March 2012

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The Ajax Dilemma

Resolved Through Concordian Economics

By Carmine Gorga

There is an important book just out. It is titled “The Ajax Dilemma”. Its author, Paul Woodruff, is a professor of philosophy and dean at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Woodruff has performed an invaluable and timely service in offering an in-depth examination of this two-thousand years old dilemma.

For Professor Woodruff, the Ajax Dilemma is a means to give us his evaluation of two thousand years of thought on the meaning of justice, from Plato to Aristotle, through J. S. Mill and Rawls to his contemporary brethren. I am not a lawyer, but I detect little legal jargon. And the presentation is much richer than pure legal scholarship; legalisms are bathed throughout in a complex psychological and sociological web of human relations. No serious reader should deprive himself of the joy of following the various arguments from start to finish.

The book consists of a fascinating evaluation of alternative points of view concerning the details of the Ajax dilemma case, whose barebones are these. In the middle of the Trojan War, Achilles, the most valuable Greek soldier, is felled; upon Agamemnon, the Greek King, falls the task of deciding whom to reward with the grant of Achilles’ armor.

Ajax or Odysseus? Ajax is an extraordinary doer; Odysseus is an extraordinary thinker. Grant the armor to Odysseus and you may dishonor the Army and lose the war; grant the armor to Ajax, Odysseus may defect and you lose the opportunity to win the war.

Agamemnon does not dare to announce openly his decision to give the armor to Odysseus. He hides behind the fig leaf of a committee to make the formal decision. He asks Nestor to devise procedures to do his bidding.

Ajax cannot accept any decision against him. In a delirium of pain, he decides to kill the king and believes to have done so, even though in reality he went temporarily out of his mind and killed, instead, a flock of sheep that had gotten in his way.

Coming back to his senses, he finds himself covered with blood. He cannot tolerate even having considered the possibility of killing the king. Deeply ashamed, he finds only one way to redeem himself.

He commits suicide.

A tragedy

Professor Woodruff does not find any better solution than to call the dilemma a tragedy.

Everyone lost.

Indeed, the lack of a solution to this dilemma continues to be a tragedy. Indeed, in these days of financial crisis that bursts its flames all around the world, it can clearly be seen that the winner-take-all solution leads only to tragedy: a vast tragedy that is revealed as soon as the terms of the discussion are enlarged to include the overreaching social mantels that today ultimately cloak the decision: individualism and capitalism.

An objective evaluation of the effects of Ajax dilemma

The winner-take-all solution was and is the direct result of the apotheosis of The Individual, the Me Generation, the Number One deception. All pushing morality away. All reducing morality to a private affair.

The Ajax Dilemma is no longer, if it has ever been, a matter of private morality affecting the life of a few people: Ajax’s son who is now fatherless, his wife who is now a widow, soldiers in his cohort who used to run for protection behind his huge shield along with, one must assume, the small legion of his friends and admirers.

Indeed, one also needs to add the indistinct and undefinable mixture of effects of the dilemma such as number of Greek soldiers who were killed because they were no longer protected by Ajax’s shield as well as the number of Trojan soldiers who were not killed because of the absence of Ajax from the battlefield.

The most indistinct and undefinable mixture of the effects of Ajax Dilemma is this: Did the death of Ajax speed up the resolution of the Trojan War? Did the presence of Ajax make the strategic thinkers in the Greek quarters rather lackadaisical? Did the absence of Ajax squeeze the creative juices in them somewhat harder?

The sheer weight of grievances caused by the dilemma makes it clear that there is no such thing as private morality. The effects of morality always affect at least two people. Hence, morality is never private; morality is always public morality.

No. Today the effects of Ajax Dilemma are not restricted to the field of private morality. .

If there ever was a doubt about the validity of these considerations, nowadays such doubts can be dispelled once and for all. When the winner of today’s economic “games” takes home billions—yes, no longer millions, but billions—of dollars, while millions of people go to bed hungry and homeless, the winner-take-all culture is no longer confined to private morality.

The winner-take-all culture fostered by unbridled Individualism and exploitative Capitalism is a public disgrace,

A solution must be found

Lack of solution to this dilemma constantly leads to unjust and unsustainable conditions.

After two thousand years of contemplating the consequences of our inability to resolve the dilemma, it is high time that a solution be found.

The new framework of analysis of Concordian economics offers the broad outline of a just and sustainable solution to the Ajax Dilemma.

A just and sustainable solution

At the core of Concordian economics there is the theory of economic justice. This theory is simply put. Rewards have to be given to all those who participate in the process of creation of whatever results one is engaged in creating; rewards are distributed in accordance with the degree of participation in the creation of the results; the apportioned shares have a value, not equal, but equivalent to each other in terms of justice: In other words, shares are recognized by the recipients as well as by the rest of community as being just.

By definition, just shares incorporate total and utter justice to all parties concerned. When obtained, a most difficult thing to achieve, justice is justice. Justice is the same for everyone; justice is always apportioned equally among all concerned. There is no such thing as more or less justice; were shares attempting to contain more or less justice, they would not be just. They would be unjust.

Justice, as Professor Woodruff wisely and deeply shows, is not the result of procedures and measures established once and for all. Procedures and measures have themselves to be just. Hence the search for justice is a creative, ever unfinished, process; it is the task of wise and responsible leaders. History helps.

Agamemnon, in other words, could have resolved the dilemma by making the following decisions: a) both Ajax and Odysseus need to be rewarded; b) they need to be rewarded in accordance with their contribution to the winning of the war; c) their reward must be equivalent to each other.

Were I Agamemnon, I would decide in this fashion: I would give Achilles’ armor to both Ajax and Odysseus; they would need to hold the amour for a determinate amount of time.

Thus would I decapitate the winner-take-all hydra.

Then I would ask for communal wisdom to help me decide whether the time ought to be 50/50; 60/40; or 40/60.

In other words I could see wisdom in giving the armor to hold for six, eight, or four months (per year?).

The first choice would imply that both Ajax and Odysseus are of equal value to the success of the war.

The second choice, looking at the issues retrospectively, calls for an attribution to Ajax of a greater share.

The third choice, looking at the issues prospectively, calls for an attribution to Odysseus of a greater share.


With the fungibility of money rather than an indivisible armor mostly at stake today, even the distribution of a penny would indicate the wisdom of being just: Multiply those pennies for each job and each purchase, owed through Consumer Stock Ownership Plans as practiced by the Harvard Coop for instance, and everyone is going to make a living.

Deep thanks to Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise for invaluable editorial assistance.

 Carmine Gorga, PhD, is president of The Somist Institute and author of numerous publications in economic theory and policy. Mr. Gorga can be reached at He blogs at a-new-economic-atlas/.