Ajax Dilemma Looks at Fundamental Fairness

Mr. Woodruff, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas, Austin, uses the myth of the Greek warriors Ajax and Odysseus to show how issues of justice can set off societal conflict. The Ajax quandary arises after Achilles is slain in battle, and his armor is to be given to the army’s most valuable soldier. Ajax and Odysseus compete for it.

Ajax, a courageous, loyal and hard-working warrior, demands the armor on the grounds that he has saved the lives of many comrades on the battlefield. Odysseus is innovative and articulate but not completely trustworthy; his values seem to fluctuate to suit his interests. He claims the prize as a strategist who can outthink the enemy.

The men square off in a speaking contest in front of King Agamemnon and a panel of army jurors. It is, Mr. Woodruff writes, a conflict we all recognize — that of “loyalty and brawn versus brains and trickery.” Ajax loses and his anger explodes, damaging his position in the army and destroying his life, family and reputation.

The author argues that this myth revolves around the issue of rewards, which “mark the difference between winners and losers.” He adds: “Rewards are public recognition for contributions made. They express the values of a community.” But which, he asks, do we value more: “Cleverness or hard work? Strength or intelligence? Loyalty or inventiveness?”

vía ‘Ajax Dilemma’ Looks at Fundamental Fairness – NYTimes.com.