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Paul Woodruff's "The Ajax Dilemma"

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 26, 2011 04:14 PM

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At the heart of almost every group effort, whether it's a family, a company, or a society, there's a tension: How will the rewards be distributed? Will they go primarily to the super-talented geniuses who make decisive, indispensable contributions -- or to the dedicated, self-sacrificing workers, who put in steady effort day after day, laying the groundwork for brilliant achievements? It's a central debate in our society right now; it's also the subject Paul Woodruff takes on in The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness, and Rewards.

Woodruff is a classicist and philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin. His title comes from a famous episode in the Iliad. When the Greek hero Achilles is killed during the Trojan War, Agamemnon, commander of the Greek army, decides to present his armor as a gift to the soldier who's most valuable. There are two candidates: the brilliant strategist Odysseus (future inventor of the Trojan Horse), and the strong, stalwart Ajax, who has personally saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers. Agamemnon declares that the winner will be decided through a speech contest, which Odysseus handily wins. Ajax, enraged when he discovers how little his work is valued, goes on a rampage and commits suicide. "The issue," Woodruff writes, "is rewards," which "express the values of a community." "Which does it value more, cleverness or hard work? Strength or intelligence? Loyalty or inventiveness?"

It's a debate we see everywhere: Universities, for instance, typically reward research excellence over great teaching, even though universities are, in fundamental ways, made possible by the unglamorous, day-to-day hard work of great teachers; companies reward CEOs more than rank-and-file workers. Fail to reward Odysseus, and "he might quit," which is a problem, because he's irreplaceable. Fail to reward Ajax, and "the heart goes out of his work," and the same happens for all of his fellows. The problem is that there's no simple rule which will teach you how much to reward Odysseus and how much to reward Ajax. They are doing two kinds of work -- creativity and heavy lifting -- and yet there's only one kind of reward: a single set of armor.

It's a setup, Woodruff argues, which is emblematic of a basic fact about justice: It "cannot be locked into principles," but must be anchored in social reality. odyssey
In the Odyssey, the Greek army is a socially impoverished society, in which mutual respect is lacking. Ideally, Odysseus and Ajax should both acknowledge that, though only one of them can win the contest, they're both important contributors; unfortunately, without that bedrock of community, compassion, and respect, they must take the contest seriously. The same, Woodruff suggests, is true in our own society. Inequality of rewards might be a fact of life -- but it is only an acceptable fact when, as a society, we recognize that it's impossible to distribute material rewards in a fully just way. The problem we face isn't just economic inequality -- it's an inequality of respect.

More: Bill Moyers' great, genuinely must-see interview with Woodruff from 2010, on video.

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