I don’t routinely open the Times Literary Supplement expecting to have my behaviour as a leader challenged. But recently a Philosophy professor was writing about the war in Ukraine and it niggled me.
She asked, Morally speaking, why is it worth risking nuclear confrontation to protect NATO countries, but not to protect Ukraine? Ukrainians are no less valuable than NATO citizens.
This stopped me in my tracks: as a college principal did I think morally about the decisions I was making?
Some people certainly do. This professor, for example, thinks that the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume still has something of relevance to say to world leaders. And I’ve heard of civil servants drawing on the nineteenth century philosopher J.S. Mill when drafting legislation.
I’m less sure about myself. Can I honestly say I thought decisions through from moral first principles? And what does it say about me if I didn’t?!
I suspect NATO leaders would try to wriggle off the painful horns of the dilemma above by pointing out a mistake in the professor’s question. She makes countries exactly equivalent to citizens. Whilst people ought to think morally, relations between peoples, they might argue, are not governed by morality but by national self-interest.
So the get-out could be not to answer the question on the grounds it’s a trick. Would that get me, too, off the hook, as a college principal?
I could argue as follows. The right of everyone in the college to be treated morally correctly is an axiom.
But the reason I don’t begin my decision-making at this point is that as a community we’ve agreed on a mission for the college and so rather than ask about the morally right thing to do, the more appropriate question is: what does the college mission suggest is the best thing to do?
I’m beginning to feel a bit better about myself with this. But there’s another important way in which my thinking diverges from that of the philosophy professor’s, I suspect.
She and I probably mean different things when we talk about the best decision. I imagine for a philosophy professor the best decision is the one that is best thought-through, the one which is most logically constructed and persuasively argued.
As a college principal my idea of the best decision is the one that will work best if implemented. The emphasis isn’t so much on the reasoning underpinning the conclusion: it’s workability not intellectual stringency that matters.
Indeed workability is a key test of my reasoning: if I’m challenged on this do I have at least sound, if not persuasive, arguments I can make clear to staff?
The best example I know of reaching a workable decision doesn’t come from a philosopher and is nothing like as recent as the eighteenth century. It comes from Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays about Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan Wars. And they predate Hume and Mill by more than two thousand years.
Agamemnon does the worst possible thing you can do in Ancient Greek literature: he returns home. Nine years fighting at Troy, not a scratch. Five minutes in the company of his beloved wife and there’s a blood-bath. His. Literally.
Things get worse. Orestes, his son, returns home. Noooooooooooo!! Oh yes.
‘Mum, why did you kill Dad?’
‘He sacrificed your sister. What more do you want? Now cut me some slack.’
He grants her that, the bit about cutting.
Then there’s a proper hoo-ha. A bunch of angry gods pursues Orestes who hurries to Apollo at Delphi.
‘Apollo! This was your idea! What do I do now?’
‘Er, dunno, mate. Try Athens?’
So Orestes arrives at Athens with the furious pack of gods still after him and the godess Athena has to sort things out. She faces the worst imaginable staff meeting. It’s in public, emotions are running high, there are two irreconcilable camps and there’s no mission statement to rely on. And everyone’s looking to her for judgement.
What follows is a model for any college principal, indeed for any leader.
Athena is calm, firm and honest. She says concisely which side she’s on and why. Then she casts her vote. Maybe the jury will clearly decide the issue. No: the votes are equal for both sides which means Orestes is acquitted by the narrowest possible of margins. Orestes is jubilant and leaves. The pursuing gods are outraged.
Athena has the decision but the wisdom, too, to know she now has to make it work. Here’s what she does. She’s unambiguous about the verdict. She emphasises it entails no loss of dignity to the angry gods. She reminds them of the odds they were up against with Apollo and Zeus on the opposite side and she offers them what compensation she can: a glistening new altar all for themselves.
The gods are unappeased. Athena doesn’t give up. She implores them not to harm the citizens of Athens but she also reminds them there can be no going back on the vote: she has access to Zeus’s thunderbolts – but words, surely can resolve this? And she depicts a rosy future full of sacrificed heifers.
Twice more Athena is rebuffed; twice more she redoubles her efforts and finds new ways of putting the same arguments, keeping the emphasis on an alluring future. Finally, she hears the words that tell her the decision will stick: ‘Athena, queen, what is this place you tell us we shall have?’
Athena has succeeded and in the end not by the cogency of her arguments or by means of a clever intellect. She wins through because her determination to reach a workable decision registers with the angry gods as a determination to do everything she possibly can for them.
Compassion not philosophy produces a decision that sticks.
 Regina Rini, Risking everyone’s world, TLS, 25 March 2022, p.27