Banking on Virtue?

Robert Keen, is a member of St Edmund’s College and a VHI Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. Keen also chairs the Catholic Union’s Education Working Group and is a member of the International Thomas More Society. Below is a sumamry of his speech delivered at DISCERN’s ‘Gaudium et Spes Lecture 2009’, on Thursday 19th November, 2009.

Western societies, characterised by progressive liberal moral norms, are persistently faced with challenges confronting financial ethics. Undoubtedly, today’s test is for governments, authorities and organizations within the business community to find a functional balance between ‘reasonable’ and ‘excessive’ remuneration. In reality, the integration of Christian-grounded ethical teaching with the utilitarian / rule-based ethics commonly applied to govern financial-business behaviour is critical both to the banking industry’s capacity to recover public trust and to its ability to return to an enduring operational stability. Notably, in the Encyclical Letter, Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict XVI reminds that, “…the church has always held that an economic action is not, of itself, opposed to society. It is not this instrument that must be called to account but individuals, their moral consciences and their personal and social responsibility”. With its origins firmly embedded in Scriptural instructions this observation has a timeless relevance according to Robert Keen. Keen explained that the current financial crisis has created a dangerous dichotomy. At the very moment when immediate pressures and the contingency driven ethos shaped by the ‘credit crunch’ have besieged financial management’s judgements, ethical challenges of a scale and complexity have emerged of a character outside living memory. Resolving this dichotomy is obviously neither simple nor short-term. Within the current scenario, Keen sustained that besides the banking sector’s need for more stringent regulation, two further factors are gaining significance. The first is an urgent quest for moral as well as material certitude in the management decision process, the second, a recognition that this quest will fail to find fulfilment either in the regulations, rules or in the models proffered by conventionally applied instrumentalist utilitarian ethics. Keen concluded that ideally a sufficient management education and training capability for the banking community is installed on the role function of value ethics.