Thought for the Day - Catherine Pepinster

A whole series of questions, claims and counter-claims – and even calls for criminal prosecutions - are beginning to appear in the wake of the allegations about Barclays Bank and its manipulation of lending rates to enhance its profits. This is becoming not just an issue about one bank and particular individuals but a wider debate about a culture of money in Britain.

There’s been unease for some time about our financial affairs, and not just the conduct of banks. How individuals deal with their own money is also a talking point. Tax avoidance for instance is legal, but is it moral? There’s an underlying concern that we’ve lost our way, as if financial gain is the sole arbiter of success.

So how should people behave when it comes to money? This question is hardly new, and one of the wisest answers of all is more than 2,000 years old. Aristotle’s view was that society will only prosper if humanity practises the virtues of courage, prudence, justice and temperance. While it might be prudent and just – and indeed, sensible, to look after one’s own interests – the ancient Greeks saw the practice of virtue as above all enhancing the common good. In other words if you exercise virtue you focus on the good of society. Take temperance. If you accept that you moderate what you do and what you desire, then there is an inbuilt restraint on the pursuit of profit.

These Aristotelian ideas live on in the body of Roman Catholic theology called Catholic Social Teaching which emphasises the need for the human person to always be at the centre of what we do, including how we deal with money.

Pope Benedict, in his own major study on the financial crisis, acknowledged the importance of the profit motive and the market. But he went on to say that precisely because the economy is part and parcel of human activity, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner. It’s not just a matter of regulation and compliance but individuals need to be personally responsible as well.

Those who work in the global financial markets have learnt to operate amid ever-more complicated rules and procedures. But there’s always a risk that rules can be got round and they can even be an excuse for people to avoid being morally accountable themselves.

In one of Christ’s most famous parables, he told the story of the house built on sand that was blown down by the wind, while the house built on rock endured despite the gales. Without the solid foundations of a strong ethical base, our financial world will continue to be buffeted by the storms of the economic crisis.

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