Regulation a weak sibling of ethics and sin

Thu, Mar 5, 2009, 00:00

OPINION:Crimes against the moral order have fuelled the financial crisis. A philosopher talking in Dublin tomorrow will cast light on our lurking belief that regulation can prevent such crimes, writes RAY KINSELLA

THIS WEEKEND one of the great moral philosophers of this century, Alasdair MacIntyre, visits Ireland to be feted by UCD’s school of philosophy on the occasion of his 80th birthday. His visit – and his public lecture tomorrow evening – provides a catalyst for a debate that could shape Ireland’s response to the economic crisis.

Unless – and until – the unfolding global crisis is seen as primarily the result of a seismic failure in the ethical order, it will neither be firewalled nor reversed. The scale of interventions by developed countries – aimed at stabilising banking institutions and markets, restoring confidence and trust and mitigating the economic consequences – are without precedent in peacetime.

They are not working. Contingent liabilities of enormous proportions now stretch into the future in the United States, the European Union and Ireland. At some stage this will, in itself, become a source of instability as the markets stall in the face of the cold reality that the “lender/capital-provider” of last resort is running out of balance-sheet and credibility.

Parallel to this process, it is now evident that what appeared initially to be an esoteric financial crisis has, in less than two years, metastasised into worldwide economic reversal that could neither be predicted nor modelled by the institutions it has devastated.

There are financial, economic and political factors that have exacerbated the crisis, giving it a fresh momentum. Ireland, like other countries, has its own self-inflicted wounds. But these are secondary to a deeper dynamic. This is about making wrong choices, misusing human freedom and a denial of the demands of a moral order that “modernity” had presumed to cast off. History – with the rise and fall of civilisations – provides support for this argument. One such example is Marxism.

Bernard Lonergan once observed that “a civilisation in decline digs its own grave with relentless consistency. It cannot be argued out of its destructive way.”

The West has subverted the very markets which, as a key utility, support the generation of wealth and its distribution, as well as international trade and welfare. It has become desensitised to any objective understanding of morality.

The sense of “right” and “wrong” at the heart of ethics, resonates the public’s perception of an intrinsic “unfairness” with various aspects of the economic crisis and its consequences.

Regulation, to take one example, is a necessary but not sufficient condition, for a restoration of financial stability.

Individuals, no less than corporates or countries, cannot be regulated to do the “right” or “moral” thing. Ethics is, by its nature “obedience to the unenforceable” and the ultimate guarantor of trust. This fact is at the heart of the seeming dichotomy. “It may be legal, but surely it can’t be right . . . ”

We are talking about “sin” here. A type of behaviour or mindset may not be a crime; it may not be prohibited by rules or regulation, but instinctively we recognise it for what it is – an offence against the moral order.

Ireland is inextricably bound up within a moral catharsis just as real as that which brought about the fall of Marxism, and of which the global financial crisis is the most immediate manifestation.

This is why Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of moral philosophy is of such importance. MacIntyre’s stature and the authority of his critique make this a very public and prophetic event.


Prof Ray Kinsella is director of the centre for insurance studies at UCD’s Smurfit School of Business. Alasdair MacIntyre’s lecture, On having survived the academic moral philosophy of the 20th century, takes place tomorrow at 7.30pm in the health sciences building, on the UCD campus at Belfield. Reservations can be made via am@ucd.ie