Skip to content

Should Bankers Repent?

The Times (as well as a slew of other newspapers) reports that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams is complaining that financiers have, in general, failed to feel repentance for the ‘excesses of the boom that led to financial meltdown’ (See ). The Archbishop does not present evidence to back up the claim that bankers have, in general, failed to feel repentance, but it seems like a plausible enough claim, so let us assume that it is correct. The Archbishop also appears to assume that bankers should repent for the financial crisis and this assumption seems open to question. To repent is to express remorse or regret and to do so sincerely. No doubt some financiers, such as the famous swindler Bernie Madoff have committed acts for which it is appropriate that they express sincere regret or remorse. Madoff also broke the law and is currently in jail. But what might ordinary law-abiding bankers have done to warrant the Archbishop’s wrath?


One aspect of the financial world that Williams singles out is the ‘bonus culture’. In many cases bankers were paid large bonuses if they met pre-agreed performance targets. Critics argue that this practice encourages bankers to take excessive risks in order to receive bonuses, and that it has, therefore, had the effect of contributing significantly to the destabilisation of the banking system. The critics may well be right about this but it is hard to see why a banker who meets pre-agreed performance targets and is therefore entitled to a bonus should feel remorse about receiving a bonus. If an employer offered me vast sums of money to publish philosophy papers in particular academic journals and I went ahead and published those papers then I would feel entitled to the pre-agreed bonus. If this subsequently lead to the destabilisation of the University sector then I would feel that the blame for this lay with the employer who came up with this arrangement and not with me. If there is any repentance that ought to be felt, then surely it should be felt by those regulators who created the bonus culture and not by those bankers who did well at their designated jobs and received bonuses.


But should even banking regulators feel any particular sense of remorse? The Archbishop comments that ‘economics is too important to be left to the economists’ and in a sense I agree with him. Economics is not a mature science and its findings are often speculative. We could argue that those economists who had a role to play in the regulation of banking ought to have foreseen that loose regulation would lead to financial destabilisation. But this is to assume that economists have a much greater understanding of the workings of the global economy then they in fact have. Most economists of the last two decades seemed to have been in favour of further deregulation of the global economy and argued that this would enable increased economic growth. We can now see that this line of reasoning was too simplistic. But it seems unfair to pick on particular economists for failing to dissent with the received view in their discipline. So it seems unfair to demand displays of repentance from individual economists who were in a position to act to ameliorate the financial crisis but failed to do so because they adhered to the received view in economics.


Perhaps, however, the Archbishop believes that members of the banking profession hold some kind of collective responsibility for the financial crisis and that individual bankers should repent for the collective failures of their profession, even if they do not believe themselves to be personally responsible for any part of the financial crisis. The idea that there can be collective responsibility is a controversial one that is much debated within philosophy. This is not the place to argue either for or against its coherence. I do, however, have three points to make: First, it is not obvious that a profession, or some amorphous collective such as ‘The City’ is the appropriate collective to be held responsible for the financial crisis. Regulators and borrowers who are not bankers and do not work in ‘The City’ also played a role in the financial crisis. Second, even if the case for collective responsibility can be made it is not obvious that any particular individuals should feel repentance. Third, those who wield the charge of collective responsibility are vulnerable to a tu quoque response. Does Rowan Williams feel repentance for the various failings of the Anglican Church which he was not personally responsible for?

Share on

10 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater (Keble 1968)

    How does this run as an argument (just to concentrate on point one on repentance)?

    “The critics may well be right about this but it is hard to see why a concentration camp guard who obeyed orders should feel remorse receiving their pay. If an employer offered me vast sums of money to guard political prisoners and I went ahead I would feel entitled to the pre-agreed bonus. If this subsequently lead to genocide then I would feel that the blame for this lay with the employer who came up with this arrangement and not with me. If there is any repentance that ought to be felt, then surely it should be felt by those regulators who created the culture and not by those who did well at their designated jobs and received bonuses.”
    And how different is it from yours, please ?

  2. Anthony,

    Thanks for your comment. The difference is not one of structure but of content. Banking is not generally regarded as a morally unacceptable activity and the Archbishop of Canterbury does not attempt to argue that there is anything morally unacceptable about banking. Working in any organisation that genuinely deserves to be called a “concentration camp”, however, (as opposed to a prison) is morally unacceptable.

  3. Anthony Drinkwater (Keble 1968)

    Thank you for replying, but ….
    Exactly ! I think you are confirming that the argument itself(structure, as you put it) is not valid.
    But I’m doubtful of the implication that to call an activity morally acceptable makes all that is done by those who exercise it acceptable, and this finally is the essential point – what are the limits of an activity, what ethics should drive it, how does the community define or impose them, and what is the personal responsibility of those who exercise it ?
    Personally I find the notion of repentance rather weak (how for example does expressing remorse alter anything in the lives of the victim or perpetrator?) – but that’s another issue. Nevertheless, I fail to understand why you argue that society should not expect “repentance” (in the weak sense of recognising moral error) from those whose arrogant, seemingly infallible but deluded activity has led to tangible harm to a large number of people (unemployment, possession orders, a mountain of debt to climb …).
    You might argue, as I believe you do in points 2 & 3, that bankers are not the sole responsible agents of the current situation, but this argument seems to me to depend on the assumption that in a multi-causal situation no individual cause can be criticised and that actors can thus escape the consequences of their actions.
    Accepting this questionable assumption would doom to failure the whole project of “practical ethics” : rare indeed are the cases where an individual bears sole responsibility for an action. (Even in extreme cases, such as concentration camps or torture, it is not always evident)

  4. Anthony,

    As far as I can see the structure of the argument is valid. If you put warranted premises into a valid argument you will get a sound conclusion. However, if you put unwarranted premises into a valid argument you will not
    get a sound conclusion. So this is why the two cases come apart. Banking differs from working as a concentration camp guard because banking is widely
    accepted as a legitimate activity. So bankers who received bonuses were
    rewarded for doing well at a legitimate activity – nothing to be remorseful
    about. However, concentration camp guards who did well at an illegitimate
    activity ought to be remorseful because they are performing an illegitimate
    activity. Doing well at it only compounds the wrongness of their actions.

  5. Anthony Drinkwater (Keble 1968)

    Thanks for taking the time to reply, and sorry to be so persistent, but let’s have a closer look at the arguments :
    My understanding of yours is as follows –
    Taken as given (“the critics may well be right about this”) :
    1 bonuses encourage excessive risk taking
    2 excessive risk-taking destabilises the system
    and implicitly
    3 destabilisation leads to harmful consequences

    You then argue :
    1 an individual can agree to a bonus system, albeit harmful
    2 if he delivers his part of the contract, he is entitled to his reward, and
    3 he has no need to feel remorse

    My clumsy attempt at reductio ad absurdum went as follows :
    Taken as given :
    1 detaining /starving/exterminating persons in concentration camps is wrong

    Argument :
    4 an individual can agree to work in a concentration camp
    5 if he delivers his part of the contract he is entitled to his reward, and
    6 he has no need to feel remorse

    The only difference, as you say yourself, is that in the frst case we are talking about a legitimate activity, and in the second we are not (which begs the question of the source of legitimacy, but that’s another (important) story.

    Perhaps I have gone too far in my RAA, but still something rankles : why should the fact that I have abided by the rules of my bonus contract absolve me from feeling remorse at the harmful consequences of my (and others’) actions ?
    I cannot understand how you can claim that there is nothing to be remorseful about as long as the activity is illegitimate, and I don’t see where you have mounted an argument to defend this proposition.

  6. Hi Anthony,

    This is useful and a clarifaction may be necessary here:

    I would want to recast your 3. as ‘destabilisation leads to unforeseen harmful consequences’. I don’t see that performing a legitimate activity which turns out to have unforseen harmful consequences is something – to feel remorseful about. If an individual banker foresaw that the consequences of their risk taking were likely to include a global financial crisis then they probably would have soemthing to be remorseful about. However the global financial crisis was not predicted by mainstream economists so there is not much reason to think that ordinary bankers would foresee it.

  7. Thanks for your reply
    The question now begins to turn from (mainly) questions of logic to (mainly) questions of fact (it’s interesting in moral philosophy to see where and when this dividing line appears …)
    So I am possibly straying from the essence of your institution.

    Nevertheless (mainly philosophic) :
    I think that the concept of “unforseeable” is worth analysis. Does “foreseeable” mean foreseable by everyone, by educated observers (eg mainstream economists), by principal or ancillary actors, or by whom ?
    And what degree of diligence is required for a moral actor ?

    And mainly fact :
    1. Even if most mainstream economists failed to sound alarm bells over the activities that led to the crisis, it is not true of all.
    2. Many of the actors were paid, or agreed to pay their employees, abnormally large amounts of money based, for example, exclusively on the amount of loans granted per month, regardless of the ability to repay. In other words, they (willingly/blindly) encouraged reckless risk-taking.
    3. Esoteric “mathematical models” were used to justify titrisation and other methods of sharing or off-loading risk, and bankers acted as if this had eliminated it.
    4. A large part of the world financial community managed to make fortunes out of a largely non-value-creating activity whilst assuring the rest of us that everything was safe in their hands. Wealth was increasing through debt – a form of latter-day alchemy.
    5. Now that their immediate problems are (apparently) resolved through large-scale government (i.e. taxpayers’) action, they continue as if nothing had happened.

    Let us assume that “ordinary bankers” (except that we’re not talking about the managers of our local branches, after all) did not foresee the collapse. If this were true then this, to use your own phrase, would only compound the wrongness of their actions.

    In short, every (self or otherwise)-appointed expert who has the possibility of influencing the well-being of others has a higher moral duty of foreseeability than the rest of us.
    Of course, this includes lots of other categories of individuals, not just bankers. But that’s not the subject at issue.

  8. hmm – there seems to be a significant semantic shift here. I’ve appealed to the concept of the unforeseen not the unforeseeable. Pretty much everything is foreseeable and pretty muuch everything would be foreseen if you happened to have the right theory and the right data to apply it to. Unfortunately economics is not an advanced science and there is very little that is accurately foreseen by most economists.

  9. Semantic shift ? I beg to disagree :

    Does the fact that harmful consequences of an action are not foreseen free an actor from feeling remorse, or absolve him from the criticism of others ?

    If the answer is “yes” then we are into a philosophy of intentionism, under which only an individual’s intentions can be used to determine his responsibility. Because if we exclude moral judgement from the sphere of unforeseen events this leaves only intentional events in the arena : an individual cannot be judged for consequences which he did not intend to cause. You may hold this view, but it is not a widely-held one.

    If the answer is “no”, then given that not all things are foreseen (neither by the actor, nor by others), the moral imperative is to foresee as well as one can. And this leads necessarily to the concept of foreseeability . The shift is not semantic, but necessary – unless, having answered “yes” to the question above, we wish to exclude a large number of events from moral judgement.

  10. All I mean by a semantic shift is that I’ve appealed to the ‘unforeseen’ and you have attempted to analyse the meaning of the ‘unforeseeable’. I’m not offering a general account of responsibility. It seems unreasonable to me to expect bankers to foresee the global financial crisis when most mainstream economists failed to predict that it would occur. If you don’t share my intuition about this then I don’t have anything much more to say to convince you.

Comments are closed.