Beyond good and evil

July 22, 2002

Phrases such as ‘good and evil’, ‘moral standards’ and ‘norms and values’ are sprinkled throughout the financial pages of the newspapers these days. The headline in the economic section of one of Holland’s leading papers this weekend read: “Capitalism has gone beyond good and evil”.

Bookkeeping scandals in big business have provoked a great discussion on the relation between markets and morality. Consumer watchdog Ralph Nader writes that criminality, fraud and misuse in the business world have become like the weather: everyone talks about it but no-one seems to be able to do anything about it.

We are told that there are rules aplenty to regulate the commercial world – that is not the problem. The difficulty lies in the keeping and enforcing of the rules. So what really is the root problem behind the growing corruption culture on both sides of the Atlantic? For while some European voices have tried to take distance from the malaise evidenced by Enron and Worldcom, creative bookkeeping has also plunged KPNQwest and Vivendi into serious trouble here on the Continent.

A Rotterdam economist from Erasmus University admits we have become morally disorientated in recent years. “Norms and values have been heavily affected by relativism,” he explains in the NRC Handelsblad, “and many in the business world gladly exploit the resulting confusion.”

Another Dutch economist comments: “You could say that we have gone beyond good and evil. We think that as individuals we can ignore norms that others need to keep.”

Of course, we could have seen this all coming. These are post-modern times. How can we do business on the post-modern basis that what may be true for you is not necessarily true for me? The question of what morality is and on what it is grounded has become a fundamental discussion in the business world. If there is no common ground for morality, what will be the common ground for doing business?

Yet Zygmunt Bauman concludes his contemporary classic ‘Post-Modern Ethics’ with a somewhat surprising quote from Hannah Arendt, summing up the moral lessons of the Holocaust:
‘.. human beings (must) be capable of telling what is right from wrong even when all they have to guide them is their own judgement… These few who were still able to tell right from wrong went really only by their own judgements, and they did so freely.’ (Oxford, 1993, p149)

“If in doubt,” concludes Bauman, “consult your conscience.”

Not bad advice – as far as it goes.

In fact, it is a big step in a direction opposite to modernity’s long march of reason which Bauman claims leads to moral nihilism. Bauman admits that morality based merely on conscience seems very weak to the modern world. Yet he insists that it does matter, and matters morally, what we do and from what we desist.

This blind leap of post-modern faith reflects what Paul calls God’s law written on every human heart (Romans 2:15). But it remains a little naive to think everyone will voluntarily act like good Scouts. What if the collective conscience has been seared? Then we can expect to see more shakings in the world of capitalism…

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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