This article in the Guardian, which some members of our team have shared on Facebook, suggests that the British prime minister David Cameron may have (had) no clue about what his policies did to local services. If we assume that this is true, it raises a moral question of great importance for today’s societies: how can leaders make sure that they know enough about the consequences of their decisions to make decisions at all? Leaders – whether in the private or the public realm – stand at the top of huge, typically pyramidally structured, bureaucracies. They need to gather knowledge from “below”, from those who do the work on the ground – but who might not be willing or able to truthfully report knowledge, for example because they are simply not heard, or because reporting bad news might put them at the risk of being fired. In contemporary discourses about leadership, what is emphasized is their ability to make decisions, to act decisively, to motivate others to follow them, etc. What is not emphasized a lot is that being a morally responsible leader also requires taking responsibility for making sure that one knows enough about what one is making these decisions about.
This issue raises deep questions about the responsibility for knowledge, styles of leadership, management education, whistleblowing, etc. One wonders how different our political and economic landscape could be if those at the top of organizations really cared to know what their decisions mean on the ground. In political philosophy, we often assume that all relevant knowledge is more or less on the table – but this is a highly stylized assumption. One of the ways in which political philosophy should go “non-ideal” is to take seriously the massive epistemic problems that can arise in today’s societies.
By the way, this is NOT an endorsement of free markets as opposed to bureaucracies. Hayek has famously argued that free markets can deal with decentralized knowledge (“The Use of Knowledge in Society”, 1945). This is true under certain, highly restrictive conditions, but by only passing on certain signals through prices, filtering out other aspects, they can be as much part of the problem as other social institutions. I would venture the hypothesis that we will not be able to address this problem by institutional solutions alone – it is also a question of an ethics of knowledge and of being willing to listen to others.
PS: I address some of these questions in my current book project on ethics in organizations. But I couldn’t resist the temptation of raising this issue now, with Cameron providing – according to this article – such a glaring example of how NOT to deal with them…