a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Leaders and their responsibility for knowledge

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…

Lisa Herzog

I work on various questions at the intersection of economics and philosophy, currently focussing on ethics and organizations and ethics in finance. Methodologically, I sit between many chairs and I have come to like the variety. I think of my work as critical, empirically informed social philosophy.



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  1. Tomer Perry

    I agree with you that the ethics of knowledge is a big question. There are a variety of reasons that this is particularly important today – technology has changed, and is still changing, the speed and extent of the flow of information. While it has done little else of what is attributed to it, it certainly has revolutionized the way information travels, for better and worse. It might not be possible to really have a political theory of knowledge that is fitting for our times because the times are changing so fast. The other reason is, as you mention, that most economist acknowledge that lack of information (or misinformation) is one of the main departures from the standard model of economic theory. It’s probably the biggest part of transaction costs- to figure out what is available, what is comparable, what is the price and in general what are the options.
    But I think it’s not particularly important with regards to leaders. In general, I think leadership is overrated. I don’t know that I want leaders who ‘act decisively’ and though I think it’s important that they take responsibility, I don’t think the urgency of an ethics of knowledge has much to do with the ignorance of Cameron. I think it’s equally troubling, or even more so, that most Britons are ignorant of Cameron’s policies and their consequences. Or the way American presidential candidates can spread falsehoods that are easily refutable and yet they persist. Or the fact so many people still believe in certain conspiracy theories. But it’s a tiny little tidbit, not a serious challenge to what I take to be your main point – the importance of an ethics of knowledge.

    • Lisa Herzog

      I fully agree that the problems of an ethics of knowledge go far beyond what I mentioned here. But I still think that there is a specific challenge for those who stand at the top of large organizations and whose decisions can have far-reaching consequences. I wish I could agree with your suggestion that “leadership is overrated” (and of course I do in the sense of a certain motivational rhetoric that one finds in business schools). But as long as we have large, hierarchically-structured organizations in our societies, the problem remains that those who make decisions about them need to find ways for acquiring sufficient knowledge. And what I read in organization theory and “leadership studies” does not seem to emphasize this at all, and instead using an empty rhetoric of how great leaders are. It does not at all speak about the fundamental epistemic challenge they face.

      • Tomer Perry

        I take your point, and it’s valid – we do live in a world of large hierarchical organizations, but I don’t think those of at the top are really ‘making’ much of the decisions. They are very constrained by a variety of things – from organizational norms and standards through perceived limits of feasibility to checks and balances from other institutions. My impression from the biographies of those at the top (often titled ‘hard choices,’ ‘decision points,’ tough choices’ etc. etc.) is that there is often very little judgment being exercised. It’s a combination of political pressures, pre-existing beliefs and organizational structures and norms that put on certain courses of actions as alternatives and inertia does all the rest. We may disagree on this point, which is also fine, but I do think leadership is overrated – not just in the rhetoric of business school curriculum but also in the study of history, in political discourse and generally in our psychology. I may be wrong about that, but the fact our organizations are technical hierarchical doesn’t, in my opinion, imply that people at the top actually get to make decisions (or that, to your point, it matters what information they have as opposed to what information/beliefs rule the general discussion).

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