I started this blog in October 2011 with the post ‘we need to talk about money’. The context was the occupy protest at St Paul’s.
St Paul’s was full last night with people talking about money and God, people and banks. I was sorry not to be there. I have, however, been able to listen to Archbishop Justin Welby’s keynote address.
His speech is summarised in the press by the soundbite that banks “can be good with the fear of hell and the hope of heaven”. But there was more to it than that.
Justin was saying was that banks need to be more human. This was a speech about the alienation of banks and bankers from the wider community. They have become a charmed circle. Though the charm has its limits and ultimately it is doomed. Not for want of resource or power but for want of connectedness, humanity and community, which are as vital for human wellbeing and flourishing as wealth.
You could make a similar speech about many groups in society today: there is a lot of fragmentation about. The difference is that bankers have drawn exorbitant quantities of money, and therefore power, into an enclave governed by their own self-interests.
Many would agree with this analysis but there are different strategies that can emerge. One is for those outside the circle of bankers to crank up the amount of control they exert, or seek to exert, over the bankers.
A second is to the rest of us to take away the banks’ power by withdrawing from the banking system – taking our money somewhere else.
Justin’s approach is different. He says that banks must be re-humanised, seen as bodies not systems. He goes on to say that we all need a more realistic understanding of what human beings are capable and incapable of. They are not capable of perfection but they (we) are capable of much more than we often recognise.
I like this approach and have said in the past that the problem is not that bankers are greedy but that bankers are people and people are greedy. This means that even if we were to change all the people in financial industry we would sooner or later end up with the same problem. When it comes to bad behaviour its not cash that’s king, but culture.
That may be pessimistic – maybe one really righteous leader of a bank could turn it all around. The experiment could be worth a try (yes, let’s have virtuous people at the top) but it would seem foolish to try it without addressing the problems of cultural and human disconnect which create an environment which no leader, however virtuous, could make good.
The question, then, is, how do we make good? Justin and others are raising this question not because they believe they have ready answer, but to change the conversation, change the agenda. To some that may seem like an inadequate move; to others a weak one; to others a retreat to the highfalutin irrelevancies of philosophy or, even worse, theology.
It is none of these. What we talk about, and how we talk about it, is of supreme importance in making the world better place, making society more just and allowing all people to flourish.
It remains time to talk about money. But it is also time to talk about being good and making good.
The question, ‘how can I be a good person’ should be often on our minds. Not in a self-punishing way, nor a self-congratulatory way but in a realistic way. But it’s not just a personal question.
Every school should want to be a good school and know what that means in terms of standards and ethos, achievement and participation. Every business should aim to be a good business and know what that means in terms of the bottom line and the way in which both staff and customers are regarded and treated. Every social enterprise should aim to be a very good social enterprise, and keep the talking about the range of goods that can be achieved, and seek to draw means and ends together as closely as possible.
The question of ‘good’ needs to be on the agenda in the boardroom and discussed over coffee by trustees and staff. That’s the only way to change the culture. For the conversation about good itself to be good it needs to be regular, realistic and attentive to many voices.
We will never be perfectly good, of course. We will never be perfect, whether as people or organisations or communities or institutions. But good-enough is, well, good enough – and on the whole a lot better than many of us or our institutions are much of the time.
It’s high time to talk about being good. It’s time for moral ambition.
You can listen to Archbishop Welby here: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/data/files/resources/5075/St-Pauls-June-12th-2013.mp3