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Decency as Systemic Consideration

11/02/2013 19:37 GMT | Updated 13/04/2013 10:12 BST

A friend of mine who works in the oil industry once told me a curious fact: apparently, you can mix fuel with up to 5% of other chemicals without having to disclose it to the customer. Why? Because up to 5% will not have a noteworthy impact on the properties of the fuel. After that critical limit, additives will impact performance and must be officially disclosed. To maximise profits at an expected level of performance, it therefore makes sense that all oil companies dilute their standard fuel with 5% of cheaper additives, and nobody needs to know.

There is clearly an analogy to human nature staring us in the face here. You see, I believe that rules are made to be followed by the majority so that a tiny minority may break them with impunity. A sweeping statement, perhaps, but bear with me. They key thing to remember is: as long as the critical mass of an equilibrium is not broken, the system as a whole may continue with some sort of balance, at least on average. Calamity occurs only when an equilibrium is fundamentally disrupted.

Let me advance my argument by explaining what I mean by the term 'equilibrium'. This word implies some sort of stability between opposing forces. I could delve into the technical intricacies of game theory to determine an optimal level of societal cooperation, but I'll resist and try to illustrate my point with the movie industry's take on the Nash equilibrium.

In the film A Beautiful Mind, the following maxim was espoused: "If nobody goes for the blonde, we'll all be better off". This is an easily understood metaphor which conveys that if everyone pursues what is most desirable - supposedly the blonde - all but one will be wasting their collective efforts because only one person can go home with her. All the others will squander their resources competing for her, thereby ignoring perfectly decent alternatives. In other words, most of them need not go home alone, as long as they all agree not to pursue the best looking girl. This may appear a prosaic example, but its logic is profound and applies to all sorts of avenues in life.

Take something as boring as taxes. Nobody wants to pay them, but if nobody did, society would simply not work. I could list countless other examples, but my point is that choosing the "second-best", temporarily sub-optimal choice in the short term will yield greater benefits over time. Co-operation pays. All this may appear thoroughly obvious, but one must remember that it will only actually work if everyone feels the same, or - going back to my initial point - if the vast majority complies. Only then does a stable equilibrium occur. The trouble begins when selfish desires take over and someone decides to go for the blonde after all. It is precisely this which I suspect is happening in our society, on so many levels.

These days, not only does everyone seem to feel entitled to go for the blonde; there's no shame in this attitude either. But if you're going to pursue the blonde, at least make sure it's after hours so nobody else finds out about it! This is hardly a noble attitude, but it's a marginal improvement on the apparently reigning stance because it has some systemic consideration behind it. For when that goes, it's a slippery slope, indeed. How quickly does one slide downhill? That is the question! The larger the tilt, the greater the speed.

The economic recession is a case in point. Why would bankers pay heed to long-term economic goals or, indeed, the world economy as a whole, when they are personally rewarded on quarterly results? Out of the goodness of their hearts? The current crisis was always going to happen. Individually rational choices are frequently at odds with the common good. We mustn't whitewash human nature and pretend it's better than it actually is. Systemic consideration must obviously be planned for and prioritised, or it simply will not happen. This is a far bigger issue than a few specific regulatory measures.

Bankers (mostly) did what they were allowed to do under the law. Few of them, however, acted responsibly, honourably or nobly. Even those very words seem anachronistic. And that is the issue that underpins my entire argument.

If the only thing that prevents unethical behaviour is the law, then the collective will always be two steps behind. Legislation usually occurs in retrospect of a travesty. And since the rationale for transgressions - and I would even say the mantra of our times - seems to be "because I can", it seems more imperative than ever to ask some hard questions about the importance of decency in our time. Because if we cross that metaphorical 5% dilution point, a brave new world awaits us, for which even the fittest among us may not be prepared. I only hope we haven't crossed that point already.