do ethics really matter? Do they have any practical use?” There is no longer a need to offer even a marginally sophisticated answer. All that one has to do is point to the billions of dollars of wealth destroyed, at the millions of lives adversely affected by loss of homes, opportunities, savings … the list goes on. Yet again, it will be the poor of the world who will pay the highest price. Having privatised the upside of economic irresponsibility, we must now socialise the downside – all a result of a failure of ethics.

So, what might the leaders of the G20 do about this? Surprisingly, the one thing that they must avoid is the temptation to put all of their eggs into the regulation and surveillance basket. We need prudent, effective regulation that puts a premium on transparency and a cap on schemes that create perverse incentives to create and take risks at others’ expense. Dodgy ratings, complex derivatives that seem to ‘magic away’ the risks (which ultimately remain in the real economy), self-serving market transactions that generate fees but do nothing to facilitate real commerce – all of these issues must be addressed so that the underlying institutions of the market serve their ultimate and proper purpose: to facilitate an increase in the stock of common good. Good regulation and surveillance can assist in this.

The risk is that our leaders will once again embrace the folly of thinking that all risks can be eliminated by creating a culture of compliance in which no person can choose to do anything wrong. The unintended consequence of this will be that no person will be able to choose to do anything right. No person will choose; they will simply comply. The result will be a progressive loss of capacity to make responsible decisions – simply for lack of opportunity to practise the skill. With this will come a steep increase in systemic risk as we move further into a world in which amoral individuals will think nothing is wrong unless it is proscribed by law and will view every loophole as an opportunity for gain.

The world needs to initiate a fundamental review of its institutions – what a recent gathering of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Councils called a ‘fundamental reboot’. To do this we will need to pass beyond the current ‘long age of forgetting’ – an age in which we have lost sight of the purpose of our core institutions and therefore betray them with blind hypocrisy. That is, we need to return to the ethical roots of society and the economy that is supposed to serve its interests.


Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre.

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Mohandas Gandhi

“Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances.”