Monday, March 19, 2007
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw
In the last top ten from SSRN's Legal Ethics & Professional Responsibility Journal, I noted that Michael C. Jensen, one of SSRN's founders, along with Werner Erhard and Steve Zaffron, had posted a slide view of a thesis purporting to state an empirically-based model of performance as a function of integrity. More controversially, the authors claim to be able to separate integrity, as a positive phenomenon, away from the putatively related virtues of morality, ethics, and legality. I had not read it at the time.
I've now begun to go through the underlying paper, and think it is propitious that Douglas Hofstadter, author of the renowned Godel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid is about to release a new book entitled I am a Strange Loop. As a Kantian dabbler, I am fascinated by the Unconditioned, the final proposition for which there are no conditions, to which our reason propels us but which is paradoxically unreachable. Hofstadter, as physicist, mathematician, computer whiz, and poet, swirls around this in the context of self-referential systems that, as Kurt Godel showed in his incompleteness theorem, cannot contain their own assumptions. (I wish I were mathematician enough to understand the number theory proofs, just as I wish I knew more about symbolic logic and computer code.) This was Stephen Hawking on the self-referential loop problem in an interview in Discover magazine from October 2005:
There are other, purely theoretical, reasons to believe that an ultimate theory of everything might not be possible. For instance, there is Gödel’s theorem, which says you cannot formulate a finite system of axioms to prove every result in mathematics. A physical theory is a mathematical model, so if there are mathematical results that cannot be proved, there are physical problems that cannot be solved. But the real relevance of Gödel’s theorem is its connection to the fact that inconsistencies can arise if you try to prove statements that refer to themselves. One of the most famous of these is the assertion “This statement is false.” If the statement is true, then according to the statement itself, the statement is false. But if the statement is false, then the statement must be true. Since we are not angels who view the universe from the outside, we – and our theories – are both part of the universe we are describing, and hence our theories are also self-referencing. And so one might expect that they, too, are either inconsistent or incomplete.
That was how I felt about Jensen's project. Before I jumped back into academy I spent a long time in business, and listened to a lot of management and leadership consultants propose the silver bullet that would do as much as humanly possible were one to abide by it to insure success. For those of you who are golfers, I have an analogy to golf instruction. There are thousands of ways to learn how to hit a golf ball, but there are really only two things that need to be going on. The club face needs to be square to the line, and it needs to be accelerating when it hits the ball. Everything else you learn is a way of getting to that essence.
I'm willing to posit that something - Jensen et al. call it integrity - is that silver bullet. Other consultants and theorists have their name for it. One of the best from my experience was something done by an outfit called The Arbinger Institute, and capsuled in a popular trade press book called Leadership and Self-Deception. These consultants used "way of being" for what Jensen et al. call integrity. in the end, I don't think any are empirically testable, and that leads me to the second point. Kant also made a fundamental epistemological distinction between what we can know and what we believe. He predated Popper in saying that all we can know is what we can test against experience, scientifically; it isn't to say we can't feel like we know God, but unfortunately no proposition about God can be tested. Kant said, however, that "ought" or "value" statements - universals - while not knowable as truth can be ascertained through reason. Ought statements that are universal, like the golden rule, or the heuristic on integrity (which is really "you ought to have integrity, because without it, nothing works") are not truth statements. At the end of the day, I think the authors are still making an ought statement.
So by suggesting an involved definition of integrity as "honoring [not keeping] one's word," do Jensen et al. really think they can, as they claim, resolve the paradox of honoring one's word even when it is appropriate not to keep one's word? I wrote a paper on the mystery inherent in trying to decide to do exactly what the authors pose as the central problem - when do you honor your word literally, and when do you not, but do it in a way that is integral? It's a paradox or antinomy to say that you can honor your word by not honoring your word. But we understand transcendentally that there is some higher value we are honoring - God? - by making the right decision. That paradox is ancient and never-ending. The prophet Micah said paradoxically that one must both act justly and love mercy. How? It's a mystery. Thousands of years later Jensen et al. point out the paradox that doing a cost-benefit analysis of integrity will lead to not acting with integrity. (The logical implication of that is deontological rather than consequential - we do what is right, even though we know there is no guarantee of positive consequence - with a noumenal, not phenomenal, idea that there ought to be a relationship between acting rightly and being rewarded.)
The ultimate paradox is our attempt to know ourselves objectively. Jensen et al. touch on the aspect of self-deception when we act inconsistently with our theory of ourself. That merely brings us back around to what Hawking observed of closed systems and Godel's Theorem - maybe there are some things we may just never resolve.
The point of the above is - even if I were fully to understand the concept of integrity and honoring my word, would it be any easier for me to apply the rule to a decision facing me ex ante? I don't think it would. (Chris Korsgaard addresses this problem with "scientism" in The Sources of Normativity.)
Having said ALL of this, I agree with the fundamental point of the paper completely. Lousy managers in great businesses can succeed. Great managers in lousy businesses can fail. But the very best managers, the ones who are going to do the best in every circumstance, are the ones who have that "something" Jensen calls integrity, or others call the way of being. I just think it's like trying to describe God.