Will Morris is Global Tax Policy Director for GE, chairs the CBI Tax Committee and is a priest at St Martin-in-the-Fields. He writes in a personal capacity. His new paper is published today by Reform.
I passionately believe that business has the potential to be good: from the innovative and beneficial goods business can produce, to the fulfilment people can find in work, to the ability it can give them to support their families. I also believe there is nothing wrong with encouraging work by seeking profit or creating wealth (both within reason).
But, increasingly, many feel that business does not live up to these standards. In surveys, a third of the public think that British businesses generally behave “not very ethically” or “not at all ethically”. Many people, from the Occupy movement to business leaders themselves, believe that some failure in business ethics helped to cause the financial crisis from which we are still suffering. The recent whistle-blower within Goldman Sachs (who claimed that people within the firm called their clients “Muppets”) will only have strengthened their fears.
I am both a priest and a tax lawyer, which are two opposite ends of the ethical spectrum to many people. But in both roles, while I believe that something has gone wrong, I really believe it is worth trying to fix. In my view the financial crisis showed that a new system of business ethics is needed. It was not so much that business ethics failed; rather, after decades of rapid change there was a vacuum where the ethical framework should have been. We need a new approach strong enough to work in our new globalised world, where more companies are owned at a distance and the positive influence of strong personal bonds and personal ownership plays less of a role.