Are Jews Still Liberals?
For the attention of the linguistic philosophers, a problem having to do with the ethics of words: There is an organization—a department of the civil service, the army, a school, a corporation—in which supervisors periodically submit reports on the people under them. Suppose that in large part this consists of checking one of three ratings on a form: outstanding, satisfactory, unsatisfactory. That is the de jure situation. But suppose also that de facto, by long custom, anyone whose work is not clearly unsatisfactory is marked outstanding, with “satisfactory” commonly understood to mean “unsatisfactory” (as “literally” has come to mean “figuratively”: I was literally petrified with fear). Careers depend on the reports.
If a supervisor, disliking a subordinate, grades as satisfactory work that he would otherwise call outstanding, he cannot justify himself by an appeal to the dictionary’s definitions. It is unethical to apply dictionary definitions exceptionally and maliciously. But what if the supervisor is not malicious or partial? What if he believes that the prevailing custom prevents truly superior work from being recognized and rewarded, and that the de jure system should be restored? In his report he is telling the truth and striking a blow for efficiency. At the same time, his subordinates are going to be penalized merely because they have had the bad fortune to come under his authority, not someone else’s. Is he right or wrong?
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