Today I wanted to delve a bit deeper in a notion that constitutes a substantial element of my General Theory of the Organization, the fact that conflict is one of the unavoidable consequences of every aging group, and as a result the understanding of a “good” organization as that which can minimize (both in number and intensity) the number of conflicts within itself. To understand the centrality of that notion we first have to go back to the definition of organization I proposed originally: “a set of individuals cooperating to achieve certain end and accepting a number of rules that impose certain duties on them (and also furnish them with certain rights)”. That means that there is an inherent conflict since the very moment that a human being (a free agent) decides (or is compelled) to join such arrangement, as he has to forfeit a certain amount of his freedom to submit to those rules, and has to accept the boundaries to his behavior derived from such duties as those rules specify. Before we can understand to what extent that forfeiture may be a loss, we have to spend a little time considering what that freedom that the new member is sacrificing consists in (disclaimer: the next three paragraphs are going to be philosophically quite dense, so those readers interested only in management and “how” to design good organizational models may want to skip them, as they deal mainly with the “why”, and at a very deep level at that).
It has become fashionable in certain circles to say that freedom, or by extension human agency is but a convenient fiction, and that there is nothing to it if we consider its meaning seriously: in our predominantly monist (and materialist) metaphysic we are made only of one substance, matter (because there isn’t anything else we could be made of), and being entirely material beings we are as subject to the entirely deterministic laws of physics as any other lump of stuff (be it a stone, a tree or a cow). Under such idea of what is “really out there” we do not forfeit anything at all by joining a group, as we can not forfeit something we never had in the first place, so instead of thinking in terms of the liberty we loose, or the options we will not be able to choose once inside the group we should think in the new balance between pleasure and pain that belonging to the group enables us to achieve, as we never had such liberty, and those options we may consider were fictitious and never really open to us.
Readers of this blog already know I do not subscribe to such predominant metaphysics (for more details see this old post: The problems of materialist monism and subsequent ones on the same topic), but what I will be arguing may be construed in a way that makes it independent of the metaphysical beliefs of the proponent. I think that even if we admitted that freedom was an illusion (which, again, I do not admit, but bear with me) I think we can all agree it is a powerful, pleasant illusion. People cherish the impression (wrong as it may be) of being free, thinking they have a power over their own lives and capable of choosing without compulsion. So limiting that impression by accepting a set of rules is indeed a source of displeasure, a burden, that has to be compensated by the satisfaction of increasing our chances of reaching the desired end we share with the whole group. Herein lies the original conflict then, in the fact that if those chances decrease (because the organization looses some of its ability to attain its ends) the potential satisfaction becomes more remote, and may in the end not be enough to compensate the displeasure of forfeiting part of our (fictitious) freedom. In that case, from this perspective, what the individual member should do is leave the organization to pursue his ends in some alternative fashion (either alone or within a different organization that provides him with better chances).
But now let’s get back to my true opinion, the consideration that we are really free (which depends on my stated dualism, although for reasons I will expand in another post, it could still obtain even if such dualism were not true, as for it to be valid it is enough for monism to be epistemically insufficient, even if it were ontologically true, constituting an exhaustive enough description of reality). This position is not as immediately conductive to the same perception of the original conflict of belonging to an organization, especially if we accept as valid a Kantian definition of what being free consists in. Let’s remember that for Kant to be truly free consists in accepting a set of rules we give to ourselves, autonomously (without coercion, but also without undue influence from external sources like tradition, inherited religious belief or imposed laws). That autonomy in determining the rules we would self-impose on ourselves he equated with universal reason itself (universal because it had to be, again, independent from any particular tradition or local flavor), so for him being a rational being was equivalent to being able to find those rules and always act according to them. Those rules, by the way, always had the formal feature of being a Categorical Imperative (something we had to do no matter what, that we could wish everybody else also did, and that was compatible with treating every other human being –to be more precise, every other rational being- as an “end in itself, and never as a means for a further end”), but that formal feature is not necessary for my current argument. Now, given that we always have to act (if we are going to act rationally and thus to be truly free) according to some set of rules, and that there is only one set of rules we should accept as valid (those that have the form of a categorical imperative), we aren’t sacrificing anything at all when we join a group: either their rules are a subset (or compatible with) the rules we are already using to guide our behavior, or they are not, in which case we shouldn’t submit to them no matter what.
The (quite counterintuitive) conclusion we have reached is that only if we admit a monist metaphysic (and the utilitarian understanding of behavior derived from it) it does make sense to speak of that original conflict that will help us understand all the subsequent ones, while if we stick to our guns and accept the dualism I believe is in better accordance with what we know of nature (and the deontological rationality that follows) there can be no conflict, as accepting rational rules is what we already do, so we aren’t sacrificing anything at all (unless we join an irrational group whose rules are not of a form that admit of universalization, something by definition we should never do). As the conclusion, in addition to being counterintuitive, seems to rob us of one of the stronger tools we have to understand the evolution of groups and the behavior of their members, we will need to refine a bit our analysis to see if things are really as they look at first sight. That search of refinement leads us back to the different ends we used to distinguish the different types of organization, as we will find that not all of them are equally “universalizable”:
· Educational organizations strive to expand some (this worldly) area of knowledge. They are paradigmatically universal, as not only can we wish everybody participated in such knowledge without contradiction, but such participation is part and parcel of the satisfaction of its end. The beauty of knowledge is that it is not a finite, consumable resource, as has been said so many times. The fact that I become familiar with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics does in no way prevent you from becoming equally so. In this case we may say indeed that pursuing such expansion of knowledge in no way limits our freedom or has necessarily to constitute a loss
· Religious organizations strive to embody some (other worldly) truth, and in that sense they are also very much infinitely extendable without contradiction (the fact I believe in something not only does not preclude you from believing exactly in the same thing, but may even sway you towards such belief, as the example of a fellow human being has been in all ages a most powerful enticement to join a creed). Although most faiths impose on their followers significantly more restrictions in how they should live than what their education does (although some scientists can devote as much of their lives to the pursuit of knowledge as the most devout believer, so educational organizations can be in some cases as dominant of their members’ lives as religious ones, this is not normally the case) first person reports usually do not convey those restrictions as a loss of freedom (something that from the outside is difficult to accept, specially from the secular framework of Western culture, as the endless arguments about the use of hijab and niqab by Muslim women attest). As in the previous case, belonging to a religious organization, as long as one believes in the main tenets of the faith, is not perceived as a loss or as a renunciation, but as an expression of liberty, and thus it would be wrong to talk about an original conflict in them
· Political organizations are a bit more problematic, as by definition they seek to perpetuate (via reproduction) only a subset of people, namely those that share some common history and culture (a nation, a people) or a certain ideological mindset (a political party) or certain common interests (a union, a trade association), and it doesn’t make much sense to think they could aspire to extend their appeal to the whole of humanity (something that until now we could take for granted was quite good at reproducing without any of us taking particular care about it). However, given these organizations are not overly confrontational and geared to the improvement of the lot of their members at the expense of somebody else, even they admit of a certain degree of “universalizability”. You could wish without contradicting yourself that everybody belonged to a nation (regardless of which one) and strived for the good of that nation, and worked for its perpetuation, as long as that belonging did not imply actively attacking the members of other nations to rob them of their land or other resources (as then the different wishes of different nationals would conflict, and would be contradictory between them). So there is no conflict in wanting to be German, and wanting Germany to thrive as long as it is under the auspice of the charter of the U.N., but it is definitely not OK to want Germany to thrive by the forceful taking of lebensraum from its neighbors. Similar thing with political parties or professional corporations (it’s OK to pursue the continuance of the nuclear industry, as long as it is not at the expense of lobbying against subsidies for the solar industry so they can never take off, for example).
· You probably by now can see what we have come at: there is no way on Earth we can universalize the ends we declared as the real ones for economic organizations (or commercial/ productive, I still can’t seem to settle on one term for them). They pursue to improve the social position of their members, and social position is a zero sum game (the only way to improve in a hierarchically ordered scale is to make others’ position worse) so we can not wish everybody adopted as their role of conduct such improvement, as everybody’s rule with contradict that of everybody else. What we can see, then, is that the necessary conflict at the heart of the membership in any economic organization is indeed much deeper that what we hinted at previously. It is not a problem of deciding how much freedom we forsake for the pursuance of an end we esteem as worthy, but of having to renounce freedom altogether, at least as freedom is understood in the Kantian tradition (as acting in accordance to rules we ourselves identify as reasonable, which means we can wish they were made “universal law”). The moment we accept to participate in an economic enterprise we have to submit to its rules, which will always be “hypothetical imperatives” (that can always be reduced to the form “IF you want to earn more money/ progress in social esteem, THEN do this or that”), but can never be (like the rules of educational, religious or some political organizations aspire to be) categorical ones.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the ethical tradition that most scholars in the area of “business ethics” appeal to is utilitarianism (understood as a variant of consequentialism, where the consequence they seek is the maximization of pleasure over pain), although you still can see flashes of deontology (normally via contractarianism, as in Donaldson) that deontology has to studiously ignore the real motive behind people collaborating for material gain, and accept a purported end (the betterment of society through medicine/ building/ infrastructure design and whatnot) that in our understanding is nothing more than window dressing.
Now I can imagine some people may take exception to this characterization of what could be called the “moral soundness” of the different types of organizations, as it seems to imply that all religious (and educational, but schools and universities don’t seem to have as many detractors as established churches) organizations are good and noble whilst publicly traded companies are somehow crooked and evil, with political ones standing somewhat in between (depending on how aggressive they are towards other polities). Guilty as charged, that mindset is not that far from my current sensibilities. In a world of “new atheists” and of predominantly secular thinking this particular proud son of the Enlightenment wouldn’t mind to see a bit of the animus directed against churches to be applied to those veritable churches of the masses, the big corporations that spout the destructive materialist ideology that is brilliantly succeeding in making untold millions miserable. However, this particular line of thinking I’m currently engaged in has less to do with blanket statements of moral soundness and more with the identification of a primal conflict that arises from the very fact of belonging to such organization. I rest satisfied with how I’ve shown (conclusively enough) that for some types of organizations (all economic ones, and some political) that conflict is unavoidable, as all of their members, consciously or not, incur a cost by joining (sacrificing some liberty), and must then expect that cost to be repaid by the satisfaction of attaining some goal valuable to them.
A final objection I would like to deal with is that such a cost may be compensated already by the unalloyed good of belonging to a group bigger than oneself and thus granting the opportunity to engage in social exchange. According to evolutionary psychology (although I’ve stated previously that the movement in toto is mostly a load of crap, let’s take this particular statement at face value and consider it on its own merits rather than dismissing it right off the bat) we humans are naturally social beings, and we need to spend time interacting with other fellow humans as much as we need to eat and sleep. Organizations (any of them, regardless of type) would be a prime venue for having those meaningful interactions, so if we are going to theorize about how they work based on the alleged burden some of them impose originally impose on their members, we should take in consideration this very real benefit, as it may compensate (or more than compensate) that burden and thus make the conflict disappear. I do recognize some merit in this objection, as I’m the first to dismiss any reductionist view of human motives (so I wouldn’t like my theory to be understood as “humans subscribe to economic organizations just to gain social prestige, and no other motive counts”, what I’m saying is that first motive –gain- vastly overpowers all the rest that undoubtedly may coexist with it, or it wouldn’t be an economic organization in the first place what he would be joining), but I still don’t think it is strong enough to make me reconsider the inevitability of that primal conflict. I’m not denying that in some cases the work site provides the employee with her stronger social ties, as coworkers may end up being her main acquaintances (and the relationships with them becoming a significant source of self-esteem and of perceived value), or that working climate may be an even bigger source of satisfaction than the monthly paycheck, and have more weight in deciding to stay at a certain company; all I am saying is a) the richness (and truthfulness) of those satisfying relationships would be compromised if we knew they were entered for the sake of keeping the employees happy and thus being more productive (as they would then show its subordination to what we maintain stubbornly is the ultimate end of every economic organization, which is increasing the monetary benefit and thus the social status of its directors), which shows that b) forming a fulfilling, dense network can at best be a subsidiary end, subject to the conditions of the labor market but in the end inessential to the organization, so the main, constant, real end can not but cause the primal conflict we have been arguing all along for.
Enough for today, in my next post I will want to explore how the original conflict resurfaces in every subsequent one (many times what looks like a discussion about resource allocation, or rewards distribution, is an attempt to renegotiate the terms of the initial agreement of one of the parts so what the member renounced to back then is still compensated by what he gets in exchange now –the level of attainment of his initial goal), and share some thoughts on why conflicts are potentially more disruptive in our “postmodern” age (when the lack of an overarching narrative that is widely accepted by most subgroups within any given society makes it more difficult to reach a resolution that is accepted as legitimate by both conflicting parties).