A moral makeover: or what to do with nearly £2000 a day!

I hope Sir Fred Goodwin, former head of Royal Bank of Scotland, reads his Aristotle because he is in dire need of a moral makeover.

Magnificence was a required aspect of all forms of cultural display and therefore expenditure in Renaissance Italy, a perception that was largely founded on the resurgence of Aristotelian ethics in Florence and other Italian states.

Richard Goldthwaite highlighted this in his seminal work The Building of Renaissance Florence when he writes:

Leonardo Bruni, who translated the Pseudo-Aristotelian Economics, emphasized riches as the foundation of hte state not only because wealth provided the material well-being for the security of the state but also because it presented a moral challenge to the active citizen.  Liberality presupposes possession of wealth, and …. the test of virtue is not to be passed by fleeing the world with its material encumbrances but, on the contrary, by mastering wealth in ways that demonstrated one’s moral stature. (p.80)

Aristotle goes further in Chapter 2 of the Nichomachean Ethics to define magnificence, vulgarity and niggardliness.  Magnificence, he says, “is what is fitting, then, in relation to the agent, and to the circumstances and the object”.    However, he condemns “the deficiency of this state of character” which he calls niggardliness, while its excess is “vulgarity, lack of taste”.  He goes on:

And the magnificent man will spend such sums for honour’s sake; for this is common to the virtues. And further he will do so gladly and lavishly; for nice calculation is a niggardly thing. And he will consider how the result can be made most beautiful and most becoming rather than for how much it can be produced and how it can be produced most cheaply. It is necessary, then, that the magnificent man be also liberal.

However, there is a fine line between the liberal magnificence of a great patron and the vulgar excess of spending for its own sake.

The man who goes to excess and is vulgar exceeds, as has been said, by spending beyond what is right. For on small objects of expenditure he spends much and displays a tasteless showiness; e.g. he gives a club dinner on the scale of a wedding banquet, and when he provides the chorus for a comedy he brings them on to the stage in purple, as they do at Megara. And all such things he will do not for honour’s sake but to show off his wealth, and because he thinks he is admired for these things, and where he ought to spend much he spends little and where little, much.

Does it all sound sickening familiar?  I hasten to add that it’s Aristotle again, not a report of the reception hosted by Sir Fred to celebrate the take-over of ABN Amro in the autumn of 2007.

Scotland has a long history of rich industrialists-cum-philanthropists – from Andrew Carnegie to Sir Tom Farmer – but Sir Fred has a prime example much closer to his home town, Paisley, where he was born in 1958.  Paisley was also home to the Coats family (of cotton fame –  you know, the J&P Coats cotton reels).  Over successive generations, Coats industrialists married Aristotelian principles with a peculiarly Scottish flair for social progress, focusing in particular on the advancement of their local community in Paisley by improving education and health.  So Paisley owes its main hospital, the Observatory, the free library and museum, and various schools (particularly the Ferguslie Half-time school for the mill girls) and churches to the philanthropic support of the Coats family.

Now that Sir Fred Goodwin appears to have pushed through his own hostile bid against the government, and ultimately against the British taxpayer – and there’s little chance of any legal redress – we can only hope that Goodwin starts reading Aristotle, and then he spends a little time in Paisley (but not too long in case he’s recognised) to look at some examples of Coats philanthropy.

He might even decide to follow their example, so I’ll start drawing up a list of suggested good causes – obviously “in relation to the agent, and to the circumstances and the object”!

UPDATE:  Read this excellent article by Jeff Randall on why Sir Fred is stealing the show from the real culprits.

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