Philip Whiteley's Blog

March 15, 2012

A one-off article on hubris

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 10:16 am

When I was a boy I was transfixed by a tale of Chay Blyth and John Ridgway, who rowed across the Atlantic in 1966. As well as containing fascinating detail on meteorology and natural history, it provides a timeless moral fable.

There are a few details that are particularly telling. First of all, they didn’t train with professional Olympic coaches (assuming there were any in the 1960s), but with seasoned fishermen in Cape Cod, northern USA. These wise mentors advised the pair to adjust their rowing style to cope with longer stints. They also pinned a mariner’s prayer to the side of the boat: ‘Oh God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.’ After their successful trip and an official ceremony in London, one newspaper ran with the headline: ‘The boys who beat the Atlantic’, in response to which John Ridgway commented: ‘We didn’t beat it – it let us go.’

The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic is a good time to revisit this story. The White Star Line famously adopted the opposite approach to Blyth and Ridgway, and declared that their creation was mightier than the ocean. The tag ‘unsinkable’ was such an impertinent hostage to fortune that, with hindsight, we can see she was doomed. Only a unique set of circumstances could cause her to sink before help could arrive: if the key to the cupboard in which the binoculars were kept were mislaid; if it were a very calm night in which it would be difficult to see waves breaking on an iceberg; if, instead of making a direct hit, crumpling the bow, the ship made a last-minute attempt to avert collision, ripping a long gash exposing every compartment; if the wireless crew had had an argument with their counterparts on the nearest ship such that they cut off communication; if the second nearest ship were just too far to be able to reach RMS Titanic before she sank.

Learning the lesson of hubris was the principal reason two humble rowers in a wooden tub completed the trip where the brand-new super-liner had not.

This is why the Titanic still exerts such fascination: it’s not the posh frocks or the class system, it’s the ancient tale of hubris. It is Pandora’s Box; the Garden of Eden, Icarus. We are dazzled enough by an ancient fable that implants this wise and cautionary tale; much more so by a relatively recent true event that could not more perfectly fit the script.

Pretend to be God and He will put you in your place, the lesson seems to be. Of course, any atheist with at least some education will point out that such learning does not depend upon faith in a supreme Creator. Rather, it simply amalgamates collective common sense not to over-estimate one’s powers. It can be categorized within Aristotle’s concept of ‘Phronesis’, or practical wisdom, which can encourage checks and balances within management teams – including in maritime engineering – to raise awkward questions, test ideas to destruction, engage in scenario and disaster planning, and generally guard against hubris.

This is true; unfortunately many secular atheist scientists and economists have come to dispense with philosophy, too. Aristotle as well as St Thomas Aquinas is just too abstract to have to bother with. There is a reluctance to accept that humans depend upon belief, and there is a consequent unawareness of one’s own beliefs. This is the single biggest problem I come across in research about management and work and in politics: many people, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, deny that they have beliefs, even as they make thunderous assertions about economies, organizations, regions, markets, governments and nations that they could not even begin to support with evidence.

When this happens, the old habit of pretending to be the almighty, rather than disbelieve in him, creeps back in. Look at the religious imagery and aspirations to deity that infect the secular religions: ‘the God particle’, in physics; the ‘invisible hand’ in economics, the ‘Masters of the Universe’ doing ‘God’s work’, who ran the investment banking industry at high velocity before colliding with a colossal iceberg that their scientific theories assured us could not exist.

The end of Greed is good? New Radical Shift guest blog here.

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