While it may sound like an echo of Aristophanes’ play “The Clouds” or even “The Birds”, the above quotation actually comes from what is considered a key staring point in the modern study of ethics, entitled “The Ethics of Belief” by Professor W K Clifford, published some 140 years ago. Of course, the seminal work of Western philosophy in this area is Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, but that is focused more on what constitutes the “good life”. Here we are concerned with modes of thought, rather than actions.
While a full reading of this mid-Victorian era essay would probably cause disquiet in terms of some of the examples used, that should not detract from the author’s underlying purpose of teasing out why and how it is unethical and, indeed, harmful to one’s self and to others to be credulous in what one believes- something which seems increasingly relevant in a world of “truthiness” and even “post-truth”, where “false news” (rather an oxymoron) allegedly abounds.
We all know that the truth has consequences; but so does its opposite, as we have witnessed on more than one important occasion during 2016. It is, therefore, critical if one is to be able to make effective and ethical decisions to have the capacity to distinguish between the two. Perhaps ironically in the circumstances, “Trust, but verify” takes on new meaning.
While, as we have written before, “one has to start somewhere” and that it is rational to regard some matters as being “reasonably certain” (for example, that the sun will rise tomorrow), many factors are, in reality, not directly verifiable, or are probabilistic. The question of ethics becomes relevant because decisions and actions also have consequences: what is it right or reasonable to believe based upon the evidence available, and what are the actions or decisions that appropriately flow from that belief? What are the likely consequences? If one’s actions or decisions ignore the evidence then, according to Clifford, one is acting unethically.
The world of finance is often a target of those seeking to land a seemingly easy blow; but in our view it is more important to distinguish between those who willfully choose to be blind to worrisome signals and thus harm not only themselves but also those dependent upon their decisions and actions, and those who raise often uncomfortable questions and chose to pursue a sometimes difficult quest. The former eventually suffer opprobrium and often oblivion, while the latter are eventually rewarded for their perseverance and integrity.
And another phrase from Clifford’s essay seems particularly apt as to how one should determine “the truth”: that it should stand “in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning”; while the truth is “desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements for the solace and private pleasure of the believer”. At Awbury, we are very much of the belief that we must challenge assumptions and verify data if we are to operate successfully; and we are, frankly, concerned that it may seem acceptable to distort and misrepresent facts, as well as the behaviours and beliefs of others. We are very much believers in the rigorous pursuit of the right outcome, even if that may be long, hard process.
While we believe strongly in the profit motive and that generating wealth for ourselves and our partners, while adding value to our clients’ risk management needs, is both moral and ethical, we remain adamant that it must be done with the proper alignment of interests, which is reinforced by being straightforward and ethical in how we conduct ourselves.
And on that note, may we wish all our clients, partners and advisors the compliments of the season!
The Awbury Team