Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Interesting Book: The Ajax Dilemma

Paul Woodruff, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin, has done a great job of discussing what is, at least partly, an economic issue using the lens of mythology. Woodruff thanks Betty Sue Flowers, editor of The Power of Myth, for her advice. Here is the Amazon link:

The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness, and Rewards

It got a good review last December in the NY Times by NANCY F. KOEHN. See

That Eternal Question of Fairness

Here is the description from Amazon and after that will be some of my own observations:

"We live in a world where CEOs give themselves million dollar bonuses even as their companies go bankrupt and ordinary workers are laid off; where athletes make millions while teachers struggle to survive; a world, in short, where rewards are often unfairly meted out.

In The Ajax Dilemma, Paul Woodruff examines one of today's most pressing moral issues: how to distribute rewards and public recognition without damaging the social fabric. How should we honor those whose behavior and achievement is essential to our overall success? Is it fair or right to lavish rewards on the superstar at the expense of the hardworking rank-and-file? How do we distinguish an impartial fairness from what is truly just? Woodruff builds his answer to these questions around the ancient conflict between Ajax and Odysseus over the armor of the slain warrior Achilles. King Agamemnon arranges a speech contest to decide the issue. Ajax, the loyal workhorse, loses the contest, and the priceless armor, to Odysseus, the brilliantly deceptive strategist who will lead the Greeks to victory. Deeply insulted, Ajax goes on a rampage and commits suicide, and in his rage we see the resentment of every loyal worker who has been passed over in favor of those who are more gifted, or whose skills are more highly valued. How should we deal with the "Ajax dilemma"? Woodruff argues that while we can never create a perfect system for distributing just rewards, we can recognize the essential role that wisdom, compassion, moderation, and respect must play if we are to restore the basic sense of justice on which all communities depend.

This short, thoughtful book, written with Woodruff's characteristic elegance, investigates some of the most bitterly divisive issues in American today."
Now my observations:

Although this is a work of philosophy, I believe it gives an accurate depiction of human nature that is consistent with what I have read in books about or based on neuroscience like The Moral Molecule by Paul Zak and The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. For example, he talks about how justice has to address the whole person, including our rational and irrational sides. People base justice on their values and don't like to see others rewarded who don't share our values (communities need shared values according to Haidt) and justice is what keeps communities together.

Woodruff says justice has to leave communities whole and Haidt says that one of our motives is to belong to a community.

Woodruff discusses the difference between incentives and rewards. Incentives are like regular pay while rewards are for something special that one person did. People like this last one alot.

As an economist, I like how he emphasizes tradeoffs. Like how do you reward the "good workers" like Ajax, who do things well day in and day out, vs. rewarding creative people with innovative ideas. It hard to know what value to even place on the Trojan horse that wins the war.

Fairness and justice are not the same thing. Fairness might be treating everyone the same but you can't treat Ajax and Odysseus the same.

One problem is that Ajax already distrusts the system and its leader, Agememnon, who is not a good leader. He has not set a good moral and ethical example for his soldiers and has not been treating them justly up to this point. But this is an army at war and it might be hard to expect justice and compassion with all the testosterone flowing around. As Zak points out, testosterone can get in the way of trust and empathy, things that Ajax needs.

When Woodruff talks about compassion and how it means we can imagine the pain of others it reminds me of Adam Smith and his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments where he talks about sympathy and where Zak talks about empathy.

He talks about "proportional equality" when discussing fairness. When Haidt talks about fairness he says people want "proportionality."

Woodruff discusses John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism. Haidt does, too. Both seem to think that utilitarianism is too rational to lead to justice. Justice means that all people feel like they are getting their due.

Woodruff says that different groups need to appreciate each other if we are to avoid civil conflict and have harmony. I think Haidt says the same thing when talking about conservatives and liberal. But this is hard when the two groups don't share the same values.

One thing about leadership is that it is based on testosterone. As Zak points out, groups need moral enforcers and testosterone makes us feel good to punish a transgressor. So it might be difficult to get empathy in an army.

"The consumate leader tells beautiful tale, and the tale is believed." This sounds like myth. My favorite line from Haidt's book is "The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor." So the leader needs to do this to create a just reward system and honor people based on their unique contributions, something that Ajax wants but does not get.

In a footnote, Woodruff says a middle manager who is asked to rate his workers and fire the bottom 10% should resign. But that might be hard if the economy is in a recession.

No comments:

Post a Comment