He is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow-citizens.  – Adam Smith

Must Bankers be Bad

Is “financial ethics” an oxymoron? Or can culture, regulation, and individual virtue be called upon to make modern financial systems serve the common good? At an event at the Birmingham Impact Hub on Saturday 25th November, academics from the History Department and the university’s new Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business used their research to spark a public discussion on these themes, ranging over the course of ninety minutes from Hollywood films like Wolf of Wall Street to the complexities of crypto-currency and credit unions.

The event, part of the annual Being Human Festival, engaged a diverse audience from across the West Midlands and as far afield as Gloucestershire, with a wide variety of experiences and viewpoints. Crossing academic disciplines, as well as continents and centuries, the conversation considered questions of public and private interest, the roles of public regulation and private virtue, and the ethical agency of individuals caught up in vast, impersonal systems.

Chairing the event, Tom Cutterham drew on his research into how 18-century financiers understood their ethical responsibilities. Emma Barrett shared her work on the finance industry during the so-called Big Bang under Margaret Thatcher, uncovering how financial workers in the period constructed their identities and networks—and construed the moral content of their working lives. And Yan Huo explained her recent study of contemporary finance-workers’ (and business students’) own reflections on virtue and character, conducted with the university’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Contributions from the public included discussions of ethical investment choices, alternative models of financial systems, and the changing culture of career choice for British children—as well as the role of imperial and colonial violence in the growth of institutions like Lloyds Bank itself. Among the many questions the event raised for further reflection were, what are the ideal characteristics of good bankers; what we can do to contribute to good banking system; and, how can the University foster graduates with the capacity to promote good banking practice? All topics ripe for further public engagement in the future.