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The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness, and Rewards

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We live in a world where CEOs give themselves million dollar bonuses even as their companies go bankrupt and ordinary workers are laid off; where athletes make millions while teachers struggle to survive; a world, in short, where rewards are often unfairly meted out. In The Ajax Dilemma, Paul Woodruff examines one of today's most pressing moral issues: how to distribute rew We live in a world where CEOs give themselves million dollar bonuses even as their companies go bankrupt and ordinary workers are laid off; where athletes make millions while teachers struggle to survive; a world, in short, where rewards are often unfairly meted out. In The Ajax Dilemma, Paul Woodruff examines one of today's most pressing moral issues: how to distribute rewards and public recognition without damaging the social fabric. How should we honor those whose behavior and achievement is essential to our overall success? Is it fair or right to lavish rewards on the superstar at the expense of the hardworking rank-and-file? How do we distinguish an impartial fairness from what is truly just? Woodruff builds his answer to these questions around the ancient conflict between Ajax and Odysseus over the armor of the slain warrior Achilles. King Agamemnon arranges a speech contest to decide the issue. Ajax, the loyal workhorse, loses the contest, and the priceless armor, to Odysseus, the brilliantly deceptive strategist who will lead the Greeks to victory. Deeply insulted, Ajax goes on a rampage and commits suicide, and in his rage we see the resentment of every loyal worker who has been passed over in favor of those who are more gifted, or whose skills are more highly valued. How should we deal with the Ajax dilemma? Woodruff argues that while we can never create a perfect system for distributing just rewards, we can recognize the essential role that wisdom, compassion, moderation, and respect must play if we are to restore the basic sense of justice on which all communities depend. This short, thoughtful book, written with Woodruff's characteristic elegance, investigates some of the most bitterly divisive issues in American today.


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We live in a world where CEOs give themselves million dollar bonuses even as their companies go bankrupt and ordinary workers are laid off; where athletes make millions while teachers struggle to survive; a world, in short, where rewards are often unfairly meted out. In The Ajax Dilemma, Paul Woodruff examines one of today's most pressing moral issues: how to distribute rew We live in a world where CEOs give themselves million dollar bonuses even as their companies go bankrupt and ordinary workers are laid off; where athletes make millions while teachers struggle to survive; a world, in short, where rewards are often unfairly meted out. In The Ajax Dilemma, Paul Woodruff examines one of today's most pressing moral issues: how to distribute rewards and public recognition without damaging the social fabric. How should we honor those whose behavior and achievement is essential to our overall success? Is it fair or right to lavish rewards on the superstar at the expense of the hardworking rank-and-file? How do we distinguish an impartial fairness from what is truly just? Woodruff builds his answer to these questions around the ancient conflict between Ajax and Odysseus over the armor of the slain warrior Achilles. King Agamemnon arranges a speech contest to decide the issue. Ajax, the loyal workhorse, loses the contest, and the priceless armor, to Odysseus, the brilliantly deceptive strategist who will lead the Greeks to victory. Deeply insulted, Ajax goes on a rampage and commits suicide, and in his rage we see the resentment of every loyal worker who has been passed over in favor of those who are more gifted, or whose skills are more highly valued. How should we deal with the Ajax dilemma? Woodruff argues that while we can never create a perfect system for distributing just rewards, we can recognize the essential role that wisdom, compassion, moderation, and respect must play if we are to restore the basic sense of justice on which all communities depend. This short, thoughtful book, written with Woodruff's characteristic elegance, investigates some of the most bitterly divisive issues in American today.

30 review for The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness, and Rewards

  1. 4 out of 5

    Anthony Buckley

    The focus for this elegantly written book is a version of a story found in the Iliad and in Sophocles’ play, Ajax. According to the story, the armour of the recently killed Achilles is to be given as a reward to the best soldier in the Greek army besieging Troy. Odysseus’s skills as a soldier are butressed by intelligence and cunning: indeed, he eventually comes up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. So, it is he who wins the contest. His friend, the dependable, courageous, taciturn giant, Ajax, The focus for this elegantly written book is a version of a story found in the Iliad and in Sophocles’ play, Ajax. According to the story, the armour of the recently killed Achilles is to be given as a reward to the best soldier in the Greek army besieging Troy. Odysseus’s skills as a soldier are butressed by intelligence and cunning: indeed, he eventually comes up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. So, it is he who wins the contest. His friend, the dependable, courageous, taciturn giant, Ajax, feels he has been dishonoured. While Ajax can be replaced, albeit by four other men, Odysseus cannot be replaced. Ajax, thefore, goes off on a murderous rampage that threatens the lives of his king and colleagues. When Ajax cools off, he kills himself in shame, both because he was denied the prize and because he disgraced himself by behaving badly. Woodruff uses this tale to explore the nature of justice, rewards and leadership. Cooperation and conflict often coexist. In a competive game, for example, competitors must at first cooperate to create the game. Even in warfare, there is often secret discussion between enemies, and opponents will tacitly refrain from all-out conflict, restricting the means to be used in fighting. So too, conversely, cooperation between teammates is often riven with rivalry and competition. This book deals specifically with the competition found between team members. Can one outstanding individual be given an appropriate reward without offending other worthy individuals and tearing their team apart? Woodruff sees justice as the essential means to maintaining unity in an army, a company or in any community. Justice, he thinks, is more important than its weaker double, “fairness”. Justice is founded in wisdom, leadership and compassion. It arises through dialogue and through the discovery of shared goals. Fairness, in contrast, is the application of pre-conceived algorithms to human situations. It arises through the application of “incentives”, “assigned targets” and “principles”, all of which, he says, are enemies of justice. “Fairness”, he contends, can be achieved by “management”, but it stands in the way of “leadership”. A central issue here is the imcommensurability of different kinds of work. In the last resort, two people act differently, exercising qualitatively different abilities. Sometimes, as in a competition such as boxing, one can indeed decide whether a wiley Odysseus is a better boxer than a slugger like Ajax. This is because one of them will win and the other will lose according to the contest’s rules. In a team, however, one needs both the qualities of an Odysseus and those of an Ajax, and there is no satisfactory measure to judge one set of qualities as more important than another. Nor can one award the prize to Ajax out of mere pity, claims Woodruff, for pity is always insulting. Rather, one must find a way to exercise genuine compassion towards potential rivals, finding a way to grant rewards in a manner that a rival can accept without suffering dishonour. The book concludes by asking how Agamemnon, the king, might have acted differently, and with true leadership, using thoughful compassion to avoid offending both Odysseus and Ajax. I feel, however, that it fails to have a satisfactory answer. In the final analysis, it seems Agememnon is being condemned for not flying by the seat of his pants. More than this, like the man who asks the way to Tipperary, Woodruff seems to be saying that Agamemnon should not have started from here. This is an intelligent, thought-provoking book. I feel, nevertheless, that it is a bit too hard on “fairness” and on the other qualities that Woodruff thinks fall short of an ideal. Of course, one looks for wisdom, compassion, a sense of justice and good leadership in all people, and not least in those who have authority. Nevertheless, clearly defined rewards and punishments, clear targets, algorims, principles – even boring old management – all have their place both in ancient armies and in the modern corporations that also haunt this book. Not least, laws and procedures provide a buffer against the tyranny that comes from arbitrary leadership, however inspired and “wise” this leadership may seem to be. St Paul once differentiated between the letter of the law and its spirit, and there is more than an echo of this distinction here. In arguing for justice but not fairness, compassion but not pity, thoughtfulness but not principles, and for other high ideals and not their lowly doubles, Woodruff is invites us to live too much by the spirit. It is useful to have a corrective to an uninspired management swimming in an audit culture. All the same, it is also useful sometimes to rely on the letter of the law.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    Second time - June 18, 2015 Second time. Makes a case for particularism vs. principle, distinguishing "justice" from "fairness." It's an ends-oriented philosophy, essentially holding that justice consists in whatever action prevents rupture of the community by giving people their due (and in such a way that they feel they're getting their due). Hinges on a Platonic definition of ideals and their related, imperfect "doubles": justice/fairness, leadership/management, etc. First time - Aug 28 - Sep 9 Second time - June 18, 2015 Second time. Makes a case for particularism vs. principle, distinguishing "justice" from "fairness." It's an ends-oriented philosophy, essentially holding that justice consists in whatever action prevents rupture of the community by giving people their due (and in such a way that they feel they're getting their due). Hinges on a Platonic definition of ideals and their related, imperfect "doubles": justice/fairness, leadership/management, etc. First time - Aug 28 - Sep 9, 2012 An interesting perspective on, as the subtitle says, justice, fairness, and rewards. I don't agree with everything in here, and the author sometimes walks away from arguments half-made, but he will certainly make you think. Recommended for anyone in a leadership position, particularly military officers. The Navy's system of incentives and rewards - and I suspect the other services' - tends very much toward fairness at the expense of justice, so much so that I found myself realizing that it was built into my thinking as an assumption rather than as a conscious choice. To be honest, this goes beyond just our ranking and awards systems. Perhaps the submarine force is worse than other communities, but we tend towards process-driven approaches to problems; we tend to give "leaders" (managers) the answers in advance in an attempt to reduce "leadership" (management) to a rule-based procedure, both because that's more conservative and poses less risk of catastrophic failure and probably because it suits the engineering-oriented average submarine officer. I could go on at more length about this, but that's not really the point of a review. Point is: this book is likely to make you think generally about the way your organization does business and specifically about whether you and other leaders are really exercising leadership at all.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Koen Wellens

    Paul Woodruff is a philosopher and this Dutch translation of his book starts with a foreword by another philosopher. I knew one thing before reading and I’ve been reminded throughout this book: I’m not a philosopher. I didn’t like the foreword. Too much terms and words too complicated for a book like this one. Read the full review at my blog. Paul Woodruff is a philosopher and this Dutch translation of his book starts with a foreword by another philosopher. I knew one thing before reading and I’ve been reminded throughout this book: I’m not a philosopher. I didn’t like the foreword. Too much terms and words too complicated for a book like this one. Read the full review at my blog.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Maughn Gregory

    It has been equally and dramatically inspiring and harrowing to read this superb philosophical treatise on justice and leadership in what I can only hope are the last, agonizing months of the Trump administration,

  5. 4 out of 5

    Katrinka

    The subject itself was interesting, but at some point, I just had to push my way through what felt like wet cement. (I don't think this is a fault of the author; it's probably just due to the fact that I prefer my philosophizing more in the style of Barthes and Derrida.) The subject itself was interesting, but at some point, I just had to push my way through what felt like wet cement. (I don't think this is a fault of the author; it's probably just due to the fact that I prefer my philosophizing more in the style of Barthes and Derrida.)

  6. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Boyette

    This book was confusing and heavy. I couldn’t find any value in reading it.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Michiel Mennen

    Very inspiring and insightful. The buildup is well done from the mythology to general discourse to specific guidelines for good (just) leadership. Food for thought.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Eric_W

    Quotes from the NYTimes Book Review: "The author argues that this myth revolves around the issue of rewards, which “mark the difference between winners and losers.” He adds: “Rewards are public recognition for contributions made. They express the values of a community.” But which, he asks, do we value more: “Cleverness or hard work? Strength or intelligence? Loyalty or inventiveness?” We see the significance of all this today. “In industry, bankers and fund managers have carried off the prizes,” Quotes from the NYTimes Book Review: "The author argues that this myth revolves around the issue of rewards, which “mark the difference between winners and losers.” He adds: “Rewards are public recognition for contributions made. They express the values of a community.” But which, he asks, do we value more: “Cleverness or hard work? Strength or intelligence? Loyalty or inventiveness?” We see the significance of all this today. “In industry, bankers and fund managers have carried off the prizes,” Mr. Woodruff says, “while most of us are Ajaxes, team players who work hard at our various tasks and are loyal to the communities in which we live.” We grow angry, he says, when rewards go to those “who do not live by our values.” Justice, we believe, has failed." “We all know highly learned people who are fools,” he writes. “Experts often use their knowledge or skill to do dreadful things.” He also stresses the role of compassion in making just choices. “If justice is going to help us get along,” he says, “it has to affect our feelings,” which implies that it must consider what others have at stake emotionally. One reason Agamemnon fails so badly here, Mr. Woodruff argues, is that he displays little or no compassion for the shame and dishonor Ajax feels in not winning the armor. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/bus... I am currently reading Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? and watching his Yales lectures at iTunesU. This might make a terrific companion book. The word "justice" is thrown around so loosely these days, and is often used as a synonym for revenge. It's just not that simple, witness the recent per curiam decision in Cavazos v Smith (see my group post at http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/7...)

  9. 5 out of 5

    Allan Elder

    I have a lot of books on justice and this one is unique. My specialty in this area is organizational justice and this book adds new dimensions to consider. One thing the author carefully does is to provide very clear distinctions between justice and fairness. If you are a Rawls fan, this will be an eye opener for you. You may not agree with his analysis, but you can't deny its plausibility. What makes the book fun is his rendition of the battle of Troy and the decision about who should receive t I have a lot of books on justice and this one is unique. My specialty in this area is organizational justice and this book adds new dimensions to consider. One thing the author carefully does is to provide very clear distinctions between justice and fairness. If you are a Rawls fan, this will be an eye opener for you. You may not agree with his analysis, but you can't deny its plausibility. What makes the book fun is his rendition of the battle of Troy and the decision about who should receive the armor of Achilles - Odysseus or Ajax? He carefully outlines the story, provides distinctions between the characters, explores the decision from the perspective of both fairness and justice, and explains his conclusions. Don't worry, the book constantly relates the relevance of the decision back to real life and business.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Blair

    This book describes, in my opinion, the greatest problem facing our whole world: Policy vs People. While it seems obvious that we should choose latter rather than the former, however I have seen first hand that this is not the case. Regardless, Woodruff does a masterful job of masking the debate in the analogy of Greek Mythology. The comparison strengthens his thesis and also helps us realize the often grave situation in which this flawed dilemma places us as society.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Martine

    Very interesting book. Woodruff throws a whole new light on the concepts of fairness, equality and justice. The mythical and theoretical main text is nicely balanced out by a more practical afterword.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Minerva

    Every officer needs to read this. Every lawyer needs to read this. Every team leader needs to read this.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Bobsie67

    Wonderfully clear writing. Professor Wodruff makes difficult philosophical questions readily understandable. A must read for those interested in leadership, justcie, and rewards.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Russ

  15. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

  16. 4 out of 5

    Luc Coenen

  17. 5 out of 5

    Susan

  18. 4 out of 5

    D.A. Gray

  19. 5 out of 5

    Adam Nation

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jacob

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mary

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ida Jean Ross

  23. 5 out of 5

    Zhu

  24. 4 out of 5

    Helen

  25. 5 out of 5

    Myrene Conner

  26. 4 out of 5

    Dustin Simmons

  27. 5 out of 5

    Shawn P Greene

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ike

  29. 5 out of 5

    Anthony Cassetta

  30. 4 out of 5

    Shari

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