Morality and the Markets

Capitalism and ethics make uncomfortable bedfellows, thinks Giles Fraser.

In his fascinating introduction to the long-awaited St Paul's Institute report on morality and the City (PDF here), outgoing Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser tells a by-now familiar tale of how ethics in the financial markets were subverted by a combination of de-regulation and computerisation following the Big Bang of 1986. What was lost, he thinks, was the salutary effect of face-to-face communication that was basic to that prelapsarian world of old school ties, when an Englishman's word was his bond. He sounds positively misty-eyed about those far-off days:

The old City may have been an exclusive and inward looking club -- but the benefit of clubs is that members often have a better developed sense of values and are able to hold each other to account for failing to live up to the club's standards. As Albert Schweitzer put it: "Ethics is a state of solidarity with other human beings."

Put this another way: moral behaviour is bound up with empathy, and you're likely to feel more empathy with another person when you can see the whites of their eyes. No system of regulation can fully compensate for that. There's a truth in here, which is that human beings have a pronounced tendency to respond more warmly to people than to abstractions. Personal relationships engage the conscience, and also ancient and probably innate human instincts of loyalty and shame.

The moral Prime Directive underlying all this is that of reciprocity: as it is often expressed, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This sounds religious. It has been discovered and claimed as their own by all major world religions. But it is in fact pre-human, an evolved response to the problem of survival. Vampire bats are the standard example from nature. It is in the interest of bats to share the fruits of their bloodsucking with other, less advantaged bats, because the night may come when they themselves will have to rely on the generosity of a fellow bat. From such humble beginnings may derive our ethics and the most valuable insights of religion.

Yet human personal relationships have always been vulnerable to less wholesome passions: hatred, resentment, revenge, one-upmanship, herd mentality, contagious fear and intrigue. Giles Fraser admits that the pre-Big Bang City was not a paragon of virtue. He mentions the Guinness scandal as a case in point. His argument is that such problems are magnified when personal relationships are replaced by purely "transactional" ones, and the market itself becomes a source of virtue:

Appealing to the market as an independent authority, unconnected with human decisions about 'housekeeping', has meant in many contexts over the last few decades a ruinous legacy for heavily indebted countries, large-scale and costly social disruption even in developed economies; and, most recently, the extraordinary phenomena of a financial trading world in which the marketing of toxic debt became the driver of money-making -- until the bluffs were all called at the same time.

But there's a paradox here. For whatever the virtues of personal relationships the great moral insight of the market economy derives from its very impersonality, which for the first time made possible a kind of objective ethics. And the market is reciprocity in action. As Adam Smith famously said, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

The title of the St Paul's report, Value and values, is a reminder of how much of our moral vocabulary consists of metaphors derived from the marketplace. Value is a measure of what something is worth. And a "worthy" person is morally an upright one. If someone does you a favour you are in their debt, you owe them. And there's no such thing as a free lunch. Sooner or later will come payback time. You will be held to account for your actions. Respect, in life, has to be earned. Conversely, we believe that criminals should "pay" for their crimes, that betrayal is a sell-out and that politicians who lecture the rest of us while enjoying the privileges of office are morally bankrupt.

The moral language of the markets is as old as the Bible. The Old Testament reports that a king of Babylon was "weighed in the balance and found wanting", and tells us that the price of a virtuous woman is "far above rubies". In the "parable of the talents" (a talent being a large quantity of silver), Jesus speaks of spiritual capital as a sum of money with which you should speculate to accumulate. As for Muhammad, he worked for most of his life as a trader.

What all this suggests to me is that the trading relationship that developed in the first market economies enabled people to think about ethics and morality in new and interesting ways, and has thus been a source of moral progress.

Before the formalisation of relationships in the marketplace, there were "primitive", intuitive forms of social relationship: parent and child, sexual partnership, the wider kinship systems of the tribe, and the relationship of subordinate to superior in a dominance hierarchy. All such "natural" relationships are mediated by, and encourage, pre-moral forms of repriprocity: bribes, threats, genetic claims, feelings of social solidarity, etc.

Such relationships may contain the seeds of morality, but by themselves are not moral; in fact they can impede morality as we now understand it. We think it's wrong to bribe or threaten others or promote our relatives against better-qualified non-relatives, for example. For most of human history, and in some places even today, this would not have seemed obvious. That it seems obvious to us is one of the moral lessons of the market.

"Personal relationships good, impersonal market forces bad" is thus at best a simplification and probably highly misleading. A properly functioning market will expose and punish underhand behaviour. The main problem with today's financial markets is that they have become dysfunctional.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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