The City of God?: Political economy and the community of love
The English author and journalist Will Self provides a dramatic image of the City of London's changing skyline. He likens it to a slow-motion firework display as new glass and steel skyscrapers rise and fall, sparkling for a few decades but—by implication at least—destined for ashes. It is easy to paint a depressing vision of the City, as the financial district of London is customarily known. (The term is analogous to “Wall Street.”) Quite apart from the aftershocks of the financial crisis, we could point to exploited workers, impersonal skyscrapers, gated communities, shocking inequality, lonely lives. But I do not believe that we are all doomed. City life, and especially the City of London, is often considered somehow apart from the rest of society. But the City—any city—is first and foremost where people live and work, in all kinds of families and industries. People make the City. It's not built around one area of business. In this context, the question "What kind of City do we want?" takes on a different hue. Can the City be a place of human flourishing? If so, what is required?
There is a wonderful line in T.S. Eliot's "Chorus from the Rock":
When the Stranger says: "What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?"
What will you answer? "We all dwell together
To make money from each other"? Or "This is a community"?
If the City is a community, then we must pursue all that cultivates community. To do so means honoring a profound, but often ignored, truth about humanity: Our relationships are an intrinsic part of who we are. As human beings we are not just individuals. We are each born into a human community and find our deepest fulfillment as persons in relationship to others, and I would add, to God. This idea is central to the Judeo-Christian vision of humanity created in the image and likeness of God, who is a communion of persons.
The ancient Greeks also had a clear view on the purpose of the city, the polis: it was to build a good society—a community where citizens thrived as members of a virtuous community. Aristotle explored this vision. He thought the cultivation of friendship, and indeed love, were needed for a good city to exist. He also said, "the greatest of blessings for a state is that its members should possess a moderate and adequate property." This reference to "property" invites exploration of the specific ways in which the city's resources must serve the good of all if the city is to have any sense of common destiny. Whatever the activity of the city might be, we are all in it together, like climbers bound to one another by invisible ropes, and the well-being and fulfillment of each is in some ways dependent on others. There are ties of trust and solidarity to be recognized and developed. The institutions of business and commerce, on which the reputation and history of the City of London rest, have as their foundation precisely such common bonds. Indeed, there are many common bonds that only come into being through such trust and solidarity.
In recent times narratives about what makes for a good society have been viewed with suspicion. It is the hard-won, individual freedom to pursue one's own good in one's own way, within the law that is celebrated. This mentality has legitimated the pursuit of narrow self-interest, sometimes with a tendentious claim that benefits will eventually yield better outcomes for everyone. It has made possible the atrophying of common values at the heart of good business and undermined institutions that stand between the market and the state, from the family to all kinds of community forms through which our relationships are enriched and extended. However, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, we have a rare opportunity to learn from the recent past how not to repeat it. The protest of the Occupy movement contained some searching questions about inequality and the need to think hard, together, about what can be changed for the good of all.
How then can we nurture these relationships? How can we even think about a destiny shared by all the people who work in the City, when the vast majority of people who work there come and go every day, whether high-paid professionals or those on low pay providing the transport, office cleaning and myriad other services, whose lives seem totally disconnected from those with headline-making bonuses? "Good people bound by good purpose." This phrase is key to the answer.
Community is created and common destiny established through the vision, commitment and relationships which good people form. But what does "good" mean? How is the notion of the good to be explored when we no longer share many of the patterns of thought which help establish its meaning? Rather than cast morality only in terms of dull and boring duty, it helps to understand 'desire' as a more vital and fundamental driving force of morality. We yearn for love, for relationships of deep friendship and for our lives to have meaning and to make a contribution. Far from being an externally imposed duty on us, the desire for the good lies deep within us. It reflects our deepest nature as sharing a common humanity and as called into a life of relationship with others. This desire and this call, invites us to recognize that other people matter. Respecting others and seeking their good is essential to one's own good. Seeking the good and responding to its attractiveness takes us out of narrow self-centeredness. It is the path to true human flourishing and fulfillment. The truth is we are all secretly tempted—to be good.
But the complementary, inconvenient truth is that our desire for the good can easily be distorted through selfishness or greed or pride or lust. This is the struggle between good and evil that runs right through each of us, in every aspect of our lives. We do not like to think in these terms. Yet we all operate in a moral space, discerning and testing our desires, deciding how to live. We are caught between on the one hand the attractiveness of a good we suspect may not only be transitory but also carry with it damaging consequences for others, and on the other our capacity and desire for extraordinary generosity and selflessness.
To learn to live well is, on this understanding, to learn to practice the virtues, which are both rooted in our dignity and gradually shape our character as persons. By the pursuit of virtue we act well not because of external constraint, but because it has become habitual for us to do so. The virtues form us as moral agents, so that what we do is right and honorable irrespective of reward and regardless of what we are obliged to do. The classical, pivotal or cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, courage and temperance. Permit me a quick glance at each of these, which belong to all humanity and are held in trust for all not least in our Christian tradition. Their relevance to "good people bound by good purpose" is clear.
The virtue of prudence, or right reason in action, is the opposite of rashness and carelessness. It enables us to discern the good in any circumstance and the right way to achieve it. It enables us to know how to weigh the meaning and importance of our feelings.
The virtue of courage ensures firmness and the readiness to stand by what we believe in times of difficulty. It is the opposite of opportunism and of evasiveness. It is the practice of fortitude in the face of difficulty and produces heroism in every field. Courage is an important element in artistic creativity and it helps those who battle against sickness, injustice or depression.
Justice is the virtue by which we strive to give what is due to others by respecting their rights and fulfilling our duties towards them. It expands our sense of self by strengthening the ties between us. Justice towards God is "the virtue of religion" which frees us from the tyranny of false gods who claim our worship.
The virtue of temperance helps us to moderate our appetites and our use of the world's created goods. It is the opposite of consumerism and the uninhibited pursuit of pleasure. It is about learning to desire well. Indeed, it is an essential part of a happy life.
The formation of good people starts, of course, in the family. That is the first school of citizenship, and loving, stable families are the vital building block of every city as they are of any human society. Schools of course are the next most important institutions when it comes to building character, as are universities and, in the context of the City, the business schools. Whilst we should look to these institutions of the community to foster virtue and thereby build character, we can and should also look to the institutions of commerce to nurture and strengthen character. If this is to happen, then such institutions will have a clear sense of purpose, shared across the institution, and evidently existing for a wider common good. They will be enterprises of "good purpose."
In a recent scandal involving the National Health Service in Britain, the head of the professional standards authority spoke of leaders having lost sight of their moral purpose. They had forgotten they exist to do good. Concern for finances had taken priority over care, compassion and respect. He said, "unless you know the purpose for which you are running an organization you will never get the ethics right within it." Let us be clear: such a sense of "good purpose" is not just for the public sector but also for commercial organizations. Mark Carney, the incoming Governor of the Bank of England, spoke recently of the need for companies to "define clearly the purpose of their organizations and to promote a culture of ethical business," and in doing so, for employees to have "a sense of broader purpose, grounded in strong connections to their clients and their communities."
We have seen what happens when businesses or people simply focus on profit as an end in itself and simply exploit every situation for that end. The true justification of business, I suggest, is when profit is made through delivering a purpose that genuinely adds to human well-being. All businesses have an implicit license to operate given by society. All businesses big or small should be able to demonstrate how they are making the world a better place through providing goods that are truly good, or services that truly serve people and, by doing so, create employment and fair returns to investors, whilst minimizing harm.
Any business that wants to stay true to that purpose needs people who have not only the technical skills or competencies for that particular industry or business but also the character and virtues of which I have been speaking. Such people become indispensable to the long-term flourishing of the business. Of course, in the short term, greed and ambition can triumph. It always has and will. Out-of-control bonuses were one of the symptoms. But the architects of lasting business success learn to understand and control their own self-interest and genuinely seek to serve society through the way their business operates. By acting consistently, doing what they say, setting and acting on high expectations, they create a culture within the organization that actually strengthens good practice. A business that has a compelling story about its purpose, that lives its values in this way, will "crowd-in," not "crowd-out," virtue. It will nurture, attract and reward good people. It will inspire the good in people and help create the common goods that serve to reduce inequality by providing opportunities and operating in every aspect of its work in a fair and equitable way.
Part of the interest in business in the exploration of "good people bound by good purpose" has come from recognizing the limits of law and regulation. Law and regulation matter, but they are not sufficient. New rules usually deal with the last problem not the next one. A compliance mentality typically creates perverse incentives and increasing bureaucracy. Rules become a lazy proxy for morality: people think if it's not against some rule it must be OK to do it. Such a society is inherently fragile. What is required, beyond even ethical standards of conduct, is a fundamental transformation of purpose, so that business, and the financial sector in particular, is seen by everyone as it should be, which is at the service of the rest of society. A change of language or of mission statements is not enough, and the risk of the language changing without credible reform is real. I am not surprised that some commentators say that it will take another financial crisis before the City really wakes up to the scale of reform that is needed.
I believe there is great potential for good in people which far too many employers do not release or encourage when they see their purpose simply as maximizing short-term profit. It is surely bad for business if people feel that they have to leave their values at the door when they go to work. It is a mistake if companies have to justify themselves through their additional programs of social benefit or the philanthropy of their staff. These are good, of course. But they should be supplementary to the shared value created by the core work of the business activity. The vocation to work in business is a good for people and society, but critically depends on a business having a clear purpose to serve society.
Often, the quality of leadership is critical. The struggle to maintain the positive purpose of a business or institution is challenging. The temptations of short cuts, of ignoring and marginalizing uncomfortable questions are real and powerful, especially to those in leadership roles. Yet the Czech writer Vaclav Havel addresses this issue in a very profound point about leadership: He said that a key moral choice which leaders often have to make concerns what they appeal to in others. Do they appeal to their fear? Do they appeal to their greed? Or do they appeal to their selflessness and the desire for a wider good?
Business, the media, wider society, in short our culture is hugely influenced by these choices made by leaders in all walks of life. They contribute significantly to the background expectations within which we all make our choices. Being reminded regularly of our wider purpose will prevent us from slipping from those moorings. Having routines which reinforce all that is best in us—for many the practice of prayer is a fine example—help us to remember a good business is a community as well as an organization. It produces people as well as goods and services, and contributes to the formation or undermining of society by the way people are treated. As Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, reminded us, in the long term no business can succeed in a society that fails.
The City that we want has many other dimensions to it of which I have not spoken: reduced income inequality and a living wage, the need for much greater support for family life in the built environment, a welcome for new communities and efforts to overcome barriers. In many ways London is a remarkable example of tolerance and vibrant city life. These are all aspects of community life that are deeply connected to how business operates.
The Christian instinct at its best is to see the potential for good in a city. It is interesting to note that the Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city, even if it is not the Square Mile that the Evangelist has in mind. Saint Paul’s Cathedral provides a stunning symbol of the vision of the heavenly City in the midst of the earthly one. It invites us to gaze upwards and place our hopes and fears in the context of the Eternal. Yet its spectacular size and beauty at the same time invite us to our knees, to recognize our frailty, our need of one another and our shared destiny. Humanity has the most extraordinary capacity for good, and I deeply believe there are great wellsprings of renewal for this City, for every city, in untapped ways of how we organize the world of work at the service of the common good.
The Most Rev. Vincent G. Nichols is the Archbishop of Westminster, London. This article is adapted from a talk he delivered in April 2013 to The Saint Paul’s Institute, a London-based, non-profit organization that seeks to engage the financial world with questions of morality and ethics.