Thursday, May 18, 2006

Raw War and Ethics

Bruce Nauman's exhibition at the Tate Liverpool reflects his frustration with the human condition, hence RAW WAR in neon and a cacophony of sound the equivalent, he says, of being hit with a baseball bat. Nauman is trying to overcome the limitations of human interaction. One of these is that our values have gone awry.

In writing about professions as I do, the role of values and ethics is supposed to figure large in their activities. The demise of Enron and other companies shows us that lawyers and accountants have given up on ethics. Globalization intensifies this move. Parsons wrote about the orientations of actors on a range of dimensions, including values. This enables actors to coexist, ie, the Hobbesian problem of order. The prevailing value orientation today is the market. And if the market is to dominate our activities and values, perhaps the market should determine the ethical outcomes.

Enron's implosion brought about Sarbanes-Oxley, a box-ticking exercise in detecting proper behaviour in business. The market says, in effect, compete with me, which opens up the statute to a range of legal and business interpretations, some of which carry higher risk premiums than others.

In the UK, there is a reluctance to follow this path in favour of establishing "principles" to which people can adhere. The difficulty is that using principles necessitates shared value orientations, which are clearly absent in 21st century UK. Principles harkens to a 19th century version of gentlemanly practices where common schooling and university education inculcated a set of values that was understood if never articulated.

We see this being played out now. The Financial Services Authority has just lost a case against a "former pipe-fitter" on market manipulation. Why is it necessary to refer to him always as a former pipe-fitter? Well, he's not a gentleman, of course. Principles are not going to work. Only a market in regulation will suffice.

I'm afraid Bruce Nauman will continue to be frustrated, but at least he can portray that feeling with great artistry so that we can share it.

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