The purposes and methodologies of auditing have very different characteristics.
Auditing has a proud history of enhancing trust between conflicting social interests and protecting the integrity of markets. But with evolving social conditions the purposes of auditing always seem to be in flux. For instance, there are at present calls for financial auditing to move beyond assurance on the accuracy and fair presentation of financial statements, to consider the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, and related environmental and social justice matters. The purposes of auditing are increasingly entangled in socio-economic questions of authority, ethics, and power.
In contrast, auditing's methodologies are based on the enduring, abstract, and universal principles of traditional logic. (Some types of auditing may be suited to symbolic or computational logic, but by and large auditing's critical reasoning techniques can be accommodated by the framework of Aristotelian logic.) Auditing's methodological roots in traditional, applied logic are a connection to timeless concepts of reasoning.
The differences between auditing's enduring logical methods and its unstable, socially-constructed purposes are significant. Logic is discovered, not invented. But auditing's social purposes are invented, not discovered. So what does all this mean? It suggests to me that we should carefully nurture (1) auditing's purposefulness and (2) its roots in applied logic. But:
(1) In recent years we have seen a tendency to accumulate layer upon layer of audit-related activities. Bloated and ineffective systems of verification convey superficial signals of orderliness – the purpose of these signals seems to be an alleviation of anxiety amid worsening political, socio-economic, and environmental disorder. In the context of our current socio-economic pathologies, auditing should provide impartial assurance, rather than merely signal a hollow reassurance. (The obvious failings of auditing during the current banking crisis perhaps illustrates the hollowness of much modern auditing activity.)
(2) An increasingly Byzantine, formulaic culture of checklist-based assurance and boilerplate language has taken root in auditing, to the detriment of critical reasoning. In addition, we appear to be experiencing an emphasis in auditing on isolated building blocks of knowledge, often without a countervailing sense of the whole. This suggests a steady erosion of our epistemic awareness and logical acumen. As a consequence we should aim to safeguard auditing’s “big picture" perspective, and its promotion of the aims of traditional Aristotelian logic: clarity, truth, and validity.
ⓒ David O'Regan, 2023.