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….


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