Every Wednesday at 8:30 am, the Big Society Capital investment committee gathers in our boardroom in London. Team members introduce each potential investment, presenting detailed financial modelling, a market assessment, a plan for measuring impact, and a summary of what our partners and stakeholders think. Despite this rich information, however, some questions remain unanswered, such as whether an investment that benefits more affluent people is worthwhile, or whether we want to back an organization that could achieve great social benefit but seems motivated primarily by financial gain.
In fact, analysis cannot answer these questions, because they are fundamentally about values and ethics. But we impact investors are often more comfortable talking about finance and systems than about values. In mid-July, more than 500 people from more than 40 countries gathered in Chicago for the Global Steering Group Impact Investment Summit. The energy and commitment were palpable, and my fellow delegates and I were inspired by extraordinary stories of the social change that impact investing can deliver. Sessions delved into topics such as financial models, system design, working with government, and influencing corporations. But attendees devoted much less time and intellectual effort to the ethics underpinning our work.
Philosophers have been wrestling with ways of thinking about values for thousands of years. I believe that this legacy of rigorous thought can help draw out and resolve some of tensions that underlie the difficult conversations we have in those Wednesday morning meetings.
Two of the longest-standing debates in ethics have direct relevance to impact investing. The first is the debate over the relative value of outcomes and purpose. Is the priority achieving the most good, or is it acting according to a good purpose? Both approaches have a long heritage in Western philosophy, and both also accord with common feelings about morality.