Tuesday 20 August 2019

Is it fair to label Bono a hypocrite over his tax affairs - or is hypocrisy just a part of life?

'It's hard to find icons without feet of clay' - Professor Paul O'Grady has a ­philosophical take on the Paradise Papers ­revelations

Great and good: Mandela and Bono in 2002
Great and good: Mandela and Bono in 2002

Paul O'Grady

Bono is in the news because his tax affairs, while legal, seem to fall below the high moral ground he espouses in relation to a multiplicity of other issues.

So does the fact that he (or rather his people) make shrewd business decisions, exploit loopholes and pay less tax than they might do otherwise make him a hypo­crite? Maybe. So why is it so easy to slag him off and take delight in his feet of clay?

George Bernard Shaw once remarked that clergymen had to be professional hypocrites - the ideals they profess are hard to sustain in practice. However, what invites criticism is not honest failure or struggle to meet ideals, but a holier-than-thou attitude that masks the reality of the inevitably flawed person behind the ideals. Contrast the figure of Bishop Brennan in Father Ted, the larger-than-life obnoxious prelate frolicking on the beach in his home video, with the priest played by Brendan Gleeson in Calvary, who battled with his demons while trying to speak for some kind of morality and truth.

Which of these is closer to Bono? I don't know, since I don't know the man. But he is high profile, he does espouse high ideals, sometimes comes across as holier-than-thou and he seems now to be caught out in a manner that doesn't fit with those ideals, like Bishop Brennan. I suppose what's obnoxious about the character of Bishop Brennan is his oppressive manner, his contempt for those about him. There doesn't seem to be much of this in Bono. What is there is a genuine earnestness, a desire to speak about matters of importance like climate change and global poverty. He uses his superstar profile to highlight these issues, which can only be a good thing. So does that let him off the hook about paying tax?

Figuring out what's wrong with hypocrisy would help with this. Hypocrites espouse some value or other and fail to live up to it. What's exactly wrong with that? In one obvious sense there's a contradiction, stating publicly and living not privately. However, the George Bernard Shaw remark draws attention to the fact that it's hard to do this. Everyone has some flaws and may fail to live up to their ideals. So maybe it's a matter of degree, the extent of the gap between public utterance and private practice.

Maybe there's also a hierarchy of crimes and misdemeanours. In the current slew of exposures of bullying and sexual abuse allegations, fast business dealings seem lower down the scale of problems. Why so? Well there isn't direct intention to harm, it's arguably self-interested but unlike the kind of damage inflicted by abusers. However, this begins to look like a banker's defence. "I didn't hurt anyone directly," even if the economy tumbled, austerity kicked in, the housing market went haywire and thousands have nowhere to live. That clearly rings hollow. Yet everyone is implicated in the global market. Buying cheap high-street clothing implicates you in sweatshop perpetuation in Asia. Is it permissible to enjoy a nice meal out while people starve, or are homeless?

U2 on The Joshua Tree Tour
U2 on The Joshua Tree Tour
Controversy: Apple CEO Tim Cook, left, greets Bono from the band U2 after Apple Pay and U2 offered iTunes customers a free download of their latest album, Songs of Innocence in 2014. Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez
The Clarence Hotel, one of Bono and The Edge's investments

So how do we navigate in this moral morass? What principles might help figure out what's ethical, what's decent? The great ethical heroes of the past - Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Mill offered different approaches to living well. Develop a character which helps you to flourish. Cultivate a sense of empathy with others. Act so that any other rational person in the same situation would do the same. Seek the greatest good of the greatest number. Each one of these views has a lot going for it and also a great deal of problems associated with it. So what should Bono do?

I certainly think he should continue to use his position to advocate good causes, and the ones he espouses have a lot to do with trying to make the world better for future generations. The fact that he's super-rich might take from this. I suppose one of the reasons people admire the Dalai Lama is due to his simple lifestyle and personal charm, which adds force to his words. Yet one of his disciples in now embroiled in a million-dollar scandal, and his background in the Potala palace in Lhasa is far from that of a simple monk. It's hard to find icons without feet of clay.

One element in Buddhist ethics is to bring oneself into any situation. As we make moral judgments on others, we also evaluate ourselves. As we accuse Bono of hypocrisy, we can check out ourselves. How scrupulous have our tax affairs been, how many shortcuts have we taken? If we're happy about our financial probity then, how compassionate have we been to others? Or do we think of ourselves as morally superior and smugly revel in that? So I don't have a clear judgment on Bono's tax affairs. I admire his public utterances and I need to put my own house in order. If I don't like the tax regime which lets him do this, I need to vote in politicians who will change it.

Paul O'Grady is Head of Department at the Department of Philosophy in Trinity College Dublin

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