Public Service and Responsibility

According to today’s headlines, the most important recommendation in the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards’ report is that bankers should be jailed for recklessness when their actions cause their institutions to fail. Quite apart from the fact that I suspect lawyers would have an ‘interesting’ time establishing criminal negligence when the decisions that lead to failure are, in most cases, group decisions of the Board or management team or whatever, I do wonder whether the media have simply seized on something that resonates with public anger rather than on something more substantive, that might actually eradicate the causes of failure as distinct from dealing with the consequences.

At the same time as we are reading about bankers comes news that the Guides are to drop references to God and country in their promises in an effort to be more ‘inclusive’. Am I alone in thinking that there may be a connection between the two, and that it has to do with the concept of public service and responsibility? The language we use to define our loyalties and to express our relationships is critically important. Our private morality, using that word in the widest sense, inevitably affects our public morality and the way we see our obligations to others. If we acknowledge no good to be served other than self, we shrink our world and our values. I have sometimes asked myself whether the decline in public standards reflects this private shift in values. As a Benedictine, my vows are publicly professed and commit me to the observance of certain standards in both public and private life. Maybe both bankers and Guides could usefully ask themselves what standards they intend to live by, too.

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Being Special

Today’s section of the Rule, RB 60 On Priests who May Wish to Live in the Monastery, is not just for priests and monastics. It is for all who are special or think they are or are considered such by others. In short, it is really for all of us, because in a few short sentences Benedict gets to the nub of a problem that is always cropping up in society: how far does talent, wealth or any other advantage set us apart from others. His answer is, not at all. Those who have received more should give an example of humility, and that is valid whether we live in a monastery or not.

Commentators are still picking over the recent riots and advancing various theories about why they happened. Careful readers will have noticed that I made some very similar remarks about rioters and looters as I have made in the past about bankers and politicians. The sad fact is that the greed and criminality we have witnessed on our streets is really no different from the greed and criminality we have witnessed in the boardrooms of our banks or in the expenses claims of some of our politicians. If, now, there are calls for severe punishment for those who ran amok earlier this week, shouldn’t there be renewed calls for something of the same for those who have set such a bad example in the past? No one is so special that he or she is exempt from moral responsibility.

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