312. The law, the market, and honour
The law is imposed, regardless of one’s inclination, interest or morality. The market is self-regulating, in theory, based only on self-interest.
Imperfections and limits of laws and markets raise the need for morality, based on some form of ethics. Best known, perhaps, is Kantian duty ethics. In this blog I have argued for a broader virtue ethics, with, among others, the ‘pivotal’ virtues of reason, courage, moderation and justice.
The problem with duty ethics and also, though perhaps to a lesser extent, with virtue ethics, is that they are largely driven by reason and may therefore lack motivating force, particularly in the present, which seems increasingly driven by emotions.
How can morality, in benevolence towards others, and virtues, as instruments of ‘the good life’, gain emotional commitment? In other words, how can they become more self-driven, self-motivating, like markets, while maintaining the orientation towards the well-being of others, unlike markets?
The desirability of this is two-fold. First, it adds intrinsic value of self-motivation, making one feel good. Second, there is an economic argument. The law, duties, and other regulation require expensive monitoring and control.
In my attempt to bring in virtues, beyond self-interest, into economics and politics, in this blog, I have tried to maintain personal freedom of the choice of the good life. For that, I made a distinction between public virtues, to be shared, and personal virtues, left to individual choice.
Public virtues are virtues of allowing for, indeed appreciating, variety of choice of the good life, ability and commitment to listen, and to voice as well as accept constructive criticism, in dialogues and debates on truth and morality, empathy in understanding the motives and positions of others. One would like to have not only personal commitment to the common good of such public virtues, but also commitment to uphold it in public.
How can this goal be loaded with emotional commitment?
Kwame Anthony Appiah offered a solution in the form of a restoration of honour, under the condition that it is morally right.[i] The latter condition is crucial, since honour in the past has strongly tended to be amoral, yielding exclusion, subjugation, violence and terror. Appiah discusses the cases of duelling, footbinding in China, slave trade, and honour killings of women.
Appiah clarifies honour as follows. People have a deeply rooted thirst for respect, and following an honour code yields that, either publicly or privately, in self-respect, or both. As Appiah put it: honour makes a private impulse public.
For positive examples, think of professional honour codes of soldiers, policemen, doctors, scientists, journalists, and, one would hope, managers and politicians.
With the encroachment of neo-liberal market ideology, such hour codes have eroded, replaced by material incentives, and a shift from professional honour to a substitute in the form of power and wealth. That has yielded a mushrooming of costs of monitoring and control.
Elsewhere in this blog (item 75) I argued for a the notion of ‘horizontal control’, where the ones to be controlled are involved in the determination of the instruments of control. There were two arguments for this. One is the satisfaction of more autonomy, with more room for choice, action and improvisation, for its intrinsic worth and its economic worth of motivation, quality, and innovation. The second is the reduced economic cost of monitoring and control.
However, here also, to strengthen motivation, one may need to re-instate professional or organizational honour.
For example, consider the experience with perverse conduct in financial markets that precipitated the crises starting in 2008. To remedy this, I proposed the introduction of other virtues than only utility. And institutional reform to reduce the incentives for bankers and banks to act against public interest. And to reduce the short-termism of financial markets,
Only then, I argued, would some ethical education of bankers make sense. One needs to create the conditions for ethical conduct to be viable. Now I add that this may, in addition, require a re-instatement, or a novel formation, of professional honour, to make virtuous conduct more self-regulating.