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Kierkegaard's bankers

Every bonus season erodes confidence that capitalism is capable of distributing rewards in an acceptable way, and yet nobody will give up their bonuses.

Ever since people started attacking bankers and others for the large amounts of money that they earn, their defenders have come out with a peculiar argument – that the reason people dislike bankers is because those critics envy their riches. That’s not true. Those same City of London types have also snorted with derision at the protestors who have set up tents outside St Paul’s and occupied buildings in the Square Mile on the grounds that they are middle class. Somehow, it is suggested, their supposed class invalidates their arguments. But if the protestors are wealthy, or at least comfortable and insulated from the downturn, then it doesn’t hold much water to say that they are envious.

It’s interesting that this argument so quickly becomes personal. That seems to be a feature of the moral universe that the bankers and their defenders inhabit. Take British prime minister David Cameron’s comment at the weekend when the furore over Royal Bank of Scotland’s Stephen Hester’s £1 million bonus was at its zenith. Asked whether Hester was right to take the cash, Cameron said that it is “a matter for individuals” whether they accept their bonuses. It’s hard to imagine another ethical question on which the prime minister would take such a reductive view. Does the family-values PM believe that, for example, adultery is a “matter for individuals”?

Most people agree that there is more to ethical decision-making than considering the desires of individuals. It’s a sine qua non of being ethical that you also look at the impact of their actions on others.

Okay, Cameron took back his comment later on, but it’s instructive to contrast his intervention with Mervyn King’s last week. The governor of the Bank of England said: “The legitimacy of a market economy will inevitably be challenged if rewards go disproportionately to a small elite.” He realises that the decisions to pay and receive bonuses have an impact beyond the individuals doing the paying and receiving – and a very negative one.

Every bonus season erodes confidence that capitalism is capable of distributing rewards in an acceptable way, and yet nobody will give up their bonuses. It should never have reached this stage; the City should have become more transparent and explained why people earned this sort of money two years ago. Instead they stuck to the idea that pay is a matter for employers and employees alone, and nobody else. They’re wrong.

The banker who grabs his massive pay-packet, horrifying everybody else, is reminiscent of Abraham as he appears in Soren Kierkegaard’s book Fear and Trembling. Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son Isaac because God tells him to, even though his actions are totally unacceptable in the eyes of the world, absolutely against every moral system.

Kierkegaard sees Abraham as transgressive, frightening, possibly mad but also heroic because he is motivated by faith. Acting in a wildly immoral, self-destructive way is acceptable when it’s for God, thinks Kierkegaard. But when it’s for the sake of a load of cash that you don’t even need? That just sounds grubby.

The reason that people rail against bankers is that their behaviour is seen as destabilising. Their bloody-mindedness threatens to damage capitalism, which they claim to value. It’s like watching somebody stumbling towards a precipice, but they can’t see it because the massive bag of money they are carrying is blocking their view.

It’s not envy that people feel for bankers. At this stage in the game, it’s something closer to pity.

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