By Jonathan B. Wight
Nathaniel B. Davis has a provocative piece in the NY Times, “If War Can Have Ethics, Wall Street Can, Too.”
He observes that free market proponents argue that the market is amoral but this is an impossibility when you are dealing with human interaction. In practice, Wall Street has drifted into immorality, most recently revealed by Wells Fargo.
Davis is Director of Defense and Strategic Studies at West Point. He notes that even in the ugliness of war, humanity has lifted itself by agreeing to standards of moral conduct, such as for the treatment of prisoners and the non-use of chemical weapons. This may seem like a minor matter, and rogue nations may of course abuse these conventions.
One example he does not raise is that of the United States, which through impunity holds prisoners at Guantanamo for decades without trial or without even charges brought. The legal loopholes through which we dance look shallow and provide moral ammunition to our enemies, in my opinion. But more to the point, the usefulness of the rules of engagement is overshadowed by their rightness in a Kantian sense.
Davis unfortunately repeats the canard that Smith’s invisible hand somehow meant everything would automatically work for the better, regardless of institutions or ethics. Readers of this blog know that Smith thought justice was the main pillar of society, and individuals would need to develop self-control as a means for creating a just society. Moreover, people would need to develop an internal moral compass, exactly that described by Davis as necessary in war (where a soldier must resist orders that are immoral).
There’s a lot to ponder in this excellent essay.