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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Strategic CSR - Relative morality

The article in the url below raises an interesting question about the relative nature of the morals that guide day-to-day behavior. It does so in a particular context – the finance industry:
“Picture yourself in the late 1700s. You're the manager of an ‘ethical fund’ specialising in investing in Caribbean plantations that don't use slave labour. You're debating with a group of financiers. They see your fund as a marginal offering for those who want to be nice, but not fit for rational, prudent investors.”
The author makes the obvious point that, today, such issues are moot:
“Nowadays nobody gets a badge for not using slave labour. It's considered to be normal rather than explicitly ethical.”
While issues like the use of slave labor are behind us (for the most part), the author equates the historical scenario above with the contemporary one of investments in carbon-intensive industries. Perhaps in future decades/centuries, he suggests, we will look back with similar incomprehension that this was ever an issue for debate, let alone resistance:
“Likewise, many current fund managers perceive investment in high carbon projects as entirely normal, rational or inevitable. If you want to be overtly ‘ethical’, you have the option of green funds. But it should be taken for granted that sustainability is a standard feature of investment, not a nice exception.”
Rather than an issue of individual morality, however, the author argues that the finance industry is beset with “institutional amorality”—structures embedded within the day-to-day operations that allow individual investors to distance themselves from the consequences of their actions/decisions:
“The major problem of the financial sector is not individual immorality. It's institutional amorality, the sense that there is nothing abnormal occurring whilst delivering a slow-motion punch to the face of society. They use technology which help to abstract real life situations – like mountain-top coal removal – into spreadsheets. The dynamics of stockmarkets increasingly encourage investors to think of investments in terms of prices, not real world assets.”
Although such structures are damaging, history teaches us that they are also temporary:
“Not using slave labour is currently characterised as normal rational investment, whereas not destroying ecosystems is considered ‘ethical’,’emotional’ or ‘irrational’. Perhaps most insidious though, is the pervasive denial of creative agency found in certain parts of the financial sector. The investment management industry refuses to accept that they actively define the future through their investment choices, disingenuously casting themselves as mere servants of others.”
This time and these standards will pass, just as those before have come and gone. The issue is whether they will pass sufficiently quickly before lasting damage is done.
Take care
David Chandler & Bill Werther
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The problem of the financial sector is institutional amorality
By Brett Scott
December 5, 2013
The Guardian