Monday, February 02, 2009

Leadership & the Complexity of Planning

All virtues are, necessarily, situational. This does not mean that morality is not objective, far from it. Rather, it is only to say that the moral law most always been embodied and so, necessarily, to some degree situational.

Aristotle's discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics of temperance and courage as the midpoint between extremes illustrates the importance of context for any consideration of virtue:"First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it."

But while the principle of balance is for Aristotle is absolute on the theoretical level, in practice it must always take context in to consideration. And so "the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean." (Bk II.2)

If, as I have argued earlier, the character of the leader is primary and concrete skills secondary, to understand the virtues needed for leadership we have to first understand the context within which the leader is called to serve. In his defense of the free market, the Nobel Prize laureate Friedrich Hayek offers us the insight we need.

Hayek argues that the practical problem with a planned economy is a poverty of information. Not matter how well researched, social interactions are simply too complex, the variables too, well varied, to lend themselves to the kind of analysis and understanding that makes accurate prediction of causal relationships possible. Or, as he argues in "The Use of Knowledge in Society," (with my emphasis)

the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate "given" resources—if "given" is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these "data." It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.

Increasingly, I find theoretical work in economics increasingly useful for my own systematic reflections on the pastoral life of the Church since (in both cases) the concern is the practical of how the wealth of the community ought best be used.

And if, as Hayek argues, "This character of the fundamental problem" in economics has "been obscured rather than illuminated by many of the recent refinements of economic theory, particularly by many of the uses made of mathematics," I think the pastoral life of the Church has been harmed by a similar, and equally, unwise use of theology. Just as "many of the current disputes with regard to both economic theory and economic policy have their common origin in a misconception about the nature of the economic problem of society" because economists have narrowed their vision to the mathematical, so too the parish suffers a like harm because often we try and impose on the community our own idiosyncratic, abstract, albeit theologically articulated and justified, vision of human life and society.

For Hayek this epistemological question is central to any consideration of economic planning. I would assert that his insight is more broadly applicable to the actual challenge faced by the leadership of any community. This is especially so with, in the parish where we have not only all the varied factors inherent in any social group, but also the added complexity of attending to the mystery of divine grace in the life of both individual parishioners and the parish as a whole. All of this is captured in "ordinary language . . . by the word 'planning.'" Hayek's view of planning resonates with the challenge of pastoral leadership.

In my next post, I want to look with you a bit more at the complexity of parish leadership in light of Hayek's argument of the complexity of economic planning. As I hope to show, while all the Christian virtues are important to pastoral leadership, it is the virtue of respect that is foundational.

Until then, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, they are actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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