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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 to coordinate our long-term dealings with more than 3,000 companies from all around the world. We have to decide how we want to use our ownership rights, how we want to vote in annual general meetings, who we want to see on the boards of directors, and so on. That doesn't necessarily make me a "moral compass," but I participate in daily discussions and bring in the ethical perspective.

When we work on the governance of the companies we invest in, we have strategies based on ethical, social, and environmental concerns, as well as more traditional governance and financial concerns. Integrating ethics in that way is a good thing in itself, of course. But it is also profitable in the long run, which is why it is important for a serious investor to care about these things, Remember, we are a long-term investment fund. We are not primarily interested in what happens during the next two months, but how it will look 20 to 50 to 100 years from now. Norway's oil income is a gift that should be shared jointly with future generations. It's not a good investment for us to support companies that bury containers of poison that will leak in two years and destroy their local communities. And extensive corruption, which can provide short-term profits, could undermine a company's trust; such a company, therefore, is not a good place for long-term investments.

The Petroleum Fund is one of the world's largest single-owned institutional funds, with approximately $210 billion in assets, of which 40 percent is invested in stocks. So even if we only own a small share in each company, we are a major actor, and we have to use that power in a wise and prudent way. Look what happened with Enron! Enron has taught us that we must be active and keep our eyes on the ball. We can't afford bad ethics.

How can investment and moneymaking go hand in hand with ethics?

We create value by investing so that other people can start new projects, and that is a good thing. And we do it on behalf of future generations. You could of course ask if capitalism itself is ethical. I think it is a system with inherent temptations and possible cruelties that we have to be aware of, but it is the best system we have for spreading prosperity. So I am not troubled working inside the system, but I'm glad that I'm working with the framework of the system, and hopefully helping to improve it.

How would you characterize the ethics of the Norwegian Central Bank?

People here are well aware that they make huge decisions about large sums of money, decisions that are based on values such as moderation, decency, and honesty. We are dependent on the Norwegian people's trust. This way of thinking pervades the organization. I can observe this somehow from the outside, and fortunately it challenges my old prejudices about what it is like in a money palace. In my heart, I am still highly skeptical about the effect money can have on people, and I have a certain Platonic worry about being devoured by material concerns. Therefore, it is good to see that large sums of money can actually be managed ethically and effectively —and that there is a real willingness to ensure that high moral qualities and principles are actually upheld.

When it comes to where not to invest, ethically speaking, that is mainly a political issue, and we at the bank respect and abide by the decisions made. But I must add that it is impossible, and probably not even desirable, to avoid all companies that do bad things. It would not be wise to stand outside of the international economy. The solution is the middle road: Be proper owners and gradually improve the ethics and performance of the companies we're invested in.

Is it ethical to invest in tobacco or weapons?

Good question. And I'm glad I am not the one responsible for answering it as long as I am in this position, since ethical screening is the politicians' decision. But it is a legitimate debate. If we invest in tobacco, we must at least try to get the companies not to promote their products to youngsters. As of today, several kinds of weapons production have been excluded from our investment universe, based on the ethical guidelines, but tobacco has not.

This is an ongoing debate among the politicians.

Which companies are simply unacceptable?

Companies with serious violations of human rights, exploitation of children, and production of illegal weapons. Companies that support immoral regimes and companies that spend money on large-scale corruption. In such cases we cannot use consequentialist ethics, we have to apply duty ethics: It's wrong to invest in these companies, period. That is what our ethical guidelines say, and I think that is wise. But, again, that's the politicians' decision in the end. My end of the playing field is corporate governance and active ownership.

What was it like to be the son of a prime minister?

To be the son of my father was fun. I have many fond memories. He was a caring dad. I have an ambivalent feeling about being the son of a famous person, but for me it was mostly nice and relaxed. Still, I remember when he visited me in Boston, when my wife and I studied there, he came with bodyguards. It was a bit weird. I also remember that everywhere he went, he was met by kindness. Anywhere I go today, there are people who tell me they met my father 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. But I have never felt that I should try to live up to what he did. That was never an issue. When he became prime minister, I was an adult myself. Unfortunately he died early.

How did he affect your own career as a philosopher?

I think that he influenced my interest in political philosophy and ethics. Our family was always discussing social and political matters. And my father was also focused on the idea that he was taking care of something that belonged to somebody else. When he built a cottage in the mountains, he was thinking of the joy it would give us, not the material value. He wanted to spread joy. I have learned a lot from that.

Before your job as an in-house ethicist for the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, you were working as a senior researcher for the International Peace Research Institute (PRIO) in Oslo, where you still have a part-time position. You have written much on the idea of Just War. What is the parallel between the Norwegian Central Bank and a just war?

In both cases we need to restrain ourselves so that we don't damage the world around us. A military defense can do much harm to the outside world, but it can also create safety and be used in morally right ways. Military forces can keep the peace.

In your Norwegian book from 2003, Just War? On Military Power, Ethics and Ideals, you were skeptical of the American-led war against Iraq. Why?

The Just War tradition says that a country must have strong reasons to proclaim a war. Martin Luther makes this point emphatically: A war of necessity can be a just war, but a war of choice is the devil's work. I take care not to be too absolute, and there could have been just reasons for war in Iraq. But the war would only have been just if based on broad alliances and preferably a mandate from the UN.

But isn't it good that there is a country like the United States, which takes moral responsibility?

I have a lot of respect for how the United States took moral responsibility in the two world wars. But if you choose to act alone, you risk counteracting what is morally good. This is an old problem in war. In Europe we have in many ways huge moral expectations toward the United States, not least because religious and ethical values supposedly play an important part in American politics. Therefore many were disappointed on this occasion, but we should not exaggerate the disappointment: I do not think our relationship has deteriorated beyond the point of no return.

How do you reflect on the strong interconnectedness between religion and politics in the United States?

In general I think it's positive that Christianity can be a basis for politics. In Europe there has been much illiteracy about how important religion is to human beings—Americans understand that much better. But the Bible can't be used for single political decisions; religion should be a motivation and a moral obligation, not a political program. Most fundamentally, it gives us a set of values. What the Religious Right did with Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair, for example, was in my view far from the ideals of the Founding Fathers, and not in tune with basic Christian values.

How does your job as an oil and war ethicist fit with your volunteer work as a Sunday school teacher in an Evangelical-Lutheran church in Oslo?

There are some similarities! I have sort of a missionary agenda. Not that I preach here at the Central Bank, but I'm a missionary on behalf of moral values.

What is your church like?

My wife and I came back from the United States, where we had been studying, some 15 years ago, and we sat down in the back row in our local church at Fagerborg in Oslo. It was a good and warm place to be, we thought, and when they announced that they needed more volunteers for children's work, we accepted. We have stayed with that church ever since. It is a community that represents both human and theological breadth and seriousness. People and not topics are important there. A newspaper recently wrote that the only thing Christians are preoccupied with is sex. I don't think that is true. I've been a member of a Bible study group for almost 20 years, and we have talked about a lot of other and more important issues than sex.

One thing I like about going to church is a plain and normal service with a plain and not necessarily perfect sermon. What makes it good is the people who come together to connect to the great eternity, and the humbleness and joy of the community. It is not—and should not be—a "happening." For the Lord's Supper, we are gathered around a table to be in fellowship with God. Jesus, despite the dramatic situation on Maundy Thursday, took the time to eat with his friends. Luke tells us that Jesus said: "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." Just think: They took time to enjoy a meal together. It is easy to forget that aspect of the story. This joy in community—between humans, and between humans and God—is what the church represents at its best.

Do you feel at home in the Norwegian state church?

Yes—and I am also very ecumenical, so it would be a defeat in a way if I should need to convert. I have respect for friends of mine who have converted to Catholicism because they seek tradition, roots, and unity. I have an aunt who is a Baptist, friends who are Methodists, and a close friend who is Orthodox. But I think that unity in Christianity, as a whole, is so great that I should not need to convert. Not that I agree with Luther on every point, but the Evangelical-Lutheran church represents the Christian faith and basic Christian values in a good way. And I hope my friends feel the same way. Something that pleases me enormously in our time is the increasing ecumenical approach between Christian communities.

What is the most important to you when it comes to faith?

To belong, and to be forgiven. I belong to Him who has created this inconceivable and mysterious universe. And even if I do wrong against others and against God, I can start over again.

What is the most important thing you have learned from the Bible?

The answer is new every morning! But at the moment I am reading 1 John, so it is natural to say "love." Love connects belonging and forgiveness, which are both based on the love between people and the love between people and God.

And finally: Do you have any characteristics or vices that you want to get rid of?

Yes, there are plenty, but I will not share them with our readers! Well, I can share one: I am terrible/great at postponing things. If it doesn't need to be done today, it can wait until tomorrow. Suddenly I find a letter I should have sent four weeks ago.

In other words, you are really not good at day-trading?

No, I'm not. Definitely not! I'm a long-term guy.

What do you think about celebrating your 40th birthday later this year?

My wife is a bit older than I am, which helps. I am actually very relaxed about age. I only hope that I live long enough to provide everything I can for my children.

How old are they?

Twelve, nine, and twins at four. They're all girls! It's me and the girls, and I love it. Even though they put their heads together against me in a cute and very effective way: They know how to use their female grace and power.

Alf K. Walgermo has published two Norwegian books: one about the donkey in world literature, and one about the 100 individuals who met Jesus according to the gospels. He works for the Norwegian national daily newspaper Vart Land. E-mail: alf@vl.no

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