I seem to recall reading somewhere that ethicists recognise five levels of moral development in human beings, from absolute selfishness, lack of conscience and indifference to the welfare of others at Level 1, to pure altruism, a highly developed moral sense and deep concern for the wellbeing and happiness of others at Level 5. I suspect that most of us hover between Levels 3 and 4. We’re reasonably honest and caring, but if it comes to them or us, we’ll probably put ourselves or our families first. Few of us are saints and few of us are monsters. We may also exhibit different levels of moral development in different areas of our life, what you might call the ‘Hitler was fond of animals’ syndrome. It’s the phenomenon that allows us to rip off the insurance company or cheat on our taxes, but be horrified at the idea of stealing money from a blind beggar’s cup. We distinguish between doing close-up personal harm and long-distance impersonal harm, between child abuse and dropping a bomb on Hiroshima.
My mind was drawn to this concept of people being at different levels of moral development when I read the front page story in this morning’s Sunday Star Times headed Inside Hotchin’s Hawaiian Hideaway. Just above the headline was a photograph of Mark Hotchin’s wife Amanda with the quote: ‘We don’t have to justify where we get our money or what it’s spent on, to anyone. I don’t care what anyone says.’ The story revisited the now familiar evidence of conspicuous consumption by Mark Hotchin – the $30 million unfinished mansion in Paratai Drive, the $13.8 million holiday home on Waiheke, the $43 thousand a month ‘luxury hideaway’ in Hawaii where the paper discovered the couple ‘lying in each other’s arms by the pool’. It noted that John Key was familiar with the property and quoted him as saying, ‘It’s very flash there, very nice. That’s where the dolphins are, I hear.’ And then there was the nanny and the two maids ‘busily sweeping’ in the garage’. How the other .001 percent live!
It was a kind of sleazy story really, an exercise in high-minded voyeurism, complete with a peek through the tropical foliage at Hotchin lying on a lounger in the sun reading a book. Bonfire of the Vanities perhaps. But the point of the story, made in virtually every media outlet in the country, is essentially correct. The contrast between the Hotchins’ current lifestyle and the current lifestyles of the thousands of Hanover investors who have lost not merely huge sums of money but their happiness and peace of mind as a result of Hotchin’s and Watson’s greed and, by the most generous interpretation, mismanagement of the their investments – that contrast is simply obscene. Most ordinary Kiwis can see that. It must be evident to anyone who has reached even Level 3 in terms of moral development. But neither Eric Watson nor Mark nor Amanda Hotchin seems able to see it. ‘We don’t have to justify where we get our money or what it’s spent on, to anyone. I don’t care what anyone says.’
It really is quite an extraordinary statement, exemplifying as it does all the characteristics of Level 1 moral development – absolute selfishness, lack of conscience and indifference to the welfare of others. I don’t doubt for a moment that these people love their children and are kind to animals. But the misery which their actions have brought to thousands of ‘mum and dad’ investors seems for them to fall into the category of ‘long-distance impersonal harm’, all the more distant from a lounger by the pool in Hawaii. I have nothing but contempt for most of the finance company shysters, whether on Wall Street or Queen Street, who have wreaked such havoc in the lives of those who put their trust in them. But really my contempt is wasted. They don’t care. And it is their not caring that is the unforgivable crime.