Cheating in Adversarial Institutions: The Viral Effect

[Ed. note: here is the first of (we hope many, many) posts this spring by our Duke University student bloggers.]


If you were wondering how adversarial ethics is different from our “normal” conception of ethics, I think this passage from Joseph Heath’s paper “An Adversarial Ethics for Business” (published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2006) is a good place to start.

“In a non-adversarial context, the fact that one person acts unethically does not in itself create any additional pressure on others to do so. For example, if one surgeon performs some unnecessary procedures, it does not necessarily give other surgeons a reason to do so. In a competition, however, the fact that one person is deriving an advantage from unethical conduct necessarily generates a disadvantage for everyone else, and therefore creates pressure for everyone to follow suit.”

In a non-adversarial setting, we don’t take one person’s ethical violations as an invitation or reason to follow suit. Heath uses the example of healthcare to illustrate this. (Note: Heath is approaching healthcare with a system like Britain’s or Canada’s in mind. In principle, these systems are much less competitive and profit-oriented than America’s system.) If one surgeon is using “unnecessary procedures” — perhaps to expedite the surgery or be able to bill for more — this does not necessarily motivate other surgeons to act the same way. Doctors swear to the Hippocratic oath and are generally expected to adhere to strict ethical standards and codes. And in any case, one surgeon’s cheating the system in this way does not take away business from the others, or in any other direct way threaten their livelihoods.

Now, take this same situation, but substitute in “baseball players” for “surgeon” and “steroids” for an “unnecessary procedure.” Baseball, like all sports, is a deliberately adversarial institution, a zero-sum game. Here we see, as Heath says, that one player’s getting an advantage from unethical conduct gives all the others player at least a reason, and maybe a very compelling reason, to do the same.

We might say that in adversarial settings, certain kinds of cheating or unethical behavior can spread like a virus, infecting even those who had no prior interest in cheating.

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One response to “Cheating in Adversarial Institutions: The Viral Effect

  1. Professor Baker

    Reblogged this on ethicsandsportsblog and commented:
    Wish I had seen this during the semester, neat point about cheating.

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