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 my own good in my 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 I speak of? 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.
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 licence to operate given by society. In my view, then, 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 minimising 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 organisation 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 recognising 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 commentators such as John Kay 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 themselves simply as there to maximise 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 programmes 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 good for people and society, but critically depends on a business having a clear purpose to serve society.
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 organise the world of work at the service of the common good.
Extracts of the speech given by the Archbishop of Westminster on 11 April, at the first of a series of events entitled “The City and the common good – what kind of City do we want?” follow. A full text of the speech is also available for download here: Good People