Men, Women, Business & Ethics

Journal of Business Ethics

Journal of Business Ethics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 4/9/2014 NPR did a short report on the question of why there are fewer women in business than men. This difference begins in business school and, not surprisingly, continues forward. The report focused on an interesting hypothesis: in regards to ethics, men and women differ.

While people tend to claim that lying is immoral, both men and woman are more likely to lie to a woman when engaged in negotiation. The report also mentioned a test involving an ethical issue. In this scenario, the seller of a house does not want it sold to someone who will turn the property into a condo. However, a potential buyer wants to do just that. The findings were that men were more likely than women to lie to sell the house.

It was also found that men tend to be egocentric in their ethical reasoning. That is, if the man will be harmed by something, then it is regarded as unethical. If the man benefits, he is more likely to see it as a grey area. So, in the case of the house scenario, a man representing the buyer would tend to regard lying to the seller as acceptable—after all, he would thus get a sale. However, a man representing the seller would be more likely to regard being lied to as unethical.

In another test of ethics, people were asked about their willingness to include an inferior ingredient in a product that would hurt people but would allow a significant product. The men were more willing than the women to regard this as acceptable. In fact, the women tended to regard this sort of thing as outrageous.

These results provide two reasons why women would be less likely to be in business than men. The first is that men are apparently rather less troubled by unethical, but more profitable, decisions.  The idea that having “moral flexibility” (and getting away with it) provides advantage is a rather old one and was ably defended by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic. If a person with such moral flexibility needs to lie to gain an advantage, he can lie freely. If a bribe would serve his purpose, he can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then he can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, a morally flexible person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well-equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the morally flexible person has a considerable advantage over those who are more constrained by ethics. If women are, in general, more constrained by ethics, then they would be less likely to remain in business because they would be at a competitive disadvantage. The ethical difference might also explain why women are less likely to go into business—it seems to be a general view that unethical activity is not uncommon in business, hence if women are generally more ethical than men, then they would be more inclined to avoid business.

It could be countered that Glaucon is in error and that being unethical (while getting away with it) does not provide advantages. Obviously, getting caught and significantly punished for unethical behavior is not advantageous—but it is not the unethical behavior that causes the problem. Rather, it is getting caught and punished. After all, Glaucon does note that being unjust is only advantageous when one can get away with it. Socrates does argue that being ethical is superior to being unethical, but he does not do so by arguing that the ethical person will have greater material success.

This is not to say that a person cannot be ethical and have material success. It is also not to say that a person cannot be ethically flexible and be a complete failure. The claim is that ethical flexibility provides a distinct advantage.

It could also be countered that there are unethical women and ethical men. The obvious reply is that this claim is true—it has not been asserted that all men are unethical or that all women are ethical. Rather, it seems that women are generally more ethical than men.

It might be countered that the ethical view assumed in this essay is flawed. For example, it could be countered that what matters is profit and the means to this end are thus justified. As such, using inferior ingredients in a medicine so as to make a profit at the expense of the patients would not be unethical, but laudable. After all, as Hobbes said, profit is the measure of right. As such, women might well be avoiding business because they are unethical on this view.

The second is that women are more likely to be lied to in negotiations. If true, this would certainly put women at a disadvantage in business negotiations relative to men since women would be more likely to be subject to attempts at deceit. This, of course, assumes that such deceit would be advantageous in negotiations. While there surely are cases in which deceit would be disadvantageous, it certainly seems that deceit can be a very useful technique.

If it is believed that having more women in business is desirable (which would not be accepted by everyone), then there seem to be two main options. The first is to endeavor to “cure” women of their ethics—that is, make them more like men. The second would be to endeavor to make business more ethical. This would presumably also help address the matter of lying to women.


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  1. Dennis Sceviour

    There may be no such dialogue in Plato’s Republic with Glaucon. Perhaps someone could post a thread to the translation if it exists.

    However, there is a dialogue with Adeimantus in Plato’s Republic Book III, which I take considerable objection:

    Socrates: Truth should be highly valued. If a lie is useful only as a medicine to man, then the use of such medicines should be restricted to physicians; private individuals have no business with them.

    Adeimantus: Clearly not.

    Socrates uses a misguided medical argument to justify a plethora of situations where lying and moral flexibility is permissible. Lying does not make a physician, a carpenter, or a coppersmith. Lying only makes the person a liar.

  2. I have a lot of faith in women and I’m sure that they are bright enough and rapid enough to learn the rules of business and deceive customers with the same amorality and lack of scruples that men do.

    The fact that the current economic system is built around maximizing profits, instead of fulfilling human needs, indicates that business will not become more ethical (without going out of business). I suppose that the system could be radically reformed, but smart people, being smart, would probably learn new ways to screw the general public in that case.

  3. S.wallerstein,

    You are probably correct.

    Ethical business can succeed-or so I like to tell myself. It helps me sleep a little better. 🙂

  4. Glaucon: Splendid, then listen while I deal with the first sub¬ject I mentioned: the nature and origin of justice. They say that to do wrong is naturally good, to be wronged is bad, but the suffering of injury so far exceeds in badness the good of inflicting it that when men have done wrong to each other and suf¬fered it, and have had a taste of both, those who are unable to avoid the latter and practice the former decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to inflict injury nor to suffer it. As a result they begin to make laws and covenants, and the law’s command they call lawful and just. This, they say, is the origin and essence of justice. it stands between the best and the worst, the best being to do wrong without paying the penalty and the worst to be wronged without the power of revenge.

    The just then is a mean between two extremes; it is welcomed and honored because of men’s lack of the power to do wrong. The man who has that power, the real man, would not make a compact with anyone not to inflict injury or suffer it. For him that would be madness. This then, Socrates, is, according to their argument, the nature and origin of justice.

    Even those who practice justice do so against their will because they lack the power to do wrong. This we could realize very clearly if we imagined ourselves granting to both the just and the unjust the freedom to do whatever they liked. We could then follow both of them and observe where their desires led them, and we would catch the just man red-handed traveling the same road as the unjust. The reason is the desire for undue gain which every organism by nature pursues as a good, but the law forcibly sidetracks him to honour equality. The freedom I just mentioned would most easily occur if these men had the power which they say the ancestor of the Lydian Gyges possessed. The story is that he was a shepherd in the service of the ruler of Lydia. There was a violent rainstorm and an earthquake which broke open the ground and created a chasm at the place where he was tending sheep. Seeing this and marveling, he went down into it. He saw, besides many other wonders of which we are told, a hollow bronze horse. There were window like openings in it; he climbed through them and caught sight of a corpse which seemed of more than human stature, wearing nothing but a ring of gold on its finger. This ring the shepherd put on and came out. He arrived at the usual monthly meeting which reported to the king on the state of the flocks, wearing the ring. As he was sitting among the others he happened to twist the hoop of the ring towards himself, to the inside of his hand, and as he did this he became invisible to those sitting near him and they went on talking as if he had gone. He marveled at this and, fingering the ring, he turned the hoop outward again and became visible. Perceiving this he tested whether the ring had this power and so it happened: if he turned the hoop inwards he became invisible, but was visible when he turned it outwards. When he realized this, he at once arranged to become one of the messengers to the king. He went, committed adultery with the king’s wife, attacked the king with her help, killed him, and took over the kingdom.

    Now if there were two such rings, one worn by the just man, the other by the unjust, no one, as these people think, would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice or bring himself to keep away from other people’s property and not touch it, when he could with impunity take whatever he wanted from the market, go into houses and have sexual relations with anyone he wanted, kill anyone, free all those he wished from prison, and do the other things which would make him like a god among men. His actions would be in no way different from those of the other and they would both follow the same path. This, some would say, is a great proof that no one is just willingly’ but under compulsion, so that justice is not one’s private good, since wherever either thought he could do wrong with impunity he would do so. Every man believes that injustice is much more profitable to himself than justice, and any exponent of this argument will say that he is right. The man who did not wish to do wrong with that opportunity, and did not touch other people’s property, would be thought by those who knew it to be very foolish and miserable. They would praise him in public, thus deceiving one another, for fear of being wronged. So much for my second topic.

    As for the choice between the lives we are discussing, we shall be able to make a correct judgment about it only if we put the most just man and the most unjust man face to face; otherwise we cannot do so. By face to face I mean this: let us grant to the unjust the fullest degree of injustice and to the just the fullest justice, each being perfect in his own pursuit. First, the unjust man will act as clever craftsmen do a top navigator for example or physician distinguishes what his craft can do and what it cannot; the former he will undertake, the latter he will pass by, and when he slips he can put things right. So the unjust man’s correct attempts at wrongdoing must remain secret; the one who is caught must be considered a poor performer, for the extreme of injustice is to have a reputation for justice, and our perfectly unjust man must be granted perfection in injustice. We must not take this from him, but we must allow that, while committing the greatest crimes, he has provided himself with the greatest reputation for justice; if he makes a slip he must be able to put it right; he must be a sufficiently persuasive speaker if some wrongdoing of his is made public; he must be able to use force, where force is needed, with the help of his courage, his strength, and the friends and wealth with which he has provided himself.

    Having described such a man, let us now in our argument put beside him the just man, simple as he is and noble, who, as Aeschylus put it, does not wish to appear just but to be so. We must take away his reputation, for a reputation for justice would bring him honor and rewards, and it would then not be clear whether he is what he is for justice’s sake or for the sake of rewards and honor. We must strip him of everything except justice and make him the complete opposite of the other. Though he does no wrong, he must have the greatest reputation for wrongdoing so that he may be tested for justice by not weakening under ill repute and its consequences. Let him go his incorruptible way until death with a reputation for injustice throughout his life, just though he is, so that our two men may reach the extremes, one of justice, the other of in justice, and let them be judged as to which of the two is the happier.

  5. Hi Dennis,

    You may well be right in thinking Socrates does not directly converse with Glaucon specifically on the propriety of lying and this, I take it, is your point.

    You’ve often shown familiarity with the Republic, so I suspect you know that in Book II [382c-d] Socrates does contend that “the lie in words is in certain cases useful and not hateful; in dealing with enemies – that would be an instance; or again, when those whom we call our friends in a fit of madness or illusion are going to do some harm, then it is useful and is a sort of medicine or preventive.” I think this can be interpreted in such a way that the lying Socrates therein deems permissible is ‘non- controversial’ to all but the Kantians or a few religious ethicists.

    He then suggests (continuing to use your preferred translation) that when it comes to myths “because we do not know the truth about ancient times, we [may] make falsehood as much like truth as we can.” I’m not certain but I think what he is at here is suggesting – as he has previously discussed and continues to discuss – is that in ‘his’ ideal state some myths must be told (and others not told) so that citizens ’honour the gods and their parents’, ‘value friendship with one another’ and ‘choose death in battle rather than defeat and slavery’. Thus ‘lying’ in this ‘medicinal way’ is, it seems to me, a matter of installing virtuous behaviour – of implanting ‘moral truths’ within inspiring ‘theological’ stories about what can’t be known regarding the afterlife (so it’s not known to be false) and about the gods of whose historical acts one can’t know but of which Socrates thinks one can know certain tales must be false (because they portray the gods as acting in an ignoble or deceitful fashion – which he seems to think we can know the gods wouldn’t do).

    I can see why you might think this as objectionable – paternalistic and ‘religious’ – but I don’t think it can be charitably viewed as promoting ‘moral flexibility’.

    Getting to the exchange you cite, I don’t know that one should read‘physician’ literally (though I’m not sure you do) and I certainly think one should give due weight to Socrates’ claim that “truth should be highly valued”

    In the passage immediately following Socrates suggest that in his idealised state the philosopher rulers may lie for the public good to citizens or enemies of the polis. From previous things you’ve said I believe you take serious moral umbrage to the idea of rulers lying to their citizens(and its concerned other thinkers) but he is talking of idealised philosopher-king guardians (not Machiavellian princes) telling untruths when, in their wisdom, they know it is genuinely necessary for the peace and security of all those in the polis.

    (And I think one can imagine cases where virtuous statesmen in real world emergencies may need to tell untruths to the populace for their own protection – as in World War II where propaganda to the enemy had to be propagated via one’s own populace or certain things need to be lied about to the people to protect national security or morale).

    In any case, Socrates suggests that to lie to the rulers is “a more heinous fault than … for a sailor not to tell the captain what is happening about the ship and the rest of the crew”. And if the ruler catches anybody beside himself lying – craftsmen, priest, physician or carpenter – he will punish him ‘for introducing a practice which is equally subversive and destructive of ship or State’.

    The later passage may seem to forbid all but the imaginary guardians from lying in his ideal state. I’m not sure, but it may be though that what is being specified is that it is heinous to lie to one’s superiors – the captains of your ship and, more especially, the rulers of your polis (between which Plato draws a clear parallel).

    I really don’t know that there’s anything in this that suggests Socrates justifies ‘moral flexibility’ – it’s just that in order to do what is ‘moral’ sometimes white lies and myths may be presented as truth. And I don’t know that it justifies lying in ‘a plethora of situations’ – though it depends on what one counts as a plethora – certainly I don’t think it suggests a carpenter or a coppersmith may lie to his customers.

    As I said, I wonder whether the talk of the physician lying ought not to be taken literally. Still, perhaps it’s not so hard to imagine how a virtuous doctor might not be fully truthful with a patient – in order for a placebo to work, to better his chances of recovery by exaggerating them, by keeping certain things from a patient so they may not be unduly distressed. This may not be in line with current medical ethics but it doesn’t, to my mind, suggest any justification of ‘moral flexibility’. I certainly don’t think Plato intends to suggest that doctors might lie for personal profit which is the type of lying at issue in the OP.

    Those are my thoughts anyway though, as I said, I know you have (greater) familiarity with the Republic and (understandably) strong opinions about some of the things Socrates recommends for ‘his’ ideal state.

  6. s. wallerstein

    For those interested in the subject, brought up above, of rulers lying to citizens, the recent Philosophy Bites interview with philosopher Michael Ignatieff is worth listening to. Back to Harvard after his recent disastrous experience in practical politics, Ignatieff finds Machiavelli to be a most pertinent political theorist, perhaps the key political theorist. In any case, it’s a often personal interview with a very likeable thinker (I have no idea what his political positions are).

  7. Dennis Sceviour

    This is the Benjamin Jowett translation of Glaucon’s defense of injustice, Book II. Glaucon never mentions bribes, lies or “accidents”. It is difficult to understand how the argument of moral flexibility is “ably defended.”

    In Book I, when Thrasymachus opined injustice was better than justice, I think he was trying to say that justice is corrupt and we are better off without it, but he had no way of expressing null justice. The Greeks had no symbol for the number zero and this created difficulties for their logical arguments. None of the ancient Greek philosophers ever produced a logical argument that included a null hypothesis.

    When I read Glaucon’s defense of injustice I feel like I am standing in a house of mirrors. Glaucon looks at justice as the opposite of injustice. The difference is which direction one is facing. Giving justice is the opposite of receiving injustice, or that it is better to give justice than receive, or something like that. One can read the words, but it makes no sense other than hopeless circularity. After this dialogue, Socrates calls the difference like two polished statues standing side by side. It is a moral argument that cannot be proven by reason, but by force. The ancient Greeks were known for a tolerance of some decadence, but this definition is sadistic. Read on to find Glaucon’s vivid description of what the just and unjust do to each other.

    In recent decades, there has been a trend in changing the definition of justice from a self-serving cause, to a service and protection for the rights and dignities of people. It seems selfless service is an altruistic attitude that is more of a personal gift than a common moral behaviour. Do you believe that selfishness is a valid moral argument?

  8. Dennis Sceviour

    Jim P Houston,

    Thank you for the review of the first chapters of the Republic. It should be prerequisite to have read the Republic before beginning a discussion of the meaning of justice.

    It is not convincing that propaganda is useful to protect national security or morale. Propaganda is only successful at making people angry, fearful, or indifferent.

    You suggest moral flexibility does not mean “a carpenter or a coppersmith may lie to his customers.” Perhaps the point is missed. The context of the current discussion is that a CEO is expected to lie, according to Mike.

    The comments on the physician’s placebo are fascinating and worth far more than a footnote in this blog. Greek medicine 2,500 years ago was still primitive alchemy with many failures and excuses. Socrates used the conduct of the physician as the basis for his subsequent arguments on the permissibility of lying. Without it, the arguments fall apart.

    Incidentally, what does “in the OP” mean?

  9. OP = original post

  10. Hi Dennis,

    I did talk at rather greater length than I meant to. As I said I had previously been made aware that you were quite familiar with the Republic – you didn’t need such an extended review of it.

    As far as propaganda goes, it can of course be aimed at either the enemy or the citizens of a state. I understand your often expressed concerns about a state lying to its citizens and wouldn’t want to suggest that the state should make a habit of misleading them. I think in a case of great emergency like the Second World War it may well have been just for the British government (which was fighting for its very existence) to mislead the public somewhat for the sake of morale. For example, for fear of damaging civilian morale, the British Ministry of Information kept from the public all news of a 1940 disaster in which 68 people died in a tube station whilst sheltering from German bombing (a bomb ruptured a mains pipe and caused them to be engulfed in sludge and water). I don’t think that damnable. And some of the misinformation we wanted to feed the Germans was best served to them by putting misleading reports in the British press (which the Germans monitored). An example of this was selective reporting about where the V1 and V2 missiles were landing in London, so the Germans would think their weapons were overshooting or falling short and in response re-calibrate their missiles wrongly. So I think propaganda that misleads one’s own citizens can be justified in some dire circumstances.

    Of course I don’t approve of the utter dishonesty of some modern states nor do I think we’d want our citizens misled by bullshit theology however necessary or beneficial Plato might have thought it might be in his fanciful polis run by philosopher-guardians.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that moral flexibility does not mean “a carpenter or a copper-smith may lie to his customers.” I meant to get across the claim that Plato didn’t justify ‘moral flexibility’ at all – only that lying was sometimes permissible (I’m claiming that lying in certain circumstances need not amount to ‘moral flexibility’ at all). And I meant to get across the idea that nothing about the type of lying Socrates suggested was acceptable gives any justification for a ‘morally flexible’ carpenter or coppersmith who lies to his customers. The business folk Mike talks about may be expected to lie but I’m quite unconvinced they will find any justification for it in Plato – and it seemed to me (perhaps wrongly) that you were suggesting they could.

    Whilst recognising your greater familiarity with the text (and Greek medicine) I’m still not sure that Plato was always talking about physicians literally (though he does seem to talk literally about physicians sometimes or talk in such a way so as to include them).

    In suggesting that if lying is only useful as a medicine, then the use of such medicines should be restricted to physicians – he’s not, I think, talking about literal medicine (but, for example, lies made to prevent harms from enemies or friends suffering from madness or illusion which he previously described as medicine) and so I don’t think he is talking about literal physicians.

    Of course perhaps we don’t actually disagree on this point – we have rather different ways of expressing ourselves and I know I often misunderstand you on account of this.

    I agree with you that some of the issues about Plato, placebos and physicians deserve greater attention, but I daresay I have (again) written far too much already for one comment and its certainly not something I’m well enough informed about to blog about.

  11. Thanks for the link Amos (I should probably start addressing you as S.Wallerstein to avoid confusion but old habits die hard).

    It seems I’ve gone off on something of a tangent about rulers lying to citizens on account of (probably misunderstanding) Dennis’ comments but it is an interesting issue. One interesting idea about (political) ‘dirty hands’ is that what occurs is a conflict within morality – between duties – and a related one that one can’t judge people in certain positions of responsibility by ‘normal standards’.

    More on topic, I really don’t know what the differences are between men and women ‘ethically’ (and whether or to what extent they are cultural or ‘innate’). I wonder if, to some extent, women might just be keener to express moral qualms, to be seen as moral and whether this might be compatible with some of the study findings. Given the way women are more harshly judged (by both men and other women) concerns about unethical behavior might be related to them having greater fear about getting caught (men, seemingly, being typically more reckless and often less harshly judged may worry less about the consequences of being found out).

  12. s. wallerstein


    Ignatieff explains that politics is a game that you simply cannot play by normal standards if you aim at success and that instead of carefully explaining the pros and cons of an issue, trying to reach the truth, as you would in a university setting, in politics you tell people a story: the politician, he claims, is more like a novelist than a philosopher or any other person concerned with getting at the truth.

    Here’s an example that comes to mind. Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who took office about a month ago, has proposed a huge reform of the Chilean educational system, which promises to take the profit-motive out of education (many universities and charter schools are now for-profit businesses), to make higher education a right and thus free of charge, to end class segregation in school (the poor now go to schools for the poor, the middle class to schools for the middle class and the wealthy to schools for the wealthy), to set quotas which enable poorer students to enter the university, to radically improve educational quality (which has so far never been defined in public debate, only evoked) and as a result, to create a more equal society (in terms of class and income), although one might suspect that education alone is not enough to make Chile a more equal society.

    It all sounds great: a story with a happy ending.

    In reality, there are a lot of iffy aspects to the educational reform, which could make things worse rather than better, depending on how people react, on whether Bachelet gets higher taxes which she needs to finance the reform and whether those higher taxes actually raise more money, on whether the reforms have loopholes which people may use to undermine their purposes, on a huge educational bureaucracy including the teachers union, on smart accountants who know how to disguise for-profit schools as
    non-profit ones, etc.

    Bachelet is no fool and she has a staff of advisors who know, as well as you and I do, that no policy is guaranteed to succeed, that implementing a policy is tricky.

    However, in order to movilize public opinion in favor of the reform, Bachelet has to keep promising that the reform will
    bring us a better, more equal, more just, less segregated, more highly educated, more creative, more orderly society. That’s a story or a guiding myth, not a rational evaluation of how events might turn out.

    I support the reform. Bachelet is facing a huge task and I wish her luck. If she were more frank about the possible drawbacks of her plan, her political adversaries, on the left and right, would tear it apart, not in the interest of truth, but to destroy her political project.

    People need dreams or myths to live by. Bachelet’s dream or myth seems a lot saner, juster, and more rational than most which are being peddled to people by other political forces, by the mass media, by huge companies which try to get you to spend your life buying and buying their products which are designed to keep you wanting ever more and more, by religions, by the esoteric industry….

  13. S.Wallerstein

    Often people do need their dreams and myths yes.

    Plato, I daresay, was right to see this and I’m happy to trust in your assessment that Bachelet is right to act on it.

    Sometimes a good outcome is made more likely by exaggerating the chances of it being achieved and Bachelet’s role, as with any politician’s, involves inspiring and motivating people.

    Socrates seemed damning of the sophists (a word that didn’t always have such bad connotations) but in the ‘Republic’ Plato seemed to recognise a positive political value in mythical rhetoric and indeed the necessity for rulers to tell outright lies. He wanted the rulers to be philosophers but seemed to think that for philosophers to rule they must be prepared to tell untruths to the people (indeed, given his talk of the so-called ‘noble lie’ he seemed to think it would be best if the philosophical rulers were themselves convinced by a myth).

    It seems to me that rhetoric (which also didn’t always have such negative connotations) is more effective in getting good things done politically than ’straight’ factual assertions. One might want to say the same about getting bad things done of course and there’s truth (often grave truth) in that. Rhetoric aims at persuasion rather than truth, so a lot hangs on what you want to persuade people of. It’s a tool and tools can be used for good or ill (just as truth can) so perhaps we ought not to condemn rhetoric just because it doesn’t intrinsically aim at truth.

    I can be critical and sometimes dismissive of religion, but it can, I think, take benign or ‘life-positive’ forms. The type of religion Plato seemed to endorse seemed to be about socially cohesive rituals and traditions and inspiring myths about the gods and an afterlife that would inspire people to do what was best for them and their society in an ethically virtuous way.

    It seems a far cry from some of the things espoused by many religious leaders and attacked by ‘new atheists’. But ‘on the ground’ I think there are many ordinary people with dogma-light religious beliefs that help them lead better and happier lives than they would otherwise. The wishy-washy moderate religion of many British folk seems often to foster a sense of community, encourage charitable work, take some of the ‘edge’ off the fear of dying and the pain of bereavement and help people get through what can be a very tough and bewildering world. It’s not for me, but I don’t think it damnable or something I feel any great urge to talk people out of.

    Marx, of course, wanted rid of religious illusions thinking they stood in the way of freeing the masses from the awful conditions which he rightly recognised as causing the need for such illusions. But then he did himself fall for the quasi-religious illusion that communism was an historical inevitability. And that illusion helped politically-loyal workers endure but stay stuck in some terrible ‘state socialist’ conditions that Marx would himself have abhorred.

  14. Jim P Houston,

    “but he is talking of idealised philosopher-king guardians (not Machiavellian princes) telling untruths”

    And what is the difference?

    I think it’s very rare that Machiavellian princes do not see themselves as philosopher-king guardians.

    “when, in their wisdom, they know it is genuinely necessary for the peace and security of all those in the polis.”

    And in their wisdom, they invariably conclude, that peace and security for all those in the polis, depends on the maximisation of their wealth and power, and the minimisation of the wealth and power of the general polis.

    This isn’t just something in the abstract, there are innumerable occurrences throughout history and even throughout the present.

    The American neoconservatives had a very particular interpretation of Plato’s Republic. It was the basis for their Trotskyist permanent revolution. They were the philosopher-courtiers, and GW Bush was the philosopher-king.

    But there are a lot of problems elsewhere, that seem at a superficial level to be different, when in fact they are the same thing.

  15. s. wallerstein


    As you say, a bit of rhetoric is often necessary for motivating the masses politically. Martin Luther King’s famous speech begins: “I have a dream”, not “I have a policy paper, with 20 pages of footnotes and all the relevant bibliography on the subject of racism.”

    If the speech had begun “I have a policy paper”, it would have been a lot less effective in moving people to action, although it might well have conveyed a more accurate account of the complex topic of racism in America.

    The problem often is that politicians become victims of their own rhetoric and end up believing their own lies and/or myths.
    They become, in Ignatieff’s terms, “method actors”, method actors being those who get totally involved in the roles that they represent.

    For example, I sense that Tony Blair began to believe his own rhetoric about saving the world for human rights when he got involved with George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.
    That was Blair’s downfall.

    If Hitler hadn’t believed his own rhetoric about the invincible master race, he would have never invaded the Soviet Union and he might, like the more Machiavellian Franco in Spain, have enjoyed absolute dictatorial power in his own country for 30 more years, dying of old age.

    The far left almost always screws up because they believe their own rhetoric. Che Guevara doomed himself because he believed the myths he himself had invented about Latin American peasants being ready for revolution and only awaiting the spark. Allende was a more complex figure and I’m not sure whether he believed his own rhetoric or not.

    Does Bachelet? Probably not at this point since she is a very recent convert to radical educational reform (in her first term she supported the status quo), but like many recent converts she may overcompensate and end up blindly believing in her own myths.

  16. Jim,

    Here’s a quote on the same topic, from I.F. Stone, a famous U.S. journalist (author, by the way, of an interesting book on the trial of Socrates).

    “All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.”

  17. JMRC

    Well the idealised philosopher-king guardians live under communal arrangements without families ruling as a group, they have very little in the way of private property and have no wealth to maximise. They also exist only in fiction.

    This hardly describes the situation of Machiavellian princes who, if they are truly Machiavellian, will have no illusions about being ‘philosopher-king guardians’.

    Dubya Bush, of all people, hardly merits the title ‘philosopher-king’.

    To be honest I think he lived by a simplistic black and white moral code that made him no Machiavellian either though he was, I think, surrounded and put in place by folk who were clever, immoral and opportunistic ‘princes’ of a Machiavellian sort.

  18. Hey Amos,

    In ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ the wily diplomat Dryden tells the idealistic but flawed Lawrence (who has kept from his Arab fighters what he suspects the British are ‘really’ up to):

    “A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies, has forgotten where he’s put it.”

    I think a lot of idealistic politicians end up forgetting where they put the truth.

  19. JMRC,

    Talking of the ‘philosopher-king’ Bush junior it came to mind that Peter Singer wrote a book about him a good while back – ‘The President of Good and Evil: Taking George Bush Seriously’ (2004).

    Scott O’Reilly reviewed it for ‘Philosophy Now’, and selectively quoting from it to ‘confirm’ my (uninformed) bias with a vague appeal to authority, I’ll point out that O’Reilly notes that Singer rejects “ the ‘Machiavelli from Mayberry’ conjecture – a working assumption that Bush is a cynical operator with the cunning of a fox” and goes on to say:

    “The conclusion Singer finds most plausible regarding George W. Bush’s ethics may be the most disturbing. Singer notes that a high number of key Bush administration officials are disciples of a philosopher called Leo Strauss…The Straussians believe that the masses are simply not equipped to handle the often-grim truths that underlie political and world affairs… But according to Singer the Straussians go even further, suggesting that sometimes the ‘aristocratic gentlemen’ charged with governing a polity lack the sophistication to handle the truth. In such cases the elite advisors must be prepared to mislead not just the masses with noble lies, but also the leader…. [Singer finds it] plausible that the president may in fact be a patsy or a puppet – with the Machiavellians pulling the strings on the man from Mayberry.”

    There was a rather different ‘review’ of it by an American columnist in the Guardian. It closes with the suggestion there should be some recognition for what Bush’s morality has not allowed him to do in the Gulf – “Nobody found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” Singer says: “A man of less integrity would have put them there.”

    One should give credit where it is due I think.

    (edit: If you want to read the Philosophy Now review – you might try to copy & paste this link though you might have to conduct a Google search to actually get it:

  20. s. wallerstein

    This may be stretching the topic a bit, but I’ve always wondered what we would think of Bush (and his Straussian advisors) if their plans had worked out fine, if Iraq had fallen to the U.S. troops in a week or so, without further resistance, if the U.S. had succeeded in setting up a fairly efficient puppet government, less repressive than that of Saddam Hussein, more democratic than that of Hussein, followed by an inflow of capital, which raised the standard of living of the average Iraqi, while of course greatly enriching those U.S. investors involved, especially in the oil industry and 10 years later Iraq had become a model Arab democracy, without notable human rights violations, with a functioning market economy, with McDonalds, with Apple, with Levis for all?

    Would that be ok, even if it had been originally justified by lying about weapons of mass destruction and by an invasion, which had no basis in international law?

    In consequentialist terms, most Iraqs would be far better off in terms of human rights and prosperity, not to mention, eating McDonalds hamburgers, Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken and drinking Budweisser beer.

    Just wondering if that would justify the lies and the invasion.

  21. s.wallerstein,

    For the utilitarian, the answer would presumably be yes: as long as more happiness was created than unhappiness, etc. the act would be moral. McDonald’s Utilitarianism…

  22. s. wallerstein


    Then from a utilitarian point of view, if Bush and Co. had managed to install a democratic government with a flourishing emergent economy (that does seem to make people happier than a dictatorship and poverty), the war, provided it were over in a few days without more resistance, would be seen as good, even if they lied about the weapons of mass destruction and were also motivated by a desire to control Iraqi oil.

    So the problem with Bush and Co. is that they failed, that they miscalculated the results of invading Iraq.

    Otherwise, we would be reading articles in Bloomberg about
    the right moment to buy stocks on the Baghdad exchange and articles in the Sunday New York Times about where to eat and what colors to wear when you’re vacationing in Mesopotamia.

    That’s fascinating. Maybe you could do a post on that or Jeremy could invent one of his games.

  23. Well, on an actual consequences calculus, had Bush & Co succeeded in the fashion you paint they’d have done the ‘right thing’. But then on an actual consequences calculus if you gambled the money you needed for your daughter’s immediately needed medicine in a slot machine and won enough to buy her medicine and indeed the treatment required to actually cure her serious condition (which was what you were gambling with the hope of winning) you’d have done the ‘right’ thing in that sense. It seems to me that on any sensible moral account the gambling was blameworthy – incredible reckless –it’s just that pure luck brought about a good desired outcome. Even within a utilitarian framework I think one could find moral fault in such actions.

    In the counter-factual world where the US/UK did what they did but ended up somehow bringing about the good outcome you paint there’s some still room to find them morally blameworthy.

    The ‘Coalition’ hardly had well-thought out plans about how to achieve the good (and self-interest) they sought – they seemed to ignore the worst case scenarios that analysts would have identified and basically tried to ‘wing it’ when it came to ‘reconstructing’ Iraq. They made some very bad decisions – disbanding the Iraqi army needed to maintain the peace and removing the Ba’ath civil servants and technocrats needed to make things run. And they were incredibly incompetent in carrying out their reconstruction schemes – throwing money at foolish projects and at people who couldn’t be trusted to use it honestly and wisely.

    Basically the US/UK were wildly reckless and incompetent – they gambled with the lives of their soldiers, those of civilians and the stability of the region, with the unrealistic expectation that things would all go smoothly with oil back in production quickly and ethnic tensions and grudges ‘somehow’ working themselves out. I think even a non-simplistic utilitarian could find serious moral fault with their actions even if, miraculously, the slot machine had paid out.

    As far as judging acts go, even if we focus only on actual consequences, a relatively low-cost success in Iraq would have only been one of the consequences to consider. Had, by luck, there been success in Iraq there would likely have further reckless and incompetent adventures by the US and UK in the region and elsewhere – it seems reasonable to imagine that they would have ended causing a serious disaster elsewhere, failing to recognize that unskilled high-stakes gambling only rarely works out well.

  24. Hello Jim,

    I agree with you on all the details of the Iraq invasion.

    Coming from Chile, where the role of U.S. imperialism in the 1973 Pinochet coup and in supporting repression and human rights abuse during the early years of his regime is well documented, I tend to have a wholly negative opinion of the role of the United States in the world, so I found it interesting that from a consequentalist point of view, the invasion of Iraq could be justified as an abstract thought experiment. That’s all.

  25. Hi Amos,

    In a hypothetical case, if a government militarily intervened in a very nasty state on humanitarian and ‘regional stability’ grounds, but lacking a UN or ‘popular’ mandate to do so on that basis, lied about certain things to create a pretext to get the job done, attempted the job with some level of competency and planning and ended up bringing about a good outcome on account of that, then yes I could go along with the idea that they did the right thing on some utilitarian accounts.

    Still, I don’t know that their succeeding in the endeavour is what would make the actions morally justified – as long as they had a reasonable expectation of success and made all sensible efforts to secure a good result, it seems the particular act might still come out ‘right’ in some more sophisticated form of utilitarian calculus even if, despite best efforts, the intervention failed to deliver a good outcome (as I said, actual consequence consequentialism just doesn’t strike me as a plausible way of making moral judgments at all). It strikes me that the fictive pretexts and dubious legality of such an endeavor might be ‘overridden’ if the ‘just’ (if legally dodgy) war were pursued with noble and realistic goals, in a well-prepared and sensible fashion.

  26. s. wallerstein


    In personal life success is not as important as it is in politics, among other reasons because if I mess up in my personal life, I don’t affect anyone but myself or my immediate family, but in politics success or failure affects millions of people.

    What’s more, we view politics from a distance. I can know my own intentions (to a certain extent) and can guess at those of friends and family, but I don’t have the slightest idea of Bush’s real intentions and have no way of knowing them.

    So it seems that success as a criterion of action has a more important role in judging politics than in judging those closer to us.

    I agree that when we identify with some political figure, we tend to be more accepting of their failures. For example, I’d have to say that Allende failed, but my ethical opinion of him is very positive. After all, I’m not at all sure that Allende had realistic goals and that they were pursued in a sensible fashion.

    I’d say that Allende’s goals were noble, however.

    I’m confused again. I can see that I apply different criteria when I judge political figures whom I like and those whom I dislike.

  27. Amos,

    In my last comment I was trying to engage with your thought experiment but abstract it away from Bush, Blair and Iraq. (Neither Bush nor Blair rank particularly high in my estimation, but I’ve no access into their souls either.)

    It just seems to me that one can imagine a nation entering, well-prepared and after careful consideration, into a just war for noble reasons with what is reasonably thought to be a very good probability of success. And I can imagine circumstances where such a nation, in order to do what seemed to be the right thing on humanitarian grounds being put in a position where it some exaggeration and misinformation was needed to give a pretext for its actions. And it seems to me one can imagine such an endeavour meeting with unforeseeable setbacks and failing to achieve the good ends aimed at but still being justified by the goods ends aimed at.

    It seems to me that for a war to be just it needn’t be won – though its commonly thought there must be probability of success for a war to be just. As well as probability of success, just war theorists typically talk of just cause, right intention, competent authority, last resort and proportionality. It seems a nation could, in theory, meet all those conditions, and though it engaged in some deceit in order to be able to fight the good fight and ultimately failed to accomplish the good results sought, it might still have fought a just war.

    Needless to say I’m not suggesting that captures the situation with Bush, Blair and Iraq though.

    I’m glad I don’t have to make such decisions myself.

  28. s. wallerstein


    I agree with you about the thought experiment and that if a nation enters into a just war for noble reasons with a good probability of success and finds it necessary to lie in order to carry out their project, I’d still consider them to be morally justified even if they fail for some unforeseeable reasons.

    This whole conversation started when I bought up Ignatieff and his claim that Machievalli is good guide to political life. Machiavelli, of course, not only claims that at times a prince has to lie in order to achieve good aims, but also that it’s more important for a prince to seem good than to be good, “good” here referring (I think) to conventional Christian notions of virtue. Since Machiavelli believes that his aims are somehow “good” (to free Italy from the barbarians, etc.), he seems to be a consequentialist: whatever produces good results (freeing Italy, etc.), while conventionally, in Christian terms, blameworthy, is justified.

    The concept of “fortune” also plays a key role in Machiavelli, at least in The Prince (I’ve never read his other works). Fortune can cause the best-laid plans of the wise and virtuous (in Machiavelli’s sense, not the Christian one) prince to go awry. In fact, we could substitute the idea of “fortune” for your concept of “unforeseeable setbacks” without changing the idea much, as far as I can see.

    So maybe Ignatieff is right that Machiavelli is the key or one of the key political thinkers.

    Here’s an interesting essay on Machiavelli by Isaiah Berlin, which I read a few years ago and will reread.

  29. We in the lay people need to be very cautious where research is presented about gender differences. Have we accounted for perception bias, personal agendas or political correctness? Most time i doubt when it involves the battle of the sexes. One striking matter that as a man is how the academic (i did not say scientific) community goes out of its way to produce female positive messages in its research conclusions. We have heard over an over how marriage is beneficial to men in so many ways especially in terms of health and longevity. Yet i find this hard to believe. Men are closing the longevity gap and the are marrying much less. Bella De Paulo has uncovered the flaws where researchers lump the divorced with the single – in other words they took the ‘cancer’ from marriage and counted it with the single. But back to the topic here about women being ethical. Just look at youtube social experiments “gold digger prank” and you see a phenomenon that most people are aware of – women go after money and comfort and without any apologies about it. Hypergamy is socially acceptable. Lying to get an innocent person in jail for some serious offense – appears to be totally in the realm of female behavior – especially when she feels justified to hijack the legal system for her own revenge regardless of how many casualties her action takes even her own children, and what’s worse is that other women support this behavior even when they know she is lying deliberately. Aggressive/Parental alienation and psychological abuse of children, even serious physical harm to children – all seem to be typical female behavior. Even academics rush with faulty research to show that these phenomenon are so rare that we need to ignore them. Why is academia so flawed when it comes to studying female behavior – is it that researchers are so polarized that they cannot be objective – even males proudly side with those who support these problematic female behaviors, to the point where its prove that women receive very disproportionate sentences for serious offences that involve serious harm or death of someone else. In some western jurisdictions advocates are even suggesting that women not serve any jail time or that it be in mental health facilities because they are victims of our ‘male centric” culture.
    So can we really trust these articles advocating the superiority of women – whether it be intelligence, multitasking an now ethics and morality? I suggest not – that the answers are still out there and illusive as ever. Women of the Christian Temperance Union who framed the 18th amendment, always considered themselves to be of superior moral fiber – why should they think any different today. About ethics and comparison of the sexes – who do you think is more likely to get justice a man before a female judge in a family court matter or a woman before a male judge in a family court matter? Lets not kid ourselves.

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