A poster advertisement promoting Bank Australia, founded in 1957, appeared on the sides of bus shelters here in Sydney. The bank’s Wikipedia entry states: “Bank Australia is an Australian customer-owned bank based in Kew, Victoria. Bank Australia’s purpose is “to create mutual prosperity in the form of positive economic, social, environmental and cultural impact””. Many people, including a sizable majority of Australians, would strongly endorse these goals. 

Bank Australia promotes itself as “’The bank Australia needs’ … Australians need a real banking alternative – a bank that is responsible and sustainable.” It would be a foolishly brave or incredibly ignorant person who would disagree with this claim. Australia has had a massive corruption scandal in the banking industry, including major banks being involved in laundering the proceeds of crime, having serious conflict of interest in providing financial advice, fraud and so on.  

Let us now consider the poster. Two thirds of the space shows a handsome, serious-looking, young man gazing intently towards the future. He has attractive dark hair and a short beard, and is wearing a simple white T-shirt. A bio on the Bank’s website told us he is an immigrant from Lebanon and an environmentalist. He looks like a mother’s dream son or a young woman’s fantasy boyfriend. 

Written above his head is a slogan, “The people who ALIGN VALUES WITH ACTIONS are the people Australia needs”. The words in capital letters are red, the other words black. At the bottom of the poster is “Join the change”, also written in red, the address of the Bank’s website, and the words Bank Australia and the Bank’s logo. It is a sophisticated and very aesthetically pleasing advertisement. 

Why does this poster interest me as an ethicist?  

First, it focuses on values, which are the currency of ethics, and to understand the advertisement, we need to know something about their nature. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘values’ as “Principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life”. ‘Principles’ is defined as “moral principles, ethics, moral code, morals, moral values, standards, moral standards, code of behaviour, rules of conduct, standards of behaviour”. 

As a promotion of good ethical behaviour in the banking and financial industry more generally, I applaud the advertisement. We need as many people as possible thinking that being ethical is important for all of us as both individuals and a society. 

However, references to ethics are becoming ubiquitous in many domains and activities in our society, which is of concern if it is just a marketing ploy or window dressing with no substance. Moreover, just as familiarity can breed contempt in relation to physical entities, likewise with concepts such as ethics and values. We need to be careful not to vulgarise these. 

Then there seems to be an assumption that all values are valid and of equal importance. There are, however, good values and bad ones, and we do not all agree which are good and which are bad or which are of greater or lesser importance when values conflict.

That disagreement about prioritising values leads to values conflicts, which are at the heart of the culture wars. This is sometimes called “a world of competing sorrows”, that is, there are no “no harm” options and we are forced to choose whom to harm. In addition, we do not agree on the processes we should use to resolve these values conflicts, which can exacerbate the resulting hostility. 

The Bank calls on people to “align their values with their actions”, seemingly wanting to promote ethical conduct. But what if their actions are unethical? Most people would not want to condone the values that those actions display. Should the order of the statement be reversed, that is, people should “align their actions with their values”? If so, it is likely this direction rests on an implied assumption that people have laudatory ethical values, or at least profess to do so, but they do not always live up to these in practice, which is a frequent criticism of some of our leaders and societal institutions. 

“Join the change” elicits echoes of so-called “progressive values”, which are common among young people who reject values they label as conservative or traditional. The mantra of the progressives is “Control, Choice and Change”, which reflects a somewhat innocent assumption that change is always for the better. It can also support “radical individualism” as a basis for values in certain areas, for instance, in relation to one’s life and body – “no one has the right to tell me what I must not do, when it concerns my body and my life”. Conflicts over the values that should govern abortion, reproductive technologies, and euthanasia belong in this context. 

Research has shown that a small number of leaders at the top of an organisation set its “ethical tone”: if they are ethical, the other people who work for the organisation will, on the whole, be ethical; if they are unethical, likewise, the others will be unethical.

My experience in teaching ethics to medical students is that young people can also have an important role in introducing ethics into an institution or profession. When medical students know more about bioethics than their teachers do, the teachers can be embarrassed and some of them will seek ethics training. Gradually ethics knowledge spreads throughout the organisation by expanding up from the young at the bottom and down from ethical senior leaders at the top.

These are both groups that have nothing to lose from implementing the changes required by ethics. They squeeze the people in the middle, who are the people most likely to resist change, because they fear the losses involved for them. They have invested in the old system, but unlike the leaders have not yet received its rewards, which will no longer be available. It becomes unacceptable, however, as ethics spreads throughout the institution, for them not to comply with ethical requirements, even if they secretly object to having to do so. 

To raise questions about the ethics of promoting ethics is to enter a minefield. It is also, to say the least, very difficult to criticise a person or institution for urging people to be ethical. That said, we do need to ask where we cross the line such that the promotion of ethics becomes exploitation and manipulation of the concept of ethics, and in the process, empties it of any meaningful content. 

The language of values and ethics and the messages it is meant to communicate are not indestructible and great care needs to be taken with its use, particularly in marketing campaigns, but also in public and political discourse more generally. I am definitely not accusing Bank Australia of any such misuse, but their advertisement caused me to ponder these issues. 

Finally, it is interesting to consider whether Bank Australia and its advertising consultants considered all the implications of the approach that they took in their advertisement to promote their Bank to prospective clients. It would be ethically reassuring to know that they did. We must all keep in mind, however, the risks and harms of the language of values and ethics becoming fashionable and, as a result, losing its integrity and authenticity. We need to ensure that it does not become just window-dressing and lose its substance or raison d’etre of implementing fairness, justice, honesty, trustworthiness, integrity and so on, that is, good ethical values and actions based on them.

Margaret Somerville AM, DSG, FRSC, FRSN, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...