The Ajax Dilemma — Paul Woodruff

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Paul Woodruff jumps into Greek mythology, retelling the tale of Ajax and Odysseus, in order to explore a salient problem. The Ajax Dilemma involves allocating scarce resources in the form of rewards; it’s a dilemma because all the available choices are wrong. 

Essentially, the death of Achilles, presents the Greek King with a dilemma, should he give Achilles’ armor (a trophy everybody covets) to Ajax, his most loyal soldier, or Odysseus, the ‘outsider’ who — if anybody — is most likely to win the war for the Greeks.

Useful terminology:

  • Rewards are any good things a community can give to one of its members in recognition of achievement, they confer honor to their recipients

  • Honor is a basic human need.

  • Justice is a kind of human wisdom that is shared by members of a community, and though it should never simply follow compassion (and thereby be mistaken for pity), it should consider what compassion tells us; justice has two conditions: 

    • (1) dueness, each individual and each group has what is due to them, and 

    • (2) subjectivity, each person feels they are getting what they are due

  • Fairness is a rigid framework/set of rules consisting of equality, agreement, and transparency; but creates a ‘fairness trap:’ once you commit to ‘fair principles,’ you lose your decision-making power over the situation, devolving it instead to the principles you chose; therefore fairness cannot always be good

Honor and respect aren’t the same thing, but are both essential parts of what is due in a community. Honor also confers respect, but the opposite direction isn’t true. When you give respect you are recognizing community inclusion, while when you give honor you are recognizing unique achievements. 

Modern conceptualizations of honor are that it is zero-sum (20-70-10, top-grading, etc.), but true, ethical, leadership conceptualizes honor as positive-sum by finding ways to get colleagues to appreciate each other’s strengths. Put simply, the leader’s problem is to find ways to prevent his team’s cohesiveness from being undermined by the inevitable difference in reward allocations.