In a piece from the Prospect, MacIntyre weighs in on our current troubles and suggests that the issue goes right to the heart of the financial system we have constructed and upon which we depend.
There are skills, he argues, like being a good burglar, that are inimical to the virtues. Those engaged in finance—particularly money trading—are, in MacIntyre’s view, like good burglars. Teaching ethics to traders is as pointless as reading Aristotle to your dog. The better the trader, the more morally despicable.
MacIntyre’s work in virtue theory provides a vantage point for his analysis:
MacIntyre appeals to the classical golden mean: “The courageous human being,” he cites Aristotle as saying, “strikes a mean between rashness and cowardice… and if things go wrong she or he will be among those who lose out.” But skilful money-men, MacIntyre argues, want to transfer as much risk as possible to others without informing them of its nature. This leads to a failure to “distinguish adequately between rashness, cowardice and courage.” Successful money-men do not—and cannot—take into account the human victims of the collateral damage resulting from market crises. Hence the financial sector is in essence an environment of “bad character” despite the fact that it appears to many a benevolent engine of growth.
MacIntyre argues that debt has been used to resolve a fundamental problem of capitalism:
MacIntyre maintains, however, that the system must be understood in terms of its vices—in particular debt. The owners and managers of capital always want to keep wages and other costs as low as possible. “But, insofar as they succeed, they create a recurrent problem for themselves. For workers are also consumers and capitalism requires consumers with the purchasing power to buy its products. So there is tension between the need to keep wages low and the need to keep consumption high.” Capitalism has solved this dilemma, MacIntyre says, by bringing future consumption into the present by dramatic extensions of credit.
Such a solution is, of course, not sustainable for any real length of time. If MacIntyre is correct, then any long term fix will require a fundamental re-thinking of our financial practices. A tall order and one that may never happen unless (or until) those new dark ages MacIntyre famously warns about descend and force a new way of reckoning.
H/T Steven Rybicki