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A View From off the Beaten Track

Faculty
November 11, 2023 Colm Fitzgerald University College Dublin

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 2, May 2023

The Big Why: The Importance of Teaching Ethics, A Series of Articles in JCC Connexions

It is a privilege to contribute a blog post to the JCC Connexions. I’ve come to teaching ethics and character development in both university and in professional environments from a different direction to most. I don’t have the same educational background of most JCC readers, and do recognise that most of you probably know more than I do about these subjects, and I hope to learn more from you from my involvement with the JCC community.

I’m an economist and actuary by profession and hold a position in the School of Mathematics and Statistics in University College Dublin in Ireland. More usually, the primary determining cause in my recent journey was my experience as a trader and investment manager.

Why would a financial markets trader decide to move into the field of ethics and character development? Quite bluntly, I had a fortunate career, and it enabled me to be able to afford a vocation rather than a career. I learned that often when somebody doesn’t have enough money, money usually becomes something very important, but when someone has enough, even if that amount is modest, money becomes nearly irrelevant and this opens the potential to pay more attention to and to care about much more important things in life. 

My big “why” in life became that I wanted things to be better for the next generation than it was for my generation.

While there are many and varied things that people can do to try to make life better, for me education, and in particular character development, seemed the most powerful, and maybe the only real way to potentially achieve this goal.

As Gustave Le Bon pointed out, we cannot simply change our laws or our institutions to improve our countries because these are a function of the character of our people, and this character can only change slowly over time. Le Bon, amongst other figures, saw education as the only method to achieve genuine social improvement (Le Bon, 1895/2014)

Some of you might think I’m about to say my route into wanting to teach ethics arose from seeing unethical behaviors in the financial world. While these exist, the primary reason was the lessons I learnt from those in financial markets who behaved well and achieved great results. Ultimately ethics is about positively making our lives better. 

One such example for me was Jack Bogle. He recognized that most people in financial markets are working there primarily for their own benefit, in which case the more they charge clients the more they earn. But Jack created a team of people, like himself, who not only wanted to make money for themselves but also wanted to make money for others (The Motley Fool, 2019).The outcome was that, according to Warren Buffett, Jack singlehandedly improved the finances of more Americans than anyone else ever by being able to very significantly cut the investment costs they incurred (CNBC Television, 2019).

To put rough numbers on it. Suppose a 25 year-old saved $10,000 every year until they were 65 for their pension by investing in the stock market. If returns are about 7% per annum, the $400,000 of money invested accumulates to about €2,100,000 at age 65. If there is a 2% per annum fund management charge, this amount reduces to about €1,200,000. These small charges have a very big impact.

What I learnt from my own experience in financial markets and beyond was the recognition that the stories of the world presented to me were often shallow and usually did not include the concept of character. And that when and where I was able to add the concept of character to the narrative, my understanding improved, but also my potential to do something constructive and behave more ethically.

An example of a narrative presented to me that was shallow and misleading was around the self-interest that was supposedly advocated by Adam Smith. Actually reading his books, in particular A Theory of Moral Sentiments, it becomes quite obvious that Adam Smith was not a free market capitalist at all, but would have directly advocated financial regulation by people of appropriate character (Smith, 1759/2009).

The lesson here is that character is a prerequisite for our capital markets to function in a way that benefits all rather than just a few, and given that we live in a democracy rather than an oligarchy, that is our aim.

In future blog posts, I hope to share further examples of instances where the narratives presented in the media or otherwise are shallow and to also present powerful alternative narratives that include the concept of character. 

References

CNBC Television. (2019). Watch Warren Buffett pay tribute to Jack Bogle during 2017 Berkshire meeting [Video]. YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aqm2Xm-9DJE

Le Bon, G. (2014). The crowd – study of the popular mind. Aristeus Books. (Original work published 1895)

Smith, A. (2009). The theory of moral sentiments. Penguin. (Original work published 1759)

The Motley Fool (2019). Jack Bogle on Index Funds, Vanguard, and Investing Advice [Video]. YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLgn_kVKjCE