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The irrelevance of ethics

The title may seem a bit presumptuous, a harsh statement. And in fact, however, this is the title of an article published in the book Virtue and economy: Essays on morality and markets. The article in question is from an author of paramount importance to the context of ethics, more precisely the ethics of virtues, Alasdair MacIntyre.

In this article MacIntyre makes a harsh criticism of the possibility of the agent being ethical when working in the financial area. Already in the beginning of the text MacIntyre describes for example that it is impossible to deny that there is a problem and that was notably in the period that followed the large-scale economic disasters that advanced capitalism of modernity has recently brought itself and the peoples of the world. In this sense, MacIntyre explains that: “The presupposition of such discussion has been that individuals who went astray in their judgments and actions often did so only because they had failed to pay sufficient heed to what the standards of the virtues enjoin, and so had been morally misguided as to what standards should have guided them in their money-making activities “(MacIntyre, 2015, p.7).

MacIntyre is criticizing ethics in the financial sector and telling us that what is missing in individuals is an ethical dimension. MacIntyre further argues in the text that the acquisition of moral virtues would weaken one’s ability to be a good operator in the financial system, and conversely, proper training in the virtues of good negotiation militates directly against the acquisition of moral virtues.

MacIntyre’s argument comes in four points and my intention in this article is to describe these points proposed by him. The question that surrounds such arguments is: What then are the habits we must acquire if we are to act as morally responsible agents? (MacIntyre, 2015, p.9).

The first moral characteristic in which he discusses is based not on Aristotle as he makes clear, but on D.W. Winnicott for a psychoanalytic understanding of the influence of mothers on children’s character. The idea is that mothers need to find a way between a too strict and a too indulgent regime. If a child is brought up in a too strict regime, he or she tends to be too complacent according to MacIntyre and thus, deferent to authority, that is, too indulgent. On the other hand, a too indulgent regime may lead the child to not be able to distinguish realities from the projections of her or his fantasies. In this sense, a first mark of moral character is a moderate realism about itself. According to MacIntyre there is little opportunity for this virtue in the financial sector.

The second characteristic proposed is courage. Courage is for MacIntyre, relying now on Aristotle, is a mean between rashness and cowardice. For MacIntyre this would be the second characteristic of a morally responsible agent. Thus, he describes: She or he is able to assess impending dangers accurately, to identify the resources available to confront those dangers, and to judge which risks it is reasonable to take and which ones are foolhardy, whether those risks are her or himself or to others.

MacIntyre also says that the morally brave agent puts himself on the front line, that is, if something goes wrong he (the agent) will also share the losses. Thus, the financial agent ends up being very much based on formulas, which in itself has nothing wrong with it, but which ultimately relies on mathematical sophistication in risk analysis, for example, which leaves them “unable to fail to be capable of properly distinguishing between temerity, cowardice and courage “(MacIntyre, 2015, p.11).

The third feature proposed is the virtue of justice where people are not only concerned with their own issues but with the issues of others around them. What these people who have such characteristics “have understood is that the realization of their own good is inseparable from their realization of a set of common good, common good shared with those whose lives they meet or those in which their lives impact their various activities “(MacIntyre, 2015, p.10).

It is common for financial agents to act in their own interest at the cost of others. This issue seems to us to be very widespread in the most diverse corporate activities, as well as in the theoretical assumptions, as seen in the work of Jensen and Meckling in 1976.

The fourth characteristic of those who have developed moral character is not a focus on the present to the detriment of the future, nor a focus on the future to the detriment of the present. For MacIntyre it is to understand the sense of history, that is, to understand oneself as responsible not only for this or that set of actions, but for living and having lived out one’s life well or badly. MacIntyre describes it as “preferring honorable failure to dishonest success and knowing what to do when it fails” (MacIntyre, 2015, p.10). Thus, the fourth characteristic is a sense of the historical context of its actions. For him, financial agents “are kept strictly to account for short-term successes and failures under conditions of extreme competitiveness, where the immediate response to price changes is required of them” (MacIntyre, 2015, p.11). This short-term view prevents the required virtue from developing.

In this context, it seems clear to me that MacIntyre is emphatically against the possibility of virtuous action by financial agents. Either you are well trained for acting in the financial context as a professional trader or investor in the market or you would not be an excellent professional investor if you have acquired moral virtues. Either it’s one thing or another, but not both. What do you think?


MacIntyre, A. C. (2015). The Irrelevance of Ethics. In A. Bielskis & K. Knight (Eds.), Virtue and Economy. (pp. 7–21). Ashgate.

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