Thursday, August 6, 2009

Summary of the interview with Nigel Seed, QC

I met Nigel in his chambers at 3 Paper Buildings at The Temple. I had never been to The Temple and was delighted to go there and to get a chance to see it and to meet him. A reserved and thoughtful man, it turns out that this seeming pillar of the establishment was a real rebel in his youth.

For Nigel, virtue is more than mere goodness. Virtuous behaviour is honest behaviour, by which he means being truthful to oneself and others. He sees that dishonest behaviour takes many forms including outright lying or cheating but also trying to cover up the truth or not tell the whole truth. One aspect of dishonest behaviour that particularly strikes Nigel is when people make a mistake and follow elaborate (and usually dishonest) steps to try to cover it up or make out there was no mistake in the first place. Behaving honestly is difficult because it requires the strength of mind and character to resist the temptation to fabricate or embellish and this, in turn, requires genuine self confidence. When Nigel sees someone behaving virtuously (honestly) he feels warmly toward that person, is inclined to trust them, and would seek to get to know them and re-engage with them. Similarly, when he sees someone behaving without virtue he feels immediately that they are not to be trusted and he goes out of his way to avoid them, both socially and professionally. They make him feel angry and irritable.

Attempting to behave virtuously is not something Nigel thinks about consciously. It is like breathing. Interestingly, Nigel does not remember developing his understanding of virtuous behaviour from positive role models, but rather from negative ones. Growing up, and as a young barrister, he came across behaviour he actively chose not to emulate. Whilst this may have isolated him from certain people and blocked certain avenues, he does not regret the choices he has made and it is clear that he could not even consider living in any other way.

Sadly, he sees that there is a lot of dishonesty in the world. He sees so many people who try to get away with as much as they can, pushing the limit until they get caught. Regulation has not helped, indeed it is hugely interfering, removing individual accountability and peer pressure for virtuous behaviour. Nigel is a criminal barrister but his observations are not limited to his work at the bar. His professional and personal interests take him into a variety of places and he interacts at a senior level with people from different professions, many of whom have begun to "believe their own press", hiding behind the authority of their office or profession. This is particularly troubling because people in leadership positions are influential and should be setting a good example rather than using their authority to serve themselves and their own interests.

In order to embed virtue he thinks that we all need to take a good hard look at ourselves and the groups and organisations to which we belong, analysing whether we are being truthful to ourselves, in our jobs, and with the people around us. Dishonesty is a habit which we need to work hard to break and he suggests everyone starts by resisting, at least once a day (for starters!), the temptation to tell a little lie. We'll survive and, in the end, be better off.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related links (profile of Nigel Seed, QC):

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