Question 1, Part 3:
Can Bad Qualities Lead to Good Results?

Note to the Reader: For the question these emails are answering, look back to the first part of this series, above. If you have any response or reactions you'd like to share, please email us.

Response 7: From David O'Connor
(Ph.D. Stanford), Senior Institute Fellow

Dear Tom - It is said that a king once asked the visiting wise man Protagoras a difficult and disturbing question: "Do the gods exist?" Protagoras asked for a day to think over his answer. The next day, the king repeated the question, and Protagoras asked for two more days. But on the fourth day, Protagoras again refused to answer, and asked for four more days.

When the agreed day came and Protagoras asked for another eight days to consider the question, the exasperated king complained, and Protagoras replied, "You have asked a question that requires more thought the longer one thinks about it."

The difficult and disturbing question asked by Venky your friend (and since all thoughtful people are friends, mine too) gives me a sense of what Protagoras meant. Venky is right to be troubled. It took Plato, the greatest philosophical mind the West has yet produced, some three hundred pages (in his REPUBLIC) to give even a tentative answer to essentially the same question, namely, why do the wicked prosper? It took all the power of Shakespeare, the greatest literary mind of the West, to look into the abyss of the question (in KING LEAR). The urgency of the question is always likely to be more vivid than our satisfaction with any answer.

The danger is that a glib answer, an easy answer, is worse than no answer at all. As Socrates' friends put it, we wish to be cured of our doubts, not merely silenced in expressing them. We should be wary of taking shelter from this question before we have let its full force rain down on us. This is my excuse for taking my eight days, and wishing for another sixteen. But I would like to contribute one idea to the discussion, focusing on management style rather than personal morality. In other words, I'll be addressing whether an egotistical manager can prosper, not whether, say, an adulterous perjurer can.

My favorite bit of ancient wisdom on Venky's question comes from Xenophon's HIERO. Xenophon, like Plato, an admirer of Socrates, but unlike Plato a stunningly successful man of action, wrote a dialogue between Simonides, a poet and wise man, and Hiero of Syracuse, a ruthless and prospering tyrant. (We need that word "tyrant"; no other word captures so efficiently the human type Venky is worried by. I suppose the best modern equivalent is the word "jerk," another handy ethical concept.). In a revealing passage, Hiero complains that the tyrant cannot keep the allegiance of the most talented people, since they will either leave or challenge his authority. The most talented want to be treated as partners of their leaders, not servants. The tyrant must instead make use of clever people who lack the courage to challenge him, or of self-indulgent people who enjoy the material rewards a prospering tyrant can lavish on his flatterers and accomplices. Even if the tyrant himself has higher goals, nobler aspirations, he will be compelled to use those who do not. So this is the box the tyrant is in: The people whom he most respects will refuse to be his partners, while the people who will be his partners he holds in contempt. To put this in a more modern idiom, working for a jerk is training in becoming a jerk.

I think one of the great ethical benefits of the increasing career mobility and volatility of the corporate world is simply that it makes it harder for jerks to operate. A fine example of this is the change in coaching styles in professional sports since the advent of free agency. In the old days, a coach could afford to be a martinet, because there were few escape routes for his players. Now, coaches must be in a constant state of recruiting their stars into a shared vision of partnership. This is perfectly consistent with challenging them, but not with treating them with contempt. (College coaches can get away with a lot more jerkiness, since their players have fewer options for movement.). And players now devote themselves to honing their skills with a dedication unknown in the days of athletic tyranny: there no longer is such a thing as the off season. The free agent invests more in himself than the passive slave ever would. So the change from tyrannical coaching to partnership-based coaching has resulted in much greater productivity, not less. It has of course made it more difficult for any one organization to hold on to its best people, though it has also made it easier to recruit new people. I believe these developments parallel the expansion of ethical opportunity in the wider corporate world.

There is no reason to romanticize this new corporate world of free agency. It has its own brutalities and pettiness, too. But at least this new world makes it more difficult for one type of jerk to prosper. More difficult, but not impossible. I'm afraid we ask more from the world than it can give when we are tempted to deny any prosperity at all to the wicked. Virtue is its own reward, but I don't think philosophy has yet succeeded in demonstrating that it has or is the only reward.

Thanks for including me in the conversation, Tom, and thanks to Venky for setting it off.
Yours, Dave O'Connor

Response 8: From Tom Morris to Venky

Dear Venky:
I shared your interesting email with some associates and friends whose wisdom I respect. I hope you benefit, as I have, from seeing what some they have had to say about your questions. I'm glad that the internet allows us to philosophize together about things that really matter. So I want to start by thanking you for sharing your profound questions with me. Your honesty in posing them has already enhanced the thinking of several people.

Your main concern seems to come down to this. Often it appears that people succeed in the world of business not just despite their vices, but even because of them. There are people in positions of wealth and power who are more than tough - they are aggressive, demanding, intimidating, mean-spirited, unforgiving, rude, ostentatious and rash. They may be masters of deception who make and keep promises only when it is in their perceived self-interest to do so. They may betray other people without a second thought. And these traits, rather than keeping them from success, sometimes seem to have secured them what they have. How do those of us who praise ethical virtue and its practicality for success explain this regrettable fact?

First let's clear up some things. Money and power certainly don't add up to success. A person can inherit either without doing anything successfully to acquire them or even retain them. I define success in different terms. True success always involves discovering your talents, developing those talents, and putting them to use for the good of others as well as yourself through a process of setting and attaining proper goals. It is something that is both deeply satisfying and in principle sustainable. It is also shared.

You are interested in life success and in overall business success. A dog can successfully escape a fence without using any of the wisdom of the great thinkers. I can successfully drive my car out of my driveway without relying on seven universal conditions of success, and without having to display any particular moral character in order to get the job done. But the tougher the challenge is, the more difficult and worthy the goal, the more necessary wisdom and character are for attaining it, and maintaining whatever good it leads to.

Aristotle thought that virtue was the main ingredient for happiness. But, too often, modern business has been portrayed in such a way as to lead people to think that vice is the battering ram of success.

A philosopher who commends the path of virtue has to admit right away that there are structures and processes in our world which allow vice to prosper, and force to prevail, for a while. But I am just as convinced that unethical success is always self-defeating in the long run.

What are those structures and processes? There are many. Let's just look at a sample. Too many people are motivated by the two forces of greed and fear. So when they are in positions of power, and are hiring new people to manage their enterprises, they look for two things - the ability to conquer new territory (which answers to the greed need) and the ability to protect what has already been conquered (which helps allay the fear of loss). They are looking for attack dogs and guard dogs. So they often hire people with aggressive in-your-face tendencies, and promote them for results defined sheerly in terms that have been dictated by the greed and the fear.

History has taught us that a bad person can conquer territory. A bad person can also defend territory. For a while. It is undeniable that some goals can be successfully reached by morally deficient people. But that alone does not make such people examples of what I call "true success." And it does not prove to us in the least that morally bad qualities are ever needed for any sort of success worth having.

This is recognized in every major philosophical and religious tradition. The Dalai Lama, in his recent book ETHICS IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM, says: "As we have seen, when our intentions are polluted by selfishness, by hatred, by desire to deceive, however much our acts have the appearance of being constructive, inevitably their impact will be negative, both for self and others" (page 148).

I believe that military metaphors have governed a lot of business thinking for far too long. Machiavellian conquest and control were the focal goals, and any means necessary were to be employed to attain those objectives. But here is a problem. Traditional military thinking and concepts presuppose the limitations of conventional weaponry and traditional battlefield conditions. The weapons technology of the twentieth century has in principle changed things dramatically in the world of military thinking, or at least ought to have done so. What might have worked a hundred years ago can end up today with everyone dead. Communications technology may be changing things just as dramatically in business, or at least ought to be doing so. What might have worked a hundred years ago can end up today with everyone gone.

When metaphors of combat give way to aspirations toward something more like sustainable community, some of the warrior qualities that once were enough to secure success become clearly counter-productive and even outrageously self-destructive. To see this, read John Byrne's recent book about Al Dunlap, the notorious downsizing king of the past decade. Its called CHAINSAW. Emerson also has a great essay on the self-destructiveness of unethical success, focusing on Napoleon. See THE PORTABLE EMERSON, and read this essay for a penetrating look at the consequences of unethical behavior.

If business is war, warriors win. If business is just a big game, then gamesmanship prevails. But if business is a genuine, substantive human activity of creative service to our fellow men and women, then humane qualities and the moral virtues will be necessary for long term success.

You also asked about whether congruency or authenticity is enough for business success. Authenticity is what I call "a second order virtue." "Be yourself" is not always good advice. I would whisper that to a young man getting ready to stand up and give his first speech, but I'd never say it to a homicidal maniac standing in a mall shopping crowd with a box of new kitchen knives. Acting consistently or congruently with who you are is likewise a second order virtue, to be sought and praised only if the first order virtues properly define who you are. First order virtures would be such things as kindness, honesty, empathy, and respectfulness. Authenticity and congruency can sometimes succeed short term, regardless of whether a person is morally good or corrupt. But long term, they are doomed to failure without the support of the basic virtues.

Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Unity - you know my four foundations from IF ARISTOTLE RAN GENERAL MOTORS. I'd add the list of virtues I just laid out in PHILOSOPHY FOR DUMMIES, too long to enumerate here. They are not all what wed call distinctively moral qualities, but they are all qualities whose pursuit ought to be in harmony with those deepest moral foundations.

I have derived benefit from your questions and want to thank you for asking. Come to us any time for philosophical reflection.
Good Wishes,
Tom Morris (


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