Archives for posts with tag: ethics

The role of leadership is often left unquestioned as a noble pursuit. Leaders are heroes, heroines, paragons of virtue whom we admire from afar. Even the vicious and corrupt, those leaders who govern by fear and intimidation, they too achieve a pernicious admiration, infamy in the maintenance of their tyrannical claim. They stand above us, statuesque, leaving no choice but to look up to them.

A leader is someone whom others follow, but if everyone’s goal is the same, why not walk in tandem, side by side? Why create an exploitable hierarchy at all? Leadership bestows upon us certain privileges, and in creating that role, we dilute our common goals with aims of obtaining those privileges, abandoning our original pursuit for the sake of immodest greed. If our goals diverge, obtaining followers would require coercion, and leadership would be simple charlatanism; deception, bribery, and extortion becoming our highest virtues. If we are on common ground, leaders are an unnecessary risk. If we differ, they are charming despots, apathetic in their oppression of our autonomy.

The first justification is wisdom. Leaders are knowledgeable, and so are justified in their position. This role is the teacher or the guide who provides us with knowledge that would be difficult to obtain on our own. Yet the goal of the teacher is not to hoard their position of prestige over the student, but to give of themselves until the student becomes their equal. The goal of the guide is that one day the trail may be shared with a peer. The intrinsic hierarchy of intellectual authority is tempered by its altruistic directive toward equality.

The second justification is that of stratagem. Leaders are keepers of the big picture, overseers of the forest while others focus on the trees. However, this is not a position of power; it is a different vantage point. If everyone’s goals are ultimately the same, the overseer serves more as a conductor of an orchestra, guiding the beauty of the process. Others follow because they see their goals fulfilled, not because of any power being exerted over them. If the goals diverge, or the leader ignores the minutia of the trees at the expense of their followers, those followers are well within their rights to adopt or elect new, more conducive, leadership.


In a game that’s mostly pawns, you think they’d have some issue with their expendability. Maybe instead of marching forward against others just like themselves, they ought to turn around and demand change from those behind them sending them to their deaths.

The third justification is the figurehead. This is the leader people rally behind. The leader as symbol. One action or event may have thrust them, even unexpectedly, into the front of the crowd. This is not a position one can seek, since it is most often an accident. They are those who inspire us, never asking for followers because their goal is not actually to lead.

The fourth justification is organization. This is the person who takes the first step. The leader who sees where progress needs to be made, and seeks other like-minded people to share in this goal. This is a leader with initiative. They are not one step in front of everyone else, as the organizer might see that a figurehead ought to be the most visible in achieving their shared goal. The organizer simply sets up the march.

The final justification is change. This leader is someone who makes a difference. The world follows the new path that this leader has laid down. This leader is anybody. To quote the historian and social activist Howard Zinn, “Missing from such histories [of social activism] are the countless small actions of unknown people that led up to those great moments. When we understand this, we can see that the tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change.”

A leader stands above others not because they exist in some power hierarchy over the rest of us, but because they embody one or more of these characteristics. Power within leadership is inherently coercive and corrupting. A leader is a friend who inspires us to be better; a parent who teaches us how to tie our shoe; someone who cleans up the mess, not because they made it, but because it needs to be cleaned. Or a leader can be you, making a tiny difference in the lives around you.

If you’ve ever taken a philosophy course, or at least had the misfortune to talk to someone who has, it’s likely you’ve heard of the trolley problem. It poses us this moral dilemma:

A trolley carrying five people is barreling towards a barrier erected by the dastardly Snidely Whiplash. You, our intrepid hero, can save these five people from certain doom by pushing a button that reroutes the train onto a different track, but alas! Snidely Whiplash has tied someone else to that track, and in rerouting the train, you will be killing that one person. What do you doooooooo?


That mustache is so prominent, it really distracts from the fact that Snidely Whiplash wears a dress.

Most people’s first thoughts are going to be utilitarian. Morality can be reduced to a simple mathematical formula: five people is more people than one; you should press the button. Here’s the problem: first impressions are wrong; utilitarianism is wrong; you are wrong. Consider this second example:

You are a brilliant surgeon. Snidely Whiplash has been at it again, and has, through some dastardly plot, caused organ failure in five separate individuals who are now in your operating room. Their situation is dire: their deaths are imminent. Just at this moment, a box arrives with a note that says, “Each patient has a separate failing organ, and your assistant is compatible with every single one of them.” In the box is a gun. As a brilliant surgeon, you can save those five people by killing your assistant and using his organs to save their lives, or you can do nothing and allow them to die. What do you doooooooo?


Come now, Utilitarians! T’is simple maths, m’yessss?

Despite the framing, both problems are identical in content. In both cases, you can either passively allow five people to die, or actively kill one person in order to save them. I expect that most people’s first impression of the second example is to not murder their assistant, even if they would push the button in the first one, but what causes that discrepancy?

Lt. David Grossman analyzes the nature of killing in his book On Killing, and part of what allows regular human beings to kill, who otherwise wouldn’t, is a distance from the target. It’s easier to kill someone at range than it is up close. It’s easier to kill someone through a scope than it is through your bare eyes. It’s easier to kill someone with the press of a button than it is with a gun. The consequences of our actions become diluted the further we get from our deeds. If we consider life in the abstract, life becomes worth measurably less.

Part of the reason that a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima was that nobody wanted to send in ground troops. It’s easier to kill from far away, and the horrors of a nuclear blast became justified. We care more about being ghosted by somebody off Tinder than we do about the collective deaths of the entire Syrian civil war because what happens to us up close will always matter more, no matter how ridiculous the comparison might be. We don’t want to kill our assistant because we assume that we have a relationship with that person, but we’re fine with killing a stranger tied to some train tracks, never stopping to wonder if that person might be someone else’s medical assistant.

Ethics is obviously an ongoing conversation, but the importance of the trolley and surgeon questions are what we as human beings are capable of. Are we killers? I mean killers in the sense of killing people, regardless of how far away (literally and figuratively) from the victim we are, or how little we value their lives. We are in control of our actions; that’s what we must decide.

When considering the trolley problem, think to yourself. What would Batman do? He would obviously swoop over to the train and work some kind of bat-strategy to save everyone, but he would never push that button. Know why? Because Batman is a God damn hero.

God forbids certain actions with a bunch of Thou Shalts telling us not to do this, not to commit that, but it’s not like He’s actually stopping us. God is just saying that if we sin, then we’ll spend eternity in hellfire. Which, fine. Maybe people want to avoid that. On the other hand, where I can will myself to sin, I can’t will myself taller. I will never be able to telekinetically move objects with my mind. I can’t sprout wings and soar into the dawning sky. We have this supposed “free” will, but we don’t have a universal capacity to fulfill any fantastical idea we desire?

What this tells me is that God has a greater interest in human beings abiding by the laws of nature than He does His own moral decrees. He puts in all this effort to emphasize the importance of the ethical rules in His divine revelations, yet we as His subjugated creatures don’t even possess the capability of breaking physical laws. We were designed in such a way that we must conform to certain inviolable laws, but none of them are moral. It must be, then, that God cares less about moral rules than he does about physical ones, otherwise He would have created us differently. Morality does not have primacy, physics does, and thus the Bible becomes secondary to science even within the framework of religion.