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Interview by Alf K. Walgermo


Oil Profits and Ethics Don't Mix

Or do they? A conversation with Norwegian philosopher and Sunday school teacher Henrik Syse.

He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much," says Henrik Syse. Norway has hired Syse, a professional philosopher who has written books about the ethics of war as well as ethics in everyday life, to figure out how the Norwegian government's Petroleum Fund can act as investor in an ethically beneficial manner.

"My main job is to sit and think," Syse jokes.

He is not alone in working toward an ethical management of the fund. The Finance Ministry's "ethical guidelines" include a list of no-goers for the Petroleum Fund. The decision as to which companies actually to exclude is made by the Ministry itself, with advice from a separate Ethics Council. But after this gatekeeping, which is based on principles decided on by Parliament, there are still many ethically diverse companies left in the fund's portfolio. (So far 17 companies have been excluded, while close to 3,500 are part of the portfolio.) And this is where the bank's own ethicists and corporate-governance people, such as Syse, have to do their work.

Apart from being concerned with the ethics of large investments during work hours, Syse—the son of a former prime minister of Norway—teaches Sunday school at an Evangelical-Lutheran church in Oslo. We are sitting in his office in the Norwegian Central Bank, where Syse began working as an in-house ethicist last fall. Corporate governance, it's called: the philosopher is in charge of how the fund uses its ownership rights.

How do you feel about being a "moral compass," as The Wall Street Journal called you, for one of the richest countries in the world?

I don't exactly see myself as a moral compass. There are so many people here in the bank with excellent moral compasses already. But whoever has power also needs direction, and hopefully I can help give direction to our work on corporate governance. As an ethicist in charge of this field in the Petroleum Fund (as of 2006, it's officially called The Government Pension Fund—Global), it is my work ...

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