Disconnecting morality

12 12 2013

If you are not one of the governing elite, and if you are reading this I will hazard a guess that you, like me, are not, then it is easy to blame them for the world’s ills. But who is them and what makes them different to us?

Actually, I think them and us are the same. That is, we can all become one of them if we allow our inner morality to become uncoupled from our actions.

An example. I am often staggered when miscarriages of justice come to light. Not so much for the incompetence or corruption in the initial investigation that is often uncovered at a second trial, though there are clearly moral dimensions here too, but in the stories from individuals who knew beyond any doubt that the original conviction was unsound, but said nothing. Or rather, having given information to the investigators which may or may not have been accurately and fully disclosed at the time, just leave it at that; knowing that an innocent person has gone to jail.

How does that happen? I think it unlikely that the person holding that crucial piece of information is a bad person but they must somehow be able to justify keeping quiet after the trial. Maybe they think, “I’ve done my bit and it was up to the defence team to make the case for acquittal so it’s not my fault” or maybe they just settle for an easy life, knowing that to make a big fuss after the event would have personal consequences. I don’t and can’t know. I’d like to think that, if I were to find myself in such a position, I would campaign vigourously to have my truth told. I would like to think that I would hold onto that determination if I’m ever tested but who’s to say that everyone else felt the same as I until that day came.

I am a pacifist. That is a very simple statement. I wouldn’t go to war under any circumstances. I would find non-aggressive ways to protest if the country was invaded. But if someone came into my house, for example, and tried to take away a loved one I’m pretty sure that I would try to prevent them and would use any and all force at my disposal. I would be prepared to kill under those circumstances.

And drones. These unmanned aircraft can, and do, fly for hours over countries such as Pakistan and Somalia, their operators sitting in cubicles in trailers somewhere in America and going home to their families at the end of their shift. How is it possible to sit in a comfy chair and kill people on the other side of the world, to watch them die, and then go home for tea? Morality uncoupled as warfare becomes just another computer game.

But these are both large scale examples, life and death – liberty and imprisonment. The problem lies also with institutional immorality. Bonuses are a case in point. They are seen by wider society as immoral but they are endemic in financial institutions and, when questioned, every banker and hedge-fund manager I have ever heard speak thinks they have earned it.

The average energy analyst, for example, doesn’t see that they are doing anything wrong in making recommendations to clients to invest in companies and technologies involved in fracking. They don’t see anything other than financial risk and reward. The structure of the companies they work in, and the way that they themselves are rewarded, separates their decisions from the wider implications, ie the non-financial implications of those decisions. The markets, the stockmarkets, look at decisions in terms of prices and not in terms of the assets being traded, mined, grown or however else real things are turned into financial abstractions.

The system allows the decisions made to appear to have no moral aspect. It allows decisions to be made in a moral vacuum. The morality of the individual is decoupled in the process.

There was a perfect example this week from Natural England and it’s search for a new Chair.  They are not seeking someone with expertise in natural heritage or ecology but someone who can, loosely quoted, “harness City financial expertise to assess ways that blended revenue streams and securitizations enhance the return on investment of an environmental bond”.  All clear?  The government is looking for someone who can help them to commodify nature, to turn naturally occurring real things into assets, financial extractions.

Visit Scotland already talk about “turning assets into experiences”. They don’t mutter this in dark corners, it is their proudly trumpeted strapline. What they call assets, in the language stolen from the stock market, I would call hills and mountains and trees and lochs. By using financial language a distance can be created between what the thing actually is and its real value, and what the monetary price of that thing is. Once that has been done financial rather than moral decisions are all that matters.

But the people making those decisions are still people. They could choose to consider the bigger picture, but they don’t. Each individual choosing not to consider the moral dimension of the decisions they make becomes one of them. Each individual probably has a sound moral compass but the system has developed such that they feel able to by-pass it without incurring even the faintest twinge of guilt.

We need to look at every aspect of our society and examine very closely all of those areas, and there are many, where morality has been uncoupled from the decision-making process. Only by creating more of us and less of them can we make the big changes that society needs.