So, now after some 10,000 years or so of human civilization, what have we actually learned? One thing that seems clear is that greed has been an effective motivating force to get people to use their imaginations to improve their lot in life, often by improving the lots of others with useful products and services. This led to what we call progress -- all the wonderful conveniences that make the many aspects of our lives easier and safer, while providing the means to accomplish far more than any individual could have dreamed of in years past.
At the same time, it has produced a society with a high degree of social and economic inequality, a society that does not seem to have progressed very far at all in this regard since feudal times. There are still the haves and the have-nots with a vast chasm of entitlement and privilege dividing the two.
The question of how to bring these two opposing facets of our chosen course into some kind of balance has bred a couple of different approaches that seem to be in contention.
One, government oversight, has been used quite effectively at times, though it also goes in and out of vogue depending on the prevailing political philosophy. Today, in the post-Citizens United era, it seems likely that weakened oversight and regulation will remain the norm -- as long as those business interests with money to contribute to political candidates now get to erase those pesky regulations that dampen profits with the swipe of a credit card. Just this week, Dodd-Frank was further weakened in the latest budget bill, another thank-you gift to Wall Street campaign contributors from both sides of the aisle.
The other approach seems to be the installation of conscience into companies, via the move towards increased transparency, sustainability and the growing corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement. Mission-driven companies and companies that truly care are no longer merely hypothetical. This development seems to be consistent with the flourishing vision that is becoming popular, fueled largely by a sense of personal commitment on the part of individual employees.
It is in this latter camp that a recent announcement by the Dutch Banking Association falls. The group disclosed that it will now require bankers to sign a Hippocratic Oath, similar to the one used by doctors where they promise to do no harm.
Among other things, the Banker's Oath asserts that the oath-taker will exercise his "function properly and carefully," "weigh all the interests involved in the enterprise," including, "the society in which the enterprise is active," acting “in accordance with the laws, regulations and codes of conduct,” and that he will not abuse his knowledge, while maintaining “an open and verifiable attitude ... [with] responsibility towards society.”
So, the question is: Are they just words, or will they make a difference?
Kara Tan Bhala, founder of the nonprofit Seven Pillars Institute, which focuses on ethics in finance, told The Atlantic that, “Bankers are human and affected by symbolism and purpose.” This again anticipates a wave of flourishing consciousness to be realized. Otherwise, we’ll be forever stuck with regulation, though as Bhala points out, “There cannot be a rule for every possible wrongful act in banking.”
John Boatright, a professor of business ethics at Loyola University Chicago, is more in the other camp. He says that "oaths won’t work … until bankers can sense the threats of significant prison sentences or fines in response to unsavory conduct.”
The dream of internally committed, well-intentioned businesses -- financial and otherwise -- committed to always do the right thing seems somewhat utopian, while the insistence on regulation is more hard-nosed and down to earth. Yet, the self-regulation of businesses has long been the dream of conservatives who have traditionally considered themselves more down to earth than the liberals that they like to characterize as dreamers. Yet it is the liberals that generally push for stricter regulations. That’s likely because of who each chooses to distrust. With the liberals it’s businesses; with conservatives it’s government.
For me, I like the idea of the oath, because it shows a growing awareness of the necessity of ethical behavior in these institutions that hold so much sway over the destiny of nations and the people that live in those nations. But let there be meaningful consequences for those that violate that oath, and some objective means by which to assess whether or not a violation has been committed. In today’s world, those are called regulations, perhaps at some point in the future; they will go by another name.
Image credit: Greg Wagoner: Flickr Creative Commons
RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.
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RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org