zondag 28 juni 2015

Corporate Ethical Officer

Following its blameworthy behaviour around a public tender, Dutch Railways has decided to appoint a Corporate Ethical Officer.

You would better not think of getting that job. The splitting off of ‘ethics’ may very well be designed to give the other managers a free hand again, because formally the ethical side will then be covered. Being manager of ethics you will be forced to slow down the other managers in their ambitions, while they, to their feeling, are engaged with the reál work. You will then be the, probably little respected, spoil-sport.

I conceive this measure as an illustration of our tendency in organized life to excessively divide what can actually not be divided. It is questionable whether ethics is separately available, because actually it must be present in everything. Ín the people, ín what you do with each other, and not as an isolated category.

Does this last conviction of mine mean that I end up with the so called ‘virtue ethics’? This is the ethics that incites people to anchor virtues – such as temperance, courage, justice – in their character. With them managers and other employees of the organization would no longer need an external monitoring body because they act virtuously from themselves.

Surely there is something to say for this virtue ethics, at least it is hard to be against it. But I’m not a big supporter, because there is a hint of arduousness around it. You need to constantly work on your character, train your whole life long. Again, one can hardly object to that, but as to me, I would like to have it a little more relaxed.

Besides, how do you measure virtues without immediately entering into the false categories of which the ‘manager ethics’ is also an exponent? If you want to call in virtues in an operational way, the risk is considerable that once again you reduce moral qualities to defined characteristics and places them outside yourself.

It is funnier, and more relaxed, to just stumble upon good relationships, to find them in reality. The problem is, if that good is not to be a pre-defined, fixed category, then it must continually emerge in the situations and configurations that happen, in the relationships that occur. So, less in people and things, but between what happens. There is something surprising and unplannable to that.

But it shoúld be that way, because sharp demarcation of categories often does not convince us any longer. Think only of the ‘manager ethics’.

Also see Defining the world

maandag 22 juni 2015

Plato disproved?

“About a perfect world we know nothing. Plato, who still believed in it, has been disproved already long ago”, Rob Schouten wrote recently. Schouten sees the shedding of Plato as a stage of maturity, and I agree with him. But I do have my doubts about the taken-for-grantedness and carelessness with which he posits this refutation as a fait accompli.

In the Jewish tradition, Plato actually is not present in a disturbing way, but probably there he never was. Judaism has good testimonials when it comes to a non-Platonic, more realistic view of good and evil in this world, without however losing hope of a messianic time. The realization that earthly life must be lived fully, and is not inferior compared to our spiritual existence, is from the outset deeply rooted in Judaism.

But other institutions that once were strongholds of Platonic thought, are still so as much today as ever, in my view. I think of such diverse entities as the Catholic church, the world of management and organization, and philosophical practice.

In the church the superiority of the spiritual over the physical was from the start so strong that the image of human perfection for the church was inextricably linked to sexual abstinence. For both men and women this meant that the state of virginity was superior to marriage. Of course marriage was not forbidden, because reproduction was important, but the Platonic hierarchy was clear. To my knowledge, this is, unlike Schouten suggests, still the official line of the Catholic Church.

In management and organization there has always been, from the time systematic thinking  about organizations developed, a strong emphasis on a separation between thoughts and actions, policies and practices, with priority control for thinkers and policy makers. For the founders of organization theory, such as Frederick Taylor and Henri Fayol, this was taken as an obvious starting point for achieving the highest efficiency and effectiveness. In essence, this primacy of thinking over doing is a Platonic reflex. And though this principle is regularly challenged, it is very firmly anchored in our organized life.

Regarding philosophy, to the extent it is attracted to ‘ivory tower’ work, it is a Platonic affair. The things going on there are supposed to be ‘deeper’ and more ‘fundamental’ than in other scientific disciplines, and therefore to represent a truer reality. The corresponding ideas of philosophy as ‘a constant spiritual exercise, where thinking reflects without a preconceived goal on timeless questions’ or exclusive involvement in epistemology are still largely prevalent. There too, there are voices that call for less Platonic isolation and for thinking more about concrete matters. But those voices have certainly not won yet.

The refutation of Plato, therefore, has not be completed yet. As I said, I do think that Jewish tradition plays a leading role here, and already for centuries so. That does not always produce neat arrangements or systematic constructions, let alone a perfect world. But anyway, one is less affected by Plato’s life-hostile schemes there.

Also see Plato at the workplace

zaterdag 13 juni 2015

The portable homeland

The Estonians are worried. They feel vulnerable because their big neighbor Russia, who in the past regularly walked them underfoot, seems to be aggressive again. What is happening in Ukraine frightens the Estonians, and so does the language that Russia uses lately.

“Because of that lunatic in Moscow, we are working on a concept to be able to survive as a country, even if we would for a while have no own territory anymore”, Taavi Kotka, the Chief Information Officer of the Estonian government, was quoted in NRC. “We not only make a digital backup, but also a mirror, a version that is always on call.” The content includes all information from citizens, communicationsystems and government systems.

The Estonians are digitally well organized for some time already. After gaining independence in 1991, Estonia was ready to work with digitization. In a relatively poor and sparsely populated country that was simply the most effective way to reduce costs and to offer services that could not otherwise be delivered.

But what began as a cost-saving operation has now also generated other benefits. For instance the time saved by citizens because they can fill all government forms digitally and do not ever have to repeat their medical history. Furthermore it leads, through export of digital knowledge and products, to economic success. And now this advantage is added: the guarantee of national survival in a situation without your own territory.

What does this make me think of? Indeed, of the codification of Jewish tradition in the Bible, Mishnah and Talmud, containing rules and agreements concerning liturgy, but also on matters of legal and administrative nature. Those writings have given Jews in the Diaspora for centuries so much structure and consistency that, in the formulation of Heinrich Heine, they could be referred to as the ‘portable Jewish homeland’. They made sure that, however much the Jews were scattered across the globe, a shared Jewish identity could survive.

So, what the CIO of Estonia has in mind, has been tried once already, and it appears to be managable, to some extent. Especially when it would concern the situation in which “for a while” there would be no own territory. But how do you know it will not last two thousand years?

Except that it is doable, something else may be learned from the Jewish diaspora. Namely that the exile was never able to take away the deep desire for a tangible state on a tangible territory. That’s why I don’t begrudge any nation, however digitized or marginalized, a private, secure, analog territory.

Also see The many dimensions of Ari Shavit

vrijdag 5 juni 2015

Liberation from fundamentalism

On May 5th, Dutch Liberation Day, moralism is never far away: do we actually realize how big is the privilege to be free? Remembering the misery of war and occupation must help us to strengthen our sense of freedom.

Strangely enough, the awareness of another liberation, which was in its own way no less radical, seems to be only poor and confused. I refer to the collective liberation from collective dogmatic thinking.

It might be hard to imagine nowadays, but in 1950 the majority of the Dutch population believed that a hell existed, and that a bad life or destination could bring you there and that unbaptized died children would undoubtedly end there. And that redemption from that threat could proceed through Jesus.

To be freed from such oppressive dogmatism seems to me to a memorable happening. And indeed, some do remember that liberation as groundbreaking, and can link a date to it. For example, the recently deceased philosopher and former priest Samuel IJsseling, who locates the turn in the year 1968. “Suddenly it was allowed to discuss whatever you liked”, he said in an interview with Ger Groot, “which was previously almost unthinkable. That was a joy, belief me.”

If a day could be indicated on which this liberation has taken place, that day would be worthy of an annual celebration. But, of course, there is not such a day, this kind of  liberations proceed in a more fuzzy and gradual way than a physical liberation. Perhaps this fuzziness is precisely the reason why this liberation is also regularly questioned, or why the oppressive character of the then prevailing dogma is neglected. The latter I believe to perceive in recent articles, and I have these in mind when I talk about a poor and confused notion of this ‘other liberation’.

Neglect or even denial of the liberation of Christian dogma I encountered in a recent column by James Kennedy. He believes that the reasons for secularization are often not properly displayed. “It's not a matter of restrictive dogma”, he says, but of changing life styles. “Parents don’t give their children the spiritual support they need to maintain a philosophy of life, perhaps because they themselves no longer believe in it.”

In other words, I think to myself, they were being allowed gradually to say what they thought. And even though it was gradual, and though only in the course of time they discovered that until then others had determined for them what to think – it remains a liberation.

Another author, Paul van Geest, downplays the dogmatic oppression – and therewith the liberation – through a semantic debate about the word fundamentalism. He does so in response to Naema Tahir, who wrote in Trouw that, in terms of fundamentalism, many Muslims are not so different from Luther. Van Geest rejects that suggestion, because it was precisely Luther who let go of the literal reading of the Bible.

But by arguing this way, Van Geest ignores the wider meaning of ‘fundamentalism’, as it exists in common parlance. In it, the meaning of the word is no longer limited to the historical-literal reading of the Bible or Koran, but it stands for: to remain meticulously within once handed down frameworks, or dogmatic thinking. That’s why nowadays for example you also have ‘enlightenment fundamentalists’ or ‘human rights fundamentalists’.

From that perspective, Luther may indeed be regarded a fundamentalist, namely an ‘Augustine fundamentalist’. Because, under the direction of Augustine he relates – as Van Geest himself says – everything he reads in the Bible to (the coming of) Christ, however big the number of artifices he needs for this. That’s what you would call ‘fundamentalist’,  or ‘dogmatic’.

With his portrayal of Luther, Van Geest presents half of the kind of the ‘other liberation’ that I try to focus on. He recalls the liberation from a literal reading of a foundational document. The other half – namely the liberation from a reading of the Bible and creation as prescribed by the tradition; in this case: the Christological way of reading – he does not mention. Probably Van Geest does not need such liberation, because he personally does not experience any oppression. But the point is: in Luther it would not be available, Tahir is just right at that point.

Nevertheless, also the latter liberation somewhere after the war for large groups of Dutch actually occurred.

Also see What happened in the West?

maandag 1 juni 2015

Ten bridges too far

I can not see it otherwise. Pleasant cooperation begins and ends with knowing of each other what you’re doing. Also in such a mega-organization like the municipality of Amsterdam.

Even if that means that policy makers sometimes have to know exactly some details of the logistics of a form or informationflow. And that a manager must be able to dive into the exact records of one of his products and must be able to follow the process of creation.

That’s ten bridges too far, I know that now too. Because they don’t wánt that at all, those managers and policy makers, for various reasons.

Therefore it is all the more remarkable that recently, just before my departure as ‘clarifyer of workprocesses’, I was allowed several times to experience the flow that occurs when six or seven people together harmonize their process – their daily bread – and feel taken seriously in it. That generates a specific relaxed kind of job satisfaction.

But now we are back again at the lonely, individual process-tinkerers. Or at the collective brown-paper products that are admittedly created with great flow, but of which after a year nobody knows where they are.

But one time it will be fixed well again – I can not see it otherwise.

Also see Live to see