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June 18, 2013

Star Trek and Enterprise for the Common Good

You may wonder what a Star Trek movie and a discussion event on the floor of St Paul’s Cathedral featuring a banking CEO may have in common. Read on.

Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins, acknowledged they "had repeatedly let down society" when he took the floor at an event on the City and the Common Good. "Bankers were too focused on the short-term, too self serving and too aggressive in their actions leading up to the global credit crunch" he admitted. No wonder there is a culture change programme underway in light of the Salz review and newly released banking commission findings. The public paid a high price for the bank’s misdeeds.

The theme of the evenings discussion, which featured a keynote from the Archbishop of Canterbury included: "What light might be shed by speaking of the "common good" and drawing on the ancient wisdom in the traditions of the faiths."

Many relevant and very wise references were indeed made; to the Good Samaritan, to Saint Benedict, to the influence of Quaker thought in the founding of Barclays, as well as the particular nuances of Adam Smith.

In particular, the JK Galbraith’s quote: "Conscience is the fear that someone else might be watching" resonated with me. With a spate of business scandals globally it is clear there isn’t enough watching. The role of the regulators and rules remain hotly debated. However, we should also look to our own actions in pursuit of the common good.

What came to mind is the ancient wisdom derived from the latest Star Trek movie, Into Darkness. As I dodged the flying debris from behind my 3D glasses, I was pretty sure I was watching an ethical parable. At this point, I would love to present to you my analysis of various theories that were being played out by The Enterprise’s captain and crew. But as I have to resort to online searches to figure out who St Benedict was, and to brush up on Adam Smith, my time studying political economy is now a distant blur, I typed in Star Trek Ethics. You try it. Blimey. Obviously I hadn’t been engaging with Spock et al enough. In addition to the thousands of entries is an entire book devoted to the topic.

So, with my conscience in check, I will refer to Dr David Kyle Johnson writing in Psychology today and his analysis of the actions of Scotty, the ship’s engineer, in the latest adventure. He argues that the full range of ethical theories, be that Utilitarianism, Kantian duty, or Feminist ethics may sometimes conflict. Yet considering their application to a situation can help us form the right decision.

Scotty, in the film, refused to sign for torpedoes on the ship without knowing what was inside them, despite the orders of the Admiral’s demand that he do so. He highlights the risks to no avail and resigns. Professional accountants have their own ethical guidance. Scotty’s actions upheld the IFAC Code of Ethics. He was exhibiting his commitment to objectivity, putting the concerns of the ship and the crew above his own, and not compromising from the "undue influence of others" as well as Integrity. Had he signed it off it would have been materially false and misleading. He chose, as the Code advises, to disassociate. Although later, he re-engages in order to help save the day, not least when he has been proven right. Carrying those torpedoes was a very bad idea and just following orders is no excuse. The world needs more Scottys.

Every scandal in business has at its roots wrong decisions that have been ignored or colluded with for short term gain, with a long term price affecting many.

As the IFAC Code states "A distinguishing mark of the accountancy profession is its acceptance of the responsibility to act in the public interest." Or in Vulcan terms: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." With their key role in business, accountants everywhere should be mindful of their commitments. Which perhaps others in "Enterprise" should aspire to uphold.

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