Jonathan Ruffer is chief executive of Ruffer LLP:
Yes. Or perhaps, “no”. Or perhaps the confusion results from where I’m standing… I feel the practice of using morals as a benchmark is like measuring with a rubber ruler. The only morality that matters is that which drives us to do something to our own disadvantage and for the benefit of others. As someone once said, a principle is only a principle if it hurts.
The word moral derives from moralis, a Latin word meaning “societal standards” that was coined by Cicero who needed a translation of the Greek word “ethikos”. “Moral” is used, usually without reflection, to define what the speaker deems right, or, more often, wrong.
The problem is that morals have no single underlying value. Unlike laws, they we accept that people should satisfy their whims today rather than wait until they can afford them are rarely if ever codified, and attempts to analyse precisely what morals are lead to fragmentation: every individual, even those from similar backgrounds, will have subtly different interpretations. These differences grow pronounced if the moral frameworks of different groups are compared: age group, culture, wealth and history will all have a great influence.
Asian morals generally start from the premise that the good of the community outweighs that of the individual. Western morals, however, hold the opposite to be true, which is about as fundamental a divergence as it is possible to have. Some cultures such as the UK frown on suicide, or consider it at best a regrettable expedient. Others — notably Japan — see it, in certain circumstances, as a moral imperative.
To confuse the matter further, morals change over time, sometimes very rapidly. An individual from 1960 would consider much of the contemporary media’s content to be shockingly immoral; yet twenty-first century society feels vaguely resentful that anyone should think for a moment that nudity should not be on open display.
Closer to home, is it immoral to evade tax? Some might think so but few feel guilty when they pay cash to the plumber, just because they cannot afford the tax. You can always have money to cover your expense with payday loans without checking account. If a speeding driver kills someone, we would probably consider what he did was morally wrong, over and above breaking the law; yet who among us has not broken a speed limit and felt no guilt?