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Bono: utlitarian or Aristotelean?

2011 July 1
by Paul Vallely

In the end the protest accusing Bono of not paying enough tax turned out to be a bit of a rain-soaked squib. In the original tradition of Glastonbury protest, in the days before it became a corporate bunfest, activists inflated a 20ft balloon with the message “U Pay Your Tax 2” as the world’s biggest rock band took to the stage. But the organisers deflated the sign after a couple of songs saying it was stopping the people behind from seeing Bono & Co.

In 2006 U2, the band which was so prominent in the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, moved its multi-million-pound song catalogue to the Netherlands for tax reasons after Ireland capped the tax-free income artists could earn. Bono was thus, protestors said, demanding that his government gave more in overseas aid whilst simultaneously reducing the income from which it could pay that. Bono was “a socialist-minded do-gooder who talks the talk but refuses to walk the walk”.

It’s worth unpacking this argument. It starts by asserting that Bono is promulgating social justice while living like a dedicated capitalist. That is unpersuasive; better to be a capitalist dedicated to social justice than one who isn’t. But how do we disentangle private and public moralities?

Aristotle holds that good behaviour grows out of a good character. Modern society disagrees; it takes a more utilitarian view, insisting, for example, that it is possible to be both a bad husband and a good prime minister. So if a footballer is unfaithful that is a problem for his wife but not for the fans, unless he is seducing other players’ girlfriends, which might damaging a team’s morale and performance. By this score U2’s fine performance at Glastonbury should satisfy all except those critics who were wanting them to fail.

But virtue ethics suggests this is not enough. So what about proportion? It is possible to be a tax dodger and do good in the world – and for the worth of the latter to outweigh the former. Glastonbury’s founder, Michael Eavis, a Methodist, suggested that the band’s massive donations to charity outweighed the harm of their tax-efficient accountancy. Certainly only a small proportion of the tax U2 is avoiding would have gone on overseas aid.

Justin Forsyth, the chief executive of Save the Children, defended Bono with a more political proportionality. Bono has been a lead player for 20 years in pushing the fight against poverty to the top of the political agenda. Behind the scenes in the run-up to Gleneagles he pressed President Bush and other leaders to go much further than they wanted. The world would be a far worse place without Bono, the charity chief said.

Moreover, defenders say, Bono is only one of four members of U2 and does not have a veto on collective decisions about the group finances. And, anyway, the band sells 95 per cent of its records and tickets outside Ireland, and pays tax on that in various parts of the world. The four musicians, U2’s manager says “continue to remain Ireland-based and are personal investors and employers in the country”.

There’s the nub. Ireland has accepted an international bailout and is undergoing spending cuts, tax rises and rising unemployment as it tries to rescue its debt-ridden economy. Ordinary people are suffering in the country where Bono’s wife and children live, along with him when he is not on some world tour – or travelling to Washington, as he did last week, in an attempt to prevent cuts to malaria and AIDS programmes as some rich countries try to retreat from their moral obligations to the world’s poorest.

Does Bono have a case to answer?  That depends on whether he is a utilitarian or an Aristotelean. Only he can tell you that.

from the Church Times

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