Tuesday, February 27, 2007

If You Are Great, You Can't Be Good

I lectured yesterday on Hegel, and particular his notion that various 'world-historical individuals' are crucial in the realization of the perfect state (which means a state that affords positive liberty to all its citizens through its laws and institutions). Hegel is a hard core communitarian, and a messianic thinker, who believes that history is the progression of humanity.

In any case, what I think is really interesting about Hegel's 'world-historical individuals' is that they are not "good" people. The language he uses to describe these individuals sounds more fitting to describe socio-paths. They are figures who were passionately focused on acheiving one self-interested aim. His examples include Alexander, Caesar and Napolean. What makes them 'world-historical' is that their passionate pursuit of selfish aims had unintended consequences that actually dovetailed with the universal aims of Spirit (history), which is to realize the perfect state.

So, I used this discussion as a jumping off point for class discussion. What would you rather be: Great or Good? The latter I described as 'morally' good. Great individuals are not always moral, far from it. Furthermore, great individuals tend to neglect all their moral obligations to others and "use" others to succeed. Even great social reformers fall short of moral excellence. Hegel pays no mind to these details. It doesn't matter. These individuals have served a purpose in history and they are often discarded harshly: murdered or exiled.

The more I muse on Hegel's notion of greatness, the more I find it wise. For example, think about when you are hiring smeone for a job. Do you want to hire the most ambitious person for the job? Well, maybe. But ambition cuts both ways. Ambitiousness is driven by profound self-interest. Sometimes someone's self-interest will benefit an organization, but it can just as easily ruin an organization or leave it in the lurch. An ambitious person might get recruited somewhere else, or an ambitious person might overestimate his or her ability to deliver excellence.

Ambitious folks are wild cards. In academia, increasingly, we want to hire the "superstar" to raise the profile of the organization. But, how much do these superstars really add, in the long run, to the excellence of a college or university? What do you think?