The immediately obvious moral failures of the folks at GS were their violations of classic norms of professional ethics prohibiting conflicts of interest and harming clients. Much of the press coverage of the hearings focuses, quite appropriately, on that behavior and explaining the arcane technical details of how they did it. Laarman's article, although sprinkled with a bit more name-calling than I prefer (see "termites" below), delves more deeply into the worldview (or "corporate culture" if you prefer) that made a virtue of reversing those norms. Comparing the current generation of Wall Street elite to the robber barons of a hundred or so years ago, Laarman becomes almost nostalgic for that earlier breed of uber-capitalists. Among the GS crowd, he sees a:
set of deeply anti-democratic assumptions and behaviors. They don’t make any pretense at all of caring about the commonwealth; not for them the preachments against accumulation of an Andrew Carnegie (let alone the gift of libraries by the hundreds to cities large and small). Along with exotic CDOs, they have invented a new and quite brazen morality that imagines the pure extraction of wealth by means of high-speed computing to be a worthy activity for a human being. If they think of it at all, they doubtless think of taking the trouble to produce something of actual use value to be “so very 20th century.”
This, of course, is also what makes the deference and the cozy revolving-door relationships among the self-dealing termites and high-level government types so disturbing. It means that the same reptilian morality and the same sense of a special election has seeped into those whose job it is to serve the commonwealth.
It's that questioning of what constitutes "a worthy activity for a human being" that catches my eye. It returns us (see three blog entries ago) to an unavoidable topic in professional ethics: the spirituality of our work. Why do we work at all? What motivates us? What (or whose) purposes does our work serve? What does our work mean? What difference does it make? Why does the world need me to do this work? What kind of person does my work make of me? What kind of work is worthy of my life's effort? What makes good work good? Answers to these questions contribute directly to the moral conduct questions: in what manner, by what norms, should I work? Laarman's article is hardly the last word on the topic, but he is right to suggest that, beneath any instance of egregious profession misconduct, there is a system of assumptions and values that needs to be brought to light and called to account.