As the nation's leading banker, Walter Wriston of Citicorp, the global power which has offices in 92 countries, can rightly command attention when holding forth on the value of money. It's when he talks about values in themselves -- values based on moral and ethical codes -- that trouble starts.
In a recent New Yorker article on Citicorp, Wriston told the interviewer that current "values are topsy-turvy. It boggles the mind -- the transfer of person integrity to institutional integrity. Now college students have a mixed dormitory, men live on one floor and women on the next, and they all sit around worrying about whether or not General Motors is being honest. When I was in college it was different. We were concerned about personal values. I believe that there are no institutional values, only personal ones."
The Wriston philosophy is chilling. Though he is to be thanked for publicly expressing so brazenly what other men of financial power discreetly whisper only inside their clubrooms, Wriston is advancing the dangerous idea that institutions should be allowed to function outside the moral and ethical order.
The Wriston brow prefers to be furrowed about campus hanky-panky. The morality of a General Motors' decision, say, to delay the marketing of life-saving air bags some years back, is not the public concern. According to the thinking that institutions should be value-free, a vice president for an international bank is right to restrain himself from stealing his secretary's purse which she forgetfully leaves on her desk when she goes to the water cooler. But he is expected to say nothing when an institutional decision is made that denies equal opportunity to women and minorities or decisions that ignore public health, or justice.
This division of morality into personal and institutional realms, and never the twain shall meet, is not new with Wriston. What is astonishing, though, is that someone of his rank and power fails to understand what so many others see as fundamental. In "An American Life," Jeb Magruder, one of the Watergate criminals, says of himself and the others that "we had the private morality but not a sense of public morality."
Magruder, like Wriston, was the ideal college boy: a moralist when among the coeds but amoral when reflecting on the use of institutional power. Magruder's discovery that it wasn't enough to be personally moral is one that is routinely made by others in government. In the new book, "Personal Values in Public Policy," a government consultant was quoted as saying that "a lot of decision-making takes place in government as adversary or advocacy proceedings rather than on the basis of moral judgments . . . You make the best argument that you can possible make as a lawyer would make it in litigating a case for his client -- quite independent of whether or not you think it's the right thing to do."
Underlying the Wriston philosophy -- or rather the philosophy that has Wriston as its latest and bluntest cheerleader -- is the notion that institutions (corporatons, unions, banks, clubs, churches, governments and schools) functions best under anonymity. Faceless, they easily become soulless. Should they go further and become lawless, the outrage over their crimes is muted because the victimization is impersonal. The corporate price fixer never sees those whom he cheats and the cheated all too often never know that they were taken.
But the effect of an institution's value-free or value-blind decisions are felt, even if it must be described fuzzily as "the decline of quality" or "the lowering of standards." In the end, institutional behavior should be held to as much moral accountability as personal behavior. And perhaps more, because the collective power of a wealthy multinational institution has the potential for greater destructiveness than an anti-social act of the lone individual. As the old English verse goes: the law locks up both man and woman who steal the goose from off the common but let the greater felon loose who steals the common from the goose.