The Pell Principle: Mission will trump morality

The current inquiry into institutional child abuse holds some interesting lessons about the nature of religion, which I’ll stay clear of here. But it also holds a larger lesson about the ability of organisations to act morally and to act properly in the absence of external regulation. This will not be news to a lot of people, but I see many others misunderstanding it over and over again.

It’s this: For most organisations, most of the time, mission trumps morality.

Any substantial organisation is run by people who spend a lot of time upholding its virtues and the value of its activities and people. They buy into its mission. They internalise its mission. And so they should. That’s how leaders get things done.

This leaves them terribly placed to decide how moral issues between the organisation and other parties should be resolved. Their first, second and third instinct is to protect the organisation.

That is why self-regulation is a bad idea when the stakes are high.

And for proof, you need look no further than Cardinal George Pell’s evidence to the child abuse inquiry. A man who runs an organisation (the Sydney archdiocese of the Catholic Church) devoted to moral questions, who has engaged intellectually on moral questions for most of his life – and yet when the chips were down, Pell admitted that his concern for the financial health of his church trumped any desire to provide recompense to child abuse victim John Ellis and others like him.

From the Sky News report of Pell’s evidence, which seems reasonably reliable:

[Pell] admitted the church didn’t deal fairly with Mr Ellis “from a Christian point of view”, but in a legal sense it did nothing improper.

Dr Pell said he was consoled by a legal ruling protecting the church’s property trustees from being sued.

The commission has heard the archdiocese of Sydney has property and cash worth $1.2 billion.

Mr Ellis sued the church over the abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest between the ages of 13 to 17 in the 1970s, but lost the case in 2007 when a court ruled the trustees weren’t liable.

Lawyers disputed in court that the abuse had occurred, cross-examining Mr Ellis over a number of days, despite the church having previously accepted that it had happened.

Dr Pell said he regretted the action.

“I regret that. I was told that it was a legally proper tactic,” he said.

The church subsequently pursued Mr Ellis for $550,000 in costs, despite a psychiatrist assessing Mr Ellis as being in a fragile mental state.

What was going through Pell’s mind, you might ask. The answer is: his institutional mission, to ensure the success of the church. His moral mission was put aside.

You might think money is the point of it – that to adapt Upton Sinclair, leaders will not put morality first because their salaries depend on their not putting it first. And you may be right. I have my doubts. If you’re any sort of leader, salary is less important than success.

And if George Pell will put the mission first, most organisational leaders will do it.

A strong moral code within the organisation will guarantee nothing. After all, what group has a stronger moral code than the major monotheistic religions?

Self-regulation? Corporate social responsibility? Good corporate citizenship? In the clinches, most organisations will abandon or constrain them in order to preserve the organisation. Leaders will convince themselves that the wrong course is the right one, because the wrong course is the one that meets the organisational objectives. Sitting around the boardroom table, leadership groups will come to agree that weak arguments are strong ones, that bad behaviour is required behaviour, that wrong is right. That they are good people with strong moral codes in their personal life will mostly not matter.

Mission will trump morality.

Call it the Pell Principle.

Happy little optimisers we

Maslow's hierarchy Not

I know I took the notion of optimising to heart as I learned it – implicitly – from my economist Dad. And there are those who might argue that the idea in economics came from the society around economists as the discipline came into being.

But now it seems optimising as the heart of life seems to have become ubiquitous. I just ran into a tweet which proudly displays the graphic to the left.

I also know that the advice, such as it is, embodied in the accompanying graphic is fair enough. A bit of prudence about life. One could do a lot worse. (Then again, is it not pretty obvious? Graphics induce a kind of ‘fake’ aha I’ve found – something I confess to exploiting in my own rhetorical tricks during presentations) But at the level of advice there’s also something strangely anodyne and sad about it as an embodiment of aspiration.

Traditional notions of how one might decide on one’s path in life or one’s career – at least since the rise of modern times and the idea of the self as a self-creation, it’s been pretty de rigueur to at least pay some lip service to following one’s heart or more recently, and more crassly, one’s dream. More dourly, Protestant ethics teach a kind of surrender to one’s ‘calling’. Each of these has the texture of life as an adventure and a story in which basic values are the foundation – one build’s on the rock to invoke Christian imagery – including bearing the burden of suffering in pursuit of one’s goal.

Even Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that, though one pays most attention to ‘the basics’, truth to oneself involves working up to ‘higher’ things. (I’ve always thought it wide of the mark by the way as things at the top of the hierarchy seem to turn up very early in human history and in many ways were more powerful influences in civilisations in which the vast bulk of people were pretty much at subsistence – but I digress).

In any event today alongside the hashtags “#Brand” and “#You” the tweet which brandished this insight into life, we lean in and regard our ultimate task as having it all. Even in the anodyne graphic, I’d have liked to see doing what one loves as being more important than being paid well, but there you go, though I’m all for it being important.


Openness to talent

“MIT’s Openness to Jewish Economists”, E. Roy Weintraub

MIT emerged from “nowhere” in the 1930s to its place as one of the three or four most important sites for economic research by the mid-1950s. A conference held at Duke University in April 2013 examined how this occurred. In this paper the author argues that the immediate postwar period saw a collapse – in some places slower, in some places faster – of the barriers to the hiring of Jewish faculty in American colleges and universities. And more than any other elite private or public university, particularly Ivy League universities, MIT welcomed Jewish economists.

The Crucible: go and see it if you can

crucible.jpgWarning: Enthusiasm Alert.

I’ve just got home from seeing the Crucible by Arthur Miller at the Melbourne Theatre Company. I thought it was a very good production. I thought I wasn’t going to like David Wenham much at the outset as he seemed a bit strained. But that’s perhaps because I’m familiar with him in very different comic roles, so perhaps it was just a bit of cognitive dissonance.

Anyway, I think I’ve seen the play three times in my life and each time I have been bowled over by it, but each time more so. I recall the first time I saw it, I remembered people in my year 12 English course talking about the play. I didn’t study it but they did and the general drum was that it was an allegory of the madness of McCarthyism. Based on this I expected to dislike the play as I expected lots of strained analogies and basically full on anachronism – something I really hate. Unless it’s pure costume drama like A Man for all Seasons or the Lion in Winter (which has dialogue like Eleanor of Aquitaine has an apartment and shrink on the Upper East Side) which is fair enough, really bad anachronism smacks of lack of seriousness to me. Anyway, it irritates me.

Anyway I recall first seeing it and marvelling at how much effort Miller had gone to to try to get inside the heads of his protagonists. The language seems right as does all the theology. There’s something very compelling about being taken convincingly inside something which looks trivially crazy on the outside. Yet the play is of course a contemporary play about classic themes, most particularly the dialectic of morality, the radical nature of any real commitment to goodness, the incredible maze through which good can be lost in and the upshot of that for those who must try to divine what is right and navigate their way through extraordinary times in which “the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law”.

I’ve written before about jokes that get better with age. Well I guess Shakespeare’s plays get better with age because one appreciates the language a little more, sees more in them. But for me this play is without peer. After the introductory scene, each of the next three scenes that make up the play are just masterful. They meld drama and insight so magnificently I’m still in awe of it all.

Like I said; Go see it if you can.

Terry Eagleton on atheism

As people reading this blog would know, I’m no fan of Richard Dawkins writings on God.

However, having seen this video, I have to admit to preferring Dawkins to this guy, whose attack on the four horsemen of militant atheism I broadly agree with. On top of his superior manner, it turns out Terry Eagleton tells lots of jokes that aren’t funny and then ends up bitterly disappointed with his audience for not laughing. Terry – don’t shoot the messenger. Still I found the content of his lecture of interest. Some Troppodillians may, though not those holding fast to what Eagleton calls “the Yeti theory of God”

The Sins of the Fathers

Nico Voigtlander
Hans-Joachim Voth
How persistent are cultural traits? Using data on anti-Semitism in Germany, we find local continuity over 600 years. Jews were often blamed when the Black Death killed at least a third of Europe’s population during 1348–50. We use plague-era pogroms as an indicator for medieval antiSemitism. They reliably predict violence against Jews in the 1920s, votes for
the Nazi Party, deportations after 1933, attacks on synagogues, and letters to Der Stu¨rmer. We also identify areas where persistence was lower: cities with high levels of trade or immigration. Finally, we show that our results are not driven by political extremism or by different attitudes toward violence.

The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2012), 1339–1392.

Will the second coming arrive in Missouri?

Apparently not. In any event, I found this an engaging conversation – even if it’s about cult beliefs. I wouldn’t have expected it, but I found Mitt Romney arguing for his cult more engaging than most of the rest of Mitt’s campaigning. Pity he walked out on what were essentially false pretences just as it was getting interesting. Anyway he had to get out of that booth to stay ‘on message’. It’s a tribute to him that he stayed as long as he did. And interesting to see how seriously people take the narrative of whether they’re a good guy or not.

It’s also a tribute to the Dems that they didn’t run round the evangelical belt of the US spreading rumours that Mormons eat their babies. Then again maybe they did and we didn’t hear of it – because of that liberal press that we have. Certainly there’ve been no end of alarums and excursions around the fact that the Obamas were born on Krypton where they do eat their babies. And Romney was prepared to help those rumours along, for instance making comments to the effect that people didn’t wonder where he was born!!

In case anyone wants to know, an American friend of mine tells me that as Governor of Massachusetts Romney was good on Government 2.0.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the vid.

Breaking the confessional seal is a bet on rogue priests

The very sharp Waleed Aly has joined the debate over whether Catholic child abuse justifies a legal requirement for priests to break the confessional seal. Aly’s take: it’s an argument with almost no practical consequences, because most priests see excommunication as a far worse punishment than prison.

… Canon law prohibits a priest from revealing a confession even under the threat of his own death. Should we expect him to buckle under the threat of a prison sentence?

Here it’s essential to understand that any priest who violates the confessional seal faces excommunication.

That might mean nothing to you … But you are not the one hearing the confession. What matters is what this means to priests and, in Catholic terms, excommunication is as serious as it gets – far more serious than any prison sentence. This leaves us searching for a very strange creature indeed: someone devoted enough to enter the priesthood, but not devoted enough to care about eternal damnation. And we need lots of them. We’re betting on a team of rogue priests. That doesn’t sound like a plan to me.

You can’t legislate away people’s religious convictions, however much you might want to.

Aly notes that there’s little evidence of priests describing their crimes in confessional anyway. Does anyone know of evidence?

Aly also argues that the break-the-confessional-seal argument represents “irreligious people trying to address a religious problem with brute secular force”. Given that Catholics like Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne and Barry O’Farrell are among the advocates of overriding the sanctity of the confessional, that characterisation seems wrong. But the non-religious (a category which includes me) might do well to think twice before piling on to this particular argument. It’s all fight and no pay-off.

The danger in Pell’s dubious anti-media script

To my astonishment, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell spent part of a press conference today claiming that the news media are exaggerating the scandal of Catholic Church child abuse in Australia. There was “a persistent press campaign against the Catholic Church’s adequacies and inadequacies in this area”, he said.

In fact, the opposite is true. The media has underplayed the issue to a remarkable extent.

A major Australian institution appears* to have harbored hundreds of child abusers abusing thousands of children over a period of several decades around Australia. The same institution has apparently committed the same offences across the globe. According to one senior NSW police officer, this institution covers up for paedophile priests, hinders police investigations and destroys evidence to prevent prosecutions.

The obvious reaction would be that this institution needs an investigation to run through it like a dose of salts.

Yet too few people have rushed to say this about the Catholic Church in Australia. Quite the contrary. On 3AW last Friday two national political leaders – Bill Shorten and Joe Hockey – talked with Neil Mitchell about how people close to them had been affected by Catholic Church paedophilia. Then they both tied themselves in knots trying to avoid saying that the Catholic Church should be the subject of a major official inquiry. Continue reading