Monthly Archives: January 2011

Organic Farmers “Cheating”

Any time standards are established for the production of some product, and if money can be made by skimping on those standards…well, skimping is liable to start happening. Nowhere is that worry more obvious today than in the realm of organic agriculture.

See this little note from The Morning Sentinal: ‘Cheating’ organic farmers mostly from overseas

The brunt of the problem is with overseas farmers who sell much of the certified-organic food in the domestic, American and Canadian retail markets. Who’s watching them? Well I’ll tell you. for the most part, they’re watching themselves. And they undercut American and Canadian organic farmers like Thoet four times out of five.

Clearly, if people in China, Mexico and Indonesia are cheating, we need to start field testing on a surprise basis to weed them out. I’m not sure why exactly that message bothers some organic farmers, like Thoet, but the good news is that the overwhelming majority of organic farmers in North America agree completely….

Notice here the multi-layered competition:

  • American organic farmers are competing with each other;
  • American organic farmers are competing with with American non-organic farmers;
  • American organic farmers are competing with foreign organic farmers (or maybe “organic” farmers);

It’s also worth noting that, perhaps less obviously, American organic farmers are competing with American farmers who adhere to a “nearly organic” method of farming, but who do not or cannot meet the standard necessary to gain the regulated designation “Organic.”

In each case there’s a competitive environment, subject to a more-or-less formal set of rules; and in each case, the opportunity exists to break rules, or to game them in various ways. Notice also that, when one sees oneself as playing several separate games at once, one has in principle the opportunity to justify cheating at one game by appealing to the rules of the other games. (For instance, “Yes I know I was bending the rules for USDA Organic, but it’s more important that we beat out imports from Indonesia!”) Does this happen in practice?

(See also: The Challenges of Organic Certification, over at my Food Ethics blog.)

Skins and the Edge of Indecency

Last week there was some controversy over MTV’s “edgy” teen drama, “Skins.” I’m quoted giving a business-ethics perspective on the show in this story, by the NYT’s David Carr: “A Naked Calculation Gone Bad.”

What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room.

And you’d be right.

Last week, my colleague Brian Stelter reported that on Tuesday, the day after the pilot episode of “Skins” was shown on MTV, executives at the cable channel were frantically meeting to discuss whether the salacious teenage drama starring actors as young as 15 might violate federal child pornography statutes.

Over at my Business Ethics Blog, I focused on the way the Skins controversy serves as an example of how a kind of corporate group-think can end up producing a product that might, on second thought, not be such a good idea.

But it’s also worth noting (for purposes of this blog) that TV is fiercely competitive. Viewers generally benefit from that competition, as in any industry, but there are limits on competitive behaviour. What are the relevant limits, here? TV is relatively loosely regulated. The Federal Communications Commission does regulate TV (see their rules here) but their main focus is on avoiding ill-defined “indecency.” But their process has to begin with objections from someone in the community. And what we take to be “indecent” is surely evolving, a fact that broadcasters are both subject to and contributing to. Something more like “bright line” might be found in child pornography laws, the spectre of which has been raised in the controversy over Skins. But even there, there’s plenty of room for interpretation, and plenty of room for broadcasters, in a competitive game, to play along the edges of the rule.

Not sure this is what Montaigne had in mind

By coincidence (given the quote from the 16th-century French philosopher in the previous post), via the eponymous magazine of the city so nice they named it twice:

Before there was there was Ethics for Adversaries, the book

This blog shares its name with what we believe was the first academic book to deal with the dilemmas of ethics across a broad range of what we are calling “deliberately adversarial institutions.” Arthur Isak Applbaum’s book came out in 1999, and continues to be widely read and cited in the scholarly community. But it cannot be said to have spawned a new subfield. Yet.

There have been philosophical worries about the perverse consequences of competition in public and private life ever since Socrates denounced political corruption, and Plato scorned the Sophists (the lawyers of his day) for discarding the truth when it was not in their clients’ interest. But few before or after Applbaum have tried to develop a framework for addressing these dilemmas across the full range of competitive institutions, and to link this up with more “foundational” ethical and political theories.

(Applbaum is not founding member of this blog team; though he would certainly be welcome if he wanted to join us.)

From time to time, we will post salient quotes from scholarly works, including Applbaum’s. Let us start where Applbaum himself did (in the preface to Part I of his Ethics for Adversaries: The Morality of Roles in Public and Professional Life), with a quotation from the 16th-century French thinker, Michel de Montaigne:

“Likewise in every government there are necessary offices which are not only abject but also vicious. Vices find their place in it and are employed for sewing our society together, as are poisons for the preservation of our health. If they become excusable, inasmuch as we need them and the common necessity effaces their true quality, we still must let this part be played by the more vigorous and less fearful citizens, who sacrifice their honor and their conscience, as those ancients sacrificed their life, for the good of their country. We who are weaker, let us take roles that are both easier and less hazardous. The public welfare requires that a man betray and lie and massacre; let us resign this commission to more obedient and suppler people.”

Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Useful and the Honorable.”

Montaigne is addressing the morality of roles. There are defined roles in all institutions (i.e. adversarial and non-adversarial), and some of these will require role-holders to do things they could not do outside of those roles. In this blog we will focus especially on the roles within deliberately adversarial institutions, which are even more ethically treacherous. Montaigne’s reluctant public servant administers poison-as-medicine for he knows it is ultimately for the public good. But in contemporary adversarial institutions like financial markets and electoral politics, that links between legal and winning tactics, on the one hand, and the invisible-hand benefits for the public good, on the other, may be so tenuous or dubious they look like delusional rationalizations. If only we could be sure that it was not the “weaker” among us who gravitate toward these roles….

Why, oh why, would teachers help their students to cheat?

Here’s a depressing story; albeit a fascinating one for those of us interested in adversarial ethics. In Atlanta nearly 100 teachers are suspected of cheating — including erasing and correcting their students’ answers on standardized tests — and in neighboring DeKalb county, highly suspicious tests have been found in 26 schools.

Why are so many teachers in and around Atlanta helping their students to cheat on standardized tests?

The answer is so obvious that this rather long newspaper report doesn’t even bother to connect all the dots. Cutting to the chase: the teachers corrected many of their students’ tests scores because the teachers and schools themselves are now locked in a competition — for funding, and even for their jobs — that is won or lost on the basis of their students’ scores.

If we wanted to look for an example of a deliberately non-adversarial institution, a local school board would traditionally be as good a candidate as any. For as long as anyone can remember, the local authorities were responsible for delivering education to the youths of their municipality or county. They would typically have to follow a state-wide curriculum, but they’d deliver the service in a bureaucratic and mostly non-adversarial way: hire teachers and principals, etc, and try to teach the kids. Teachers’ and schools’ performances would be evaluated in various ways (or not); but they were not literally in competition with each other. The worst teachers were not automatically voted off the island.

But now they are — thanks to the federal No-Child-Left-Behind Act of 2001 (as well as other state and local policies) that punishes teachers and schools whose students do worse on standard tests. (The Act’s name does not officially contain hyphens. But come on: it’s a compound adjective, people!) This was supposed to give teachers and schools an incentive to teach better; but it also incentivizes “correcting” the test papers of weaker students. There’s a decent summary of the pros and cons of the Act here.

Of course, there has always been “cheating” by teachers. E.g., the incompetent and lazy ones have, for generations, cheated kids out of a decent education and a hopeful future. Is the kind of cheating or “gaming” that arises as the institution is made more adversarial worse than the cheating that happened in its non-adversarial era? Are the other “unintended” consequences of teacher and school competition (such as an unwillingness to “waste time” teaching untested things like art and music) worth the intended gains in more “efficient” teaching and learning?

We can’t even begin to answer these questions on the basis of this depressing report on teacher cheating. But it is worth recognizing that the education system is a whole new game now.

How China Won…

We’ve featured a few posts over the last week on what seems to be a spike in the use of competitive rhetoric to characterize the new global economy. Even the President can’t resist motivating the economic and education policies he favors by suggesting that the road to success — victory — runs through a competitive showdown with our Chinese and Indian rivals. (See here, and here, for example.)

Well, in this context, I can hardly resist linking a recent BBC article that interviewed a handful of Duke students, including one of the best ones I ever taught here.

We put together a team of Duke’s best and brightest – including three Chinese-born students – to discuss America’s place in the globalised world. We showed them a slick and controversial advert aired during the recent congressional election campaign by a group called Citizens Against Government Waste. Set 20 years in the future, a Chinese professor is lecturing students about the fall of the American Empire. Reckless spending led to crushing debt, he explains, before adding: “Of course we owned most of their debt so now they work for us.” The message: America, be scared of China.

The students’ responses are all interesting, and the first couple in particular cast skeptical light on the “competition” metaphor or framework everyone, from the President on down, seems to be taking for granted.

Jack Zhang, who was born in China but grew up in Pennsylvania, was dismayed by the confrontational take.

“It portrays it as a zero-sum game and that somehow Communist China is just the mortal enemy of the US and that the way forward is through competition of some sort. I think that’s the wrong approach.”

Sharon Mei, who runs an “Understanding China” house course with Jack, said the advert played on fear.

“What I was most hurt by was when they had the audience of young people and everyone was yelling in a hostile and malicious manner – these are the people on the other side of the world who will take us over if we don’t do something about it.”


State of the Union, part 3: the reactions

Over the past two decades, academic political philosophers spent a lot of time thinking and talking about “deliberative (read: cooperative) democracy.” But can there be any doubt that our actual democracy is overwhelmingly adversarial or competitive and not cooperative? Consider this typical analysis of last night’s SOTU by The New Republic‘s Ed Kilgore, under the headline: “Snore or Snare: the State of the Union set a cunning trap for Obama’s enemies.” This piece appears in a section of the on-line magazine called “Politics. The Permanent Campaign.”

The piece operates under the assumption that important political moments must always be partisan. So even when the message itself is explicitly cooperative, as Kilgore thinks it was, it must ultimately be a tactic in the contest. Here are some representative snatches from the piece.

Much of it could easily have been harvested from any number of interchangeable speeches given during the last 20 years—not just by presidents by members of Congress, governors, mayors, and CEOs—from both parties. Yet that may have been exactly the point. By staking his claim to decades of well-worn political detritus, I think Obama has set a cunning political trap for his enemies...

And that’s the beauty of Obama’s address. He basically put together every modest, centrist, reasonable-sounding idea for public investment aimed at job creation and economic growth that anyone has ever uttered…

Paul Ryan’s deficit-maniac response played right into Obama’s trap

Moreover, Obama’s tone—the constant invocation of bipartisanship at a time when Republicans are certain to oppose most of what he’s called for, while going after the progressive programs and policies of the past—should sound familiar as well…

By playing this rope-a-dope, Obama has positioned himself well to push back hard against the conservative agenda. …  Boring it may have been, but as a positioning device for the next two years, Obama’s speech was a masterpiece.

What better proof can we have that Obama’s speech was cunning and adversarial than that it sounded so perfectly non-partisan and cooperative!