Head Games

In the senior capstone we discuss the meaning, value and use of a good liberal arts education. We always start the seminar by reading The Apology and Crito by Plato. Then we spend a week or so talking about the "Socrates Game," which has a few important rules: players must think things through for themselves, act only on their rationally-arrived at convictions, and share their moral reasoning with others as an example, but also as a safeguard in case they have gotten it wrong. It's a good game, the Socrates Game, but it does have an unsettling tendency to get you into a whole lot of trouble.

The students generally like and admire this game--that is until I introduce them to Machiavelli, who says leaders playing the Socrates Game are likely to be a disaster, and that good leaders had better be prepared to do whatever it takes to assure the safety and success of the people they lead. It usually doesn't take very long for the students to switch games. Yes, yes, they say, we admire Socrates, but ultimately we think this Machiavelli guy is a bit more realistic about the way the world works.

This is always an interesting moment in class. It's also where I introduce them to Perry's model of cognitive development, which holds that students move through various truth generating stages. They begin in the authority stage and believe that establishing the right answer is simply a matter of consulting the most authoritative source. They are not in college long, however, before they run into debates in which there are many fully-coherent and well-reasoned views, yet none is definitively authoritative. "No problem," they respond. "Since there is no right answer, I'll just choose the one I like the best." Or, worse, they learn to jump around from thinking game to thinking game. They take a whatever works right now approach to generating answers. I get a lot of this in class when Socrates meets Machiavelli. Students will want to play both games. "The Socrates Game is fine for family and friends," they argue, "but you have to play the Machiavelli Game elsewhere in life."

It could be, I always tell them, that Socrates and Machiavelli are both right. Each starts with a different assumption about the world and builds a coherent and consistent theory of ethical reasoning from that assumption. Socrates starts with the assumption that the moral tone of our society would improve if more people acted with integrity. Machiavelli begins with the assumption that people (and especially other leaders) aren’t likely to play by the rules, so you had better not either if you wish to be an effective leader.

Indeed, each philosopher urges us to act with integrity. Socrates argues we should show integrity by acting on our morally discerned principals and sharing our thinking with others. Machiavelli, on the other hand, is not focused on the process. He’s looking at the outcome. So long as the leader does what it takes to assure the health, safety and prosperity of the enterprise, then he or she is being moral. One thinker focuses on means, the other ends.

It could be, too, that what matters is not who’s right, but that well-educated people make a moral commitment to the ethical reasoning game they will live by, and that means taking ownership of that system's advantages and disadvantages. You must remain consistent to your principles in the Socrates Game, which means you will almost always pay a price for them, so you had better be ready to pay it and not run away when the day comes. The Machiavelli Game also comes with some disadvantages. I mean, think about it. Do you really want to live on Survivor Island, a place where you can trust no one and every statement disguises some ulterior motive? Living in a world without trust or faith in promises is not for everybody.

I’m reminded of a story about Talleyrand. He was a minister under the French king but switched sides when Napoleon came to power. He switched sides again when Napoleon was ousted, and then switched back to Napoleon when he briefly returned to power. Talleyrand was a man who would have done very well on Survivor Island. Anyway, the story is that one day he was informed of the death of the Italian ambassador. He is said to have fallen into a deep silence as he mulled this news over. Then, squinting into the distance, he muttered, “I wonder what his motive could have been for dying now?”

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