Monday, January 21, 2008

Toward an Aristotelian Moral Ubermensch

In his >Mugwumps, Morals and Politics 1864-1920 Gerald McFarland writes (p. 147):

"The consequences of the progressive perspective were evident in an older Mugwump organization, the National Municipal League. Gradually, the NML shifted its goal from one of creating municipal efficiency by throwing out the rascals to creating efficient administration by working with whomever was in. As less emphasis was put on individual moral responsibility and more on malfunctioning of the system, the tone of municipal reform changed. It was a change of style that even progressively inclined Mugwumps found quite jarring."

In The Lonely Crowd David Riesman argued that the twentieth century saw an evolution from inner directedness, whereby personal goals and firm morals drive aims and values, to other directedness, where conformity, peer pressure and media opinion drive aims and values. The transition from Mugwumpery to Progressivism that occurred among some few of the Mugwumps during the first decade of the 1900s (many Mugwumps had died by then and two thirds of the Mugwumps did not adopt Progressivism or publicly adopted only one Progressive issue, according to McFarland).

The transition from inner-directedness to other-directedness may have resulted from (or at least be related to) the change in political emphasis from the late nineteenth century Mugwumps to the Progressives. The Mugwumps were largely religiously educated and mainly came from Protestant backgrounds. They had a specific moral sense, part of which involved an emphasis on individual responsibility and morality. In contrast, the shift among the Progressives to a systems approach lifted the emphasis on responsibility and morality from the individual and turned it into a political or public problem. The Progressives may have emphasized this in their educational activities, which were led by John Dewey. In other words, the shift from inner-directedness to other-directedness may be a result from the Progressives' political ideology. Their emphasis on systems may have been linked to scientific management and the idea that you can improve output through rationalization of systems. Herbert Croly discusses scientific management in Progressive Democracy.

Business schools also gained currency around this time or a bit later, and the ideas of Chester Barnard and the human relations advocates of the 1930s were reflective of the progressives' emphasis on systems as opposed to individual moral responsibility. Barnard emphasized morals heavily in his Functions of the Executive , but his interpretation of morals was entirely relativistic. He argued that executives must be morally creative to motivate workers. Such moral creativity leaves little room for moral grounding. He probably thought that public morality and public scrutiny and control systems would be sufficient to prevent deviant moral beliefs from becoming part of executives' moral creativity. But Barnard does not treat the problem adequately. Rather, he gives examples that suggest that deviant behavior, such as becoming indifferent to the death of one's parent, can be induced through moral creativity. In this, Barnard was not unlike Adolf Eichmann, the chief of the Nazis' prison camp operations. In Eichmann in Jerusalem , Hannah Arendt quotes Eichmann as saying that he is a Kantian and that the duty to obey orders was his moral imperative. This kind of moral creativity finds little inhibition once the problem of morality becomes one of moral systems rather than conscience or individual responsibility.

The management literature has addressed the problem of inhibiting moral deviance in two key ways: through control systems (financial accounting and incentive systems that reduce conflicts between agents and principals) and through organizational culture. But neither approach anticipates the possibility of sociopathic or morally deviant management, as occurred with Enron and other firms in the first decade of the 21st century.

The inclucation of moral sense is a lifelong process. Aristotle argued that the young must develop habits through their upbringing, and if such habits are not developed then they will not be able to be taught to be moral decision makers. Progressive education approaches that encourage students to discover principles for themselves may fail to encourage the habits necessary for moral decision making. Thus, Progressive education contribute to the lax morality that we have witnessed in business. But even those who have good upbringings in the first place can develop bad habits when they work. Social pressure to conform to deviant orgnaizational norms can displace the good habits a young executive learned when he was young.

Aristotle argued that moral behavior involves balancing extremes. Excessive honesty, revealing too much information, is foolish and can lead to being duped. Excessive dishonesty leads to criminality. The mean involves good faith, fair dealing and comeptent negotiation. The competent executive needs to negotiate the moral challenges with which organizations cope but needs to retain the ability to judge when compromises with his basic personal values are too great. That our education has failed to do this is evident from the case of Enron, whereby young MBA graduates bought into Enron's dishonest handling of regulatory agencies; accounting fraud; willingness to cheat investors; and similar kinds of criminality.

Progressivism and its followers, to include Chester Barnard and the advocates of modern management theory, agency theory and systems-based approaches to control, de-emphasize individual responsibility. This is erroneous, as Adolph Eichmann and Jeff Skilling proved. The unscrupulous will always find the way around systems. Not that systems can be ignored or should be, but they are not enough.

Students must learn to balance Aristotle's moral mean with Barnard's moral creativity. To do so requires a considerable degree of self-awareness and managerial skills, of the very kind that managerial skills advocates such as David Whetten and Kim Cameron have advocated. Finding the Aristotelian moral mean in a complex organization means have considerable interpersonal skill and moral awareness, both of which are too often missing.

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