Masters in Major Programme Management
Socrates asks Euthyphro “Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (10a)
Professor Paolo Quattrone, asked us exactly the same thing, which I’d like to call Paolo’s dilemma—
Do we believe in numbers because they are accurate or are they accurate because we believe in them?
Until last week, like Philipp Johann Gustav von Jolly, who advised his student that physics was pretty much wrapped up except for a few loose ends – I too believed that accounting had nothing new and wondrous to offer.
Philipp Johann Gustav’s student, to whom that remark was made, was Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck and my professor was Paolo Quattrone and in different ways, both small and large, we both, Gustav and I, paid the price for our arrogance.
Thirty minutes into the first session, I signed up as accounting’s newest disciple.
Professor Quattrone explained that to treat numbers with any more reverence than they deserve is an exercise in futility and to avoid fooling oneself even someone as revered as Caesar’s wife must be suspected (my symbolic interpretation).
During the module, several sessions with industry practitioners and visiting professors from leading business schools, added perspective— like beautifully placed punctuation marks that further accentuated already good prose.
We were urged to consider the lacuna between what we know, given our epistemic limitations and our deontic belief as to what a statement of accounts ought to be be — morally correct. The professor outlined how a book of accounts was firstly used as an account of morality — which in itself is subjective and ill defined. The statement of accounts still remains exactly that— incomplete subjective representations which take a preferred direction— the direction that the writer of the accounts wants us to take.
However, over the years, our understanding of their utility has morphed and today, we incorrectly believe that a statement of accounts is isotropic like the universe with no preferred direction, is written up by a demiourgos who doesn’t suffer from the IKEA effect, and fully represents the truth.
This, the learned professor implored, can only happen at the end of time itself — when truth fully manifests itself and representations are no longer incomplete.
Until then we must continue to enquire, he said, as only truth can stop enquiry and we must go far as we can fruitfully go — a brilliant, pragmatist approach.
To help us enquire and in the process become a maestro razionale (a good accountant), we were taught to build Maieutic machines— that enabled the process of enquiry. These machines, we were told, featured multiple realizability, i.e they could be built in many ways — out of anything, even out of ourselves.
A strategically placed session on the last day, helped us understand that one must not confuse a Maieutic machine to be some sort of an input/output vending machine, like a mousetrap that takes mousy input to produce a dead (or at least a trapped) mouse.
A Maieutic machine, is instead like a novel whose story is rewritten every day by the people who use it.
This newer story, with deeper meaning, is generated simply by operating the machine.
This is mind-blowing stuff!
However, it was not just the limits of knowledge that were pushed, I attained far higher BAC (blood alcohol content) levels than ever before. My buddies and I, having labelled ourselves the “Oxaholics Anonymous”, endured one very brief, passing moment of sobriety when the bar staff recognised us from our visit three months ago and asked us to keep it down this time.
Needless to say, that comment went unheeded— Just when the laughter was getting raucous, thoughts were becoming muddled, and the blasphemous concoction called Tequila was rearing its ugly but alluring head, my wife called to remind me that she’d been getting a notification every time I used my card to buy a round of drinks and her phone was beginning to sound like a Rachmaninoff composition in full prestissimo tempo.
That’s one more point down, from my side, for modern day, real-time, accounting systems.
She just doesn’t get it that the credit card statement is not an account of my morality.
We left the module, not just hungover but with the understanding that we must treat accounting systems like how the Amazonian tribe, Achuar, live in harmony with their eco-system and the game they hunt— with respect, by following the codified rules of hunting, by having an understanding relationship and most importantly consumed in moderation.
 The tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves, such as furniture from IKEA or a set of accounts, regardless of the quality of the end result.
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