Religious leaders (with the exception of the Holy Father himself) tend not to operate in a specifically religious register when they are speaking about moral questions, to a general audience of those who may or may not be religious. They will rightly not, for instance, insist that you need to be religious to be moral. But they will insist that morality is relevant to public affairs. They will, that is, if they have anything to say in the first place.
So what, if anything, are they saying about the Libor scandal? As a result of this affair, we are to have an all-party parliamentary committee of both Houses into the “culture and practices of banking”. It will, no doubt, come to the conclusion that careful assessment has been displaced by greed, reckless risk-taking and contempt for customers and that bankers are now unduly concerned at the size of their bonuses and will naturally behave in such a way as to maximise them. They will also conclude that this is inevitable without proper regulation, that so-called “light-touch” regulation is to blame for recent scandals and that new, strict standards of ethical conduct must be imposed on bankers by the Financial Services Authority and by the criminal law. It will suggest appropriate legislation to bring this about, and the Financial Services Authority will tighten up its controls. The conclusion, in other words, will be that bankers will of course necessarily behave badly, unless they are tightly controlled.
We have heard nothing about the Libor scandal, so far as I can see, from our own bishops; perhaps they are still scratching their heads and wondering what Libor stands for (it is the London Interbank Offered Rate, your lordships), but don’t ask me how they fiddled it, or how the fiddle made anyone rich, since the whole point is, I thought, that the banks weren’t lending any money anyway, so nobody, in effect, was actually offering anything at all. But those in the know say it was all pretty dubious; so assuming it was, what is the moral to draw?
The only religious leader to speak on the scandal so far, so far as I can see, has been the admirable and predictably coherent as well as forceful Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who in the Times on Saturday said: “The banking scandals, rate fixing and resignations may have a silver lining if they awaken us to a fact about which we have been in denial for decades. Morality matters. Not just laws, regulations, supervisory authorities, committees of inquiry, courts, fines and punishments, but morality: the inner voice of self-restraint that tells us not to do something even when it is to our advantage, even though it may be legal and even if there is a fair chance it won’t be found out. Because it’s wrong. Because it’s dishonourable. Because it is a breach of trust. We are reaching the endgame of a failed experiment: society’s attempt to live without a shared moral code.”
Rabbi Sacks, you will note, says nothing here about religion. This is because he wants to appeal to the idea of a shared moral code, so he doesn’t want to suggest that without religion you can’t have one. And of course he’s right: you can be a moral person without religion. You can even be a moral banker without religion. I have, as it happens, a good friend who is a very wealthy banker, and who has done more good in the world than anyone else I know including me, precisely because that is what he is. He has over the years been paid by his merchant bank many millions in bonuses. But since he has considered that he was already paid quite enough to make him as wealthy as anyone needs to be, he has simply put all the bonus money into a charitable trust, with which he does untold good to those less fortunate than himself. And he has very little time for what he would no doubt call “organised religion”.
Now, you can certainly be a good and honourable person, even one who considers that doing good is a moral imperative, without religion. But there can be little doubt that it is a lot harder for most people, and certainly for society as a whole, effectively to believe this. It may be the case that as the Catechism of the Catholic Church has it: “Man participates in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator, who gives him mastery over his acts and the ability to govern himself with a view to the true and the good” – and that “the natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin”.
It is all true, very true. All the same, as the Catechism goes on to say: “This command of human reason would not have the force of law if it were not the voice and interpreter of a higher reason to which our spirit and our freedom must be submitted”: and the simple fact is that if you actually believe in the objective existence of that “higher reason”, and are part of a religious culture which is based on that belief, then the notion of a shared moral code is an awful lot easier to accept. Rabbi Sacks recently gave an interview to the Huffington Post in which he addressed the question of the role of religion in developing such a shared ethical code: “We have,” he said, “a natural moral sense”:
I do not want to suggest that you have to be religious to be moral. We have always had these two imperatives that take us in conflicting directions. There is the drive for survival and there is the drive for co-operation — the altruistic element.
Charles Darwin understood this, and we are beginning to pick up on this in evolutionary psychology and also in neuroscience. We pass our genes on as individuals but we survive in groups, and groups only survive on the basis of altruism. So we are caught in the perennial tension between the drive to good, and instinct to self-preservation that sees everyone as a means to our ends.
So we all have a moral sense; the question is, what are the settings or environments that strengthen that sense and allow us to combat some of the more destructive human instincts? Religion is always focused on that question. It’s not that we need to be religious to know what is good, but we need to be religious in order to be educated in the habits of the heart that lead people to be moral. And we know those habits have to be inculcated by constant practice, which we do in religion through prayer and ritual. They need to be cultivated in community, and today religions are the strongest, maybe the only really strong communities that we have left.
And so I think religions make people better able to act on the moral sense.
The fact is that in a secularised culture it is particularly difficult to establish a shared moral sense. It is interesting that it was Janet Daly rather than Rabbi Sacks (she is Jewish but not, I think, religiously observant), who in the Telegraph yesterday suggested that we actually need religious standards, not only in banking but in everything else. “Is there nothing to be done,” she asked “…about the culture of Banking? Some people are arguing that capitalist enterprise cannot be properly conducted without a basis in religious principle. I find this claim quite persuasive, but surely it applies to everything else in life as much as to the banking crisis?
“Arguments for upholding moral standards of any kind are difficult to maintain without an ultimate appeal to absolute truth. Why not do the wicked thing if it brings you personal gain? How far can you get in providing an answer to that question without calling on something like a religious belief in the need to be good?”
The answer frankly is, not very far at all. What we end up with, in a relativist society, is a relativist morality, in other words with no shared moral beliefs at all. There is only one thing to add, from a Catholic perspective. It is this. Why is it that yet again I am hearing this argued so persuasively by Jews, lay and religious, and not by my own bishops? I only ask; I’m sure there’s an excellent reason.
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