“Every other knowledge is harmful to him who does not have knowledge of goodness.”
–Michel de Montaigne in The Complete Essays
What is the difference between a good footballer and a bad one? It might be revealed in terms of skill, athleticism, physical fitness, creativity, judgment, tactical nous, team spirit, a commitment to the ethos of the game, character traits like courage, resilience, perseverance, honesty, good sportsmanship, and the like. And even people with a limited knowledge of the game will recognise the good qualities and know when they are lacking.
In like manner, we all know a good mother when we see one, we are all quite certain about what it takes to be a good teacher, and we readily distinguish between a good employee and a bad one. However, we can only discern these distinctions by grasping the nature or essence of whoever or whatever we are assessing. To rate someone or something as good or bad, we first have to understand whatever it is that makes he, she, or it to be what he, she, or it is, whether we are talking about mothers, teachers, honey bees or apple trees. Fulfilment of anything’s nature or essence is good for it; any impairments of that nature or essence are bad for it, detracting from the full expression of what it is meant to be.
Throughout our everyday lives we frequently make judgments in terms of good and bad, right and wrong, fit and unfit, just or unjust, or in the popular parlance of political correctness, appropriate or inappropriate. Leaders, more than all others, need to make these judgments with perspicacity, prudence, and precision. Sadly, “What is the good of leadership?” is a question few people seem to be able to answer with any cogency.
Of course, when the question is understood merely as a piece of throwaway rhetorical cynicism, in the sense of regarding leadership as hopeless, useless, or valueless, it merely reflects the impoverished understanding of the concept in the postmodern West. But what about when the question is taken as a straightforward query about the good that leadership is supposed to pursue or bring about? Alas, the lack of robust, rational responses provides ample justification for the cynicism reflected in the previously mentioned sense of the question.
The idea of goodness is fundamental to all the moral sciences: ethics, politics, economics, and jurisprudence, and the question of moral good comes to the fore in the case of a species with a rational nature over and above the perceptual intelligence found to some degree in all animal life. Free will, the precondition of moral accountability, is a natural concomitant of a rational intellect.
The concept of the good is also inescapably present in other sciences like psychology, environmental science, medical science, and sociology, and even in hard sciences like physics and chemistry when it comes to ethical standards, method, and practice. And in mathematics, in the form of right and wrong, it is expressed with black and white clarity.
When considered in relation to truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness, the concept of goodness shapes our understanding of logic, grammar, literature, art, and music. Hence cruelty and violence are seen as ugly distortions of our humanity, while poverty, ignorance, and exploitation are widely regarded as contradictions of the truth about what humanity is supposed to be.
Without a robust understanding of what constitutes the good of human beings, and therefore what is bad for them, justice would become for us a meaningless term. Yet it is clear that all human beings recognise injustice when they see it, even though they may choose to ignore it, cover it up, pretend they see some justification for it, or even defiantly try to label it as “justice”, but that very hypocrisy in particular betrays the inescapable reality of what they are trying to conceal. As Duc de la Rochefoucauld wisely noted:
“Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”
Aristotle saw it as Eudaimonia or happiness, understood as self-fulfilment based primarily on the development of one’s rational mind. Other ancient philosophers agreed, though they suggested alternatives such as tranquillity as the chief constituent, while the Confucian tradition held humanity and propriety to be the means to fulfilment in life. The US Declaration of Independence endorsed this widely held belief by holding up as inalienable rights the ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
What then is the good that leadership must pursue? Happiness, as proposed by Aristotle, appeals as the most rational response, but unfortunately, in this age of self-centredness and the happiness industry, it is widely misconstrued as mere emotional and material well-being. Professor Terry Eagleton recently wrote in his Guardian review of the book, The Happiness Industry, by William Davies:
“Happiness for the market researchers and corporate psychologists is a matter of feeling good. But it seems that millions of individuals don’t feel good at all, and are unlikely to be persuaded to buck up by technologies of mind control that induce them to work harder or consume more. You can’t really be happy if you are a victim of injustice or exploitation, which is what the technologists of joy tend to overlook. This is why, when Aristotle speaks of a science of well-being, he gives it the name of politics. The point is of little interest to the neuroscientists, advertising gurus or mindfulness mongers, which is why so much of their work is spectacularly beside the point.”
Happiness, understood in the more profound sense of the term as fulfilment or human flourishing according to the true ends of human nature, is endorsed by philosophers like Augustine, Aquinas, and Spinoza. And it is a true end or final objective, because no one can explain why they want to be happy in that sense. No one can give a reason for wanting to be happy, because happiness is never a means to anything else, but is always an end in itself. Just try completing the sentence “I want to be happy because…”, and you will find it impossible without resorting to meaningless tautologies like, “I want to be happy because I don’t want to be sad”, which is the same as saying “I want to be happy because I want to be happy”.
So if the good of leadership is happiness, or fulfilment in line with the ends of human nature, then what objectives must leaders pursue in order to secure it? Above all, they must seek justice, which implies security, freedom, and peace, but they must also actively promote the expansion of knowledge and wisdom, and the establishment of the life of virtue, cultivating practical wisdom, courage, self-control, and a personal commitment to the just treatment of all. Tragically, in politics and business, these rational and humane ideals are being distorted, disparaged, and dismantled.
The eminent French political scientist, Pierre Manent, explains the crisis of leadership in Europe in a recent article entitled Repurposing Europe: “In order to act for the common good, we must have confidence in the possibility of the Good…A great deal is at stake. If we do not succeed in turning once more with confidence toward the possibility of the Good – as we find it in the God of European history and in the nations that history produced – we will not recover the ability to govern ourselves.”
Manent points out that the idea of acting for the common good has lost its meaning for many Europeans. He says that Europeans no longer do the honest or noble thing, but act purely from selfish necessity, in the name of the great global marketplace that now governs society. And, as he ruefully adds: “My, how we love this providence! How docile we are when its invisible hand comes down upon us! And how well the wise and powerful know how to interpret its dictates!”
The argument raised by Manent is that this appeal to the god of the marketplace, as well as all the other gods, sex, consumerism, and personal choice, that serve the supreme god of utility, has resulted in a way of life that has no need for political communities and people who think for themselves. Sweeping aside national borders and unique cultures, the vision is of a globalised order that allows the establishment elite to exploit and manipulate the free movement of money, products and services, and labour (for which read vulnerable human beings) without restraint.
Manent warns that Europe will be unable to reopen the domain of communal action unless they reject the claims of this false providence and “restore the political order as the framework and the product of choice for the common good”. That is to say that the survival of the West depends on the restoration of real leadership, at all levels of society, based on a proper understanding of the good of all people.
That proper understanding, however, is wholly dependent on the now rejected rational realist worldview on which western civilization was founded. The postmodern West is entranced by a spirit of radical relativism and skepticism, scornful of the very concept of objective truth, deeming it not only as unattainable, but also repressive, an impediment to human freedom. This is to forget, of course, that without an objective truth about human nature, terms like ‘human freedom’ and ‘human rights’ become meaningless, and therefore malleable, inviting all manner of totalitarian abuse.
Intellectual and moral integrity, our only protection against wilful ignorance and deception, are essential to the flourishing of individuals, workplaces, and communities, and indeed nations and the international order. Without objective truth we can never know the good of human beings or the planet, and leadership, the promotion of human flourishing, becomes an impossibility.
As Western civilization erodes under the abrasion of political correctness, we do well to remember that ancient Athens considered parrhesia, or candid speech, as an essential component of its democratic way of life. Speaking one’s mind openly was contrasted with the equivocation, evasiveness, and flattery that characterized the despotic states that crowded the ancient world. More than 2000 years later, Alexis de Tocqueville reemphasized the importance to the health of democracy of being free to speak openly. He saw that the frank exchange of views enabled people to see and judge the good and the bad of politicians and their fellow citizens.
Of course, like any virtue, candour can be abused, but it actually ceases to be candour when honesty and sincerity are absent. People who flatter themselves on their forthrightness tend to fall into that trap, notably many a politician, and not a few business bigwigs. The blunt bluster of a Donald Trump is not parrhesia, but rather just another political ploy or social gaffe, every bit as reprehensible as the deceit of the establishment elite. Parrhesia, the open communication essential to proper human community, is meaningless without truthfulness.
So the equation is clear enough: happiness, in the sense of fulfilment, is the good leadership must pursue, and it is defined by the truth about human beings as rational, relational animals. It is truth that sets us free to pursue the personal excellence that is only possible in the context of communal flourishing, and the communal flourishing that requires the very best of each individual. This is an inescapable reality in families, friendships, classrooms, workplaces, communities, and nations.
It is now urgent for leaders in all those areas of life to clean out the insidious irrationalities that have hijacked western civilization. Locked in the embrace of concupiscence and consumerism, people are largely unaware of the impending socio-political collapse threatening them. Neither the current corrupted forms of liberal democracy, not the radical extremisms of both left and right that they have spawned, seek the good that leadership is meant to pursue.
Consider the contemporary enslavement of minds by consumerism, promiscuity, pornography, drugs, technological trivia, and self-absorption, and ask yourself how any of this promotes the good of humanity. Consider the oppressive reality of the unemployment, job insecurity, financial pressure, social dislocation and decay, homelessness, loneliness, and meaninglessness, all increasingly characteristic of our world today, and ask yourself again the question we started with: what is the good of leadership?