Leiden Law Blog

The amoral mentality of bankers

The amoral mentality of bankers

Since the Dutch anthropologist and journalist Joris Luyendijk published his successful book ‘Dit kan niet waar zijn. Onder bankiers’ (This cannot be true. Among bankers) he has been appearing regularly in the media to expand on his findings about the world of bankers. In an interview in the Dutch newspaper Trouw (28 April 2015) he says a few interesting things which caught my attention about the mentality of bankers with respect to the law. He states that bankers generally behave amorally. Their only concern, for example in the case of large bonuses, is whether they are acting according to the rules - whether their behaviour is permitted by law. In other words, the written law codes allow them to act amorally, to be totally unconcerned about the larger world around them.

Economic thinking

Luyendijk stresses that some bankers do actually have some morals, but that they just don’t apply them to their work. He met people who are deeply religious, but leave the values of their church, synagogue or mosque behind them when acting in a professional capacity. Economic science has provided the bankers with a justification for such amoral behaviour in their work. They strictly follow the dogma they have learned during their study of economics: that life is essentially about gathering as many commodities as you can.

Traffic signs

Luyendijk makes the attitude of bankers visible by taking the example of a car driver. If a traffic sign says the maximum speed is 120 km per hour, and I am driving 180, I am committing an offence, I am criminal. I am amoral when I am driving 120 km per hour because the traffic sign says I can, and it turns out I am driving at this speed through an urban area. So in his view bankers are driving at 120 through an urban area. They have no concern for the world around them. They are not interested in the damage that is caused by their behaviour.

The broader perspective

Luyendijk found that this amoral attitude is not limited to bankers and is something that has pervaded our whole society. At the many talks he has given, people have told him that the same attitude reigns in hospitals, schools and business in general. Because of this amoral attitude the value of work is no longer measured by the inherent quality of whatever is produced, but merely by the output in figures. 
According to Luyendijk we can justify our amoral attitude because in our world morality has become very suspect: we have become sick of it after 2000 years of Christianity taking away the rights of women, homosexuals and others. Yet he acknowledges that we badly need some kind of morality after all – without wanting to go back to what we have fortunately left behind us. To activate this morality he thinks we could start (again) with the Golden Rule: do not do unto others, what you would not have them do to you.

The spirit of the law

This brings my previous blog about ‘the law that everyone should know’ to mind. In this blog I made it clear that the spirit on which all law codes rest is this Golden Rule: without this basis the law codes don’t work and are impossible to maintain through the power of legal authorities. All law codes assume a basic moral compass that exists within us. They assume that civilised society is characterised by people having respect for the other, giving him or her a prominent place in their lives.
So while the written law codes might leave room for the amoral behaviour of bankers, the whole of the law – that is, including its moral basis – definitely does not. When law codes are used by bankers for selfish gains, they might not violate any specific rule, but they do violate the deeper spirit of the law, which – for instance – assumes that civilised people naturally slow down when driving in an urban area, even when they are allowed to drive at 120 km per hour.  

Welcome to the whole person!

When we consider the widespread amorality at work and the way people get cut off completely from their surrounding world, leading superficial lives in a separate world, I think there is only one way to get us out of the crisis. We have to unmask the homo economicus within us and become a whole person again, someone who is not split mentally in a private or professional person, and who genuinely feels connected to other people and the surrounding world. Then we do not need to check the written laws to see if our behaviour is permitted or not: we already know by looking deep within ourselves.

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