Monthly Archives: March 2011

Is bluffing just business, or is it bad business?

Consent and fair play can both provide reasonable justifications for the deceptive behavior in some contexts. If you agree to play poker with me, you can’t complain if I bluff — though you certainly could complain if you caught me playing with a marked deck. But these reasons do not necessarily work in the case of all adversarial institutions.

To an extent, part of what adversaries do is deceive and coerce people in order to win the game that they are a part of. This deception amongst adversaries is part of the game, not accidental. The minute difference between a foul and an intentional foul in the sport of boxing is just one example. In order to win, some boxers try to disguise intentional fouls as mere accidents. In his book Ethics for Adversaries, Applbaum argues that those within adversarial institutions have a better chance of getting away with actions that might not be as acceptable in other situations.

“One cannot coherently claim that one aims at the good ends of a competitive system if one seeks to undermine features of the system that make it good. Perhaps the claims that adversaries make about their aims and the actions that they take cannot be made to cohere. Or perhaps the good ends of the system are for its practitioners a sort of idle hope that is unconnected to what their actions aim at. But there is no plausible way to redescribe the violation that adversaries aim at as accidental, a foreseen but unintended side effect. If, to pass a test of reasonable acceptance, actions cannot aim at violation, then much of the violation that results from adversary institutions does not pass the test” – Applbaum, p. 187

When one plays to win, it can often involve actions that undermine the aims of the game. If adversaries are aiming at good ends, then the violations they inflict upon one another can be reasonably justified. As the final sentence of the quote implies, however, not all violations of normal moral codes (like honesty) in adversarial institutions are accidental.

In short, for Applbaum, the good ends of deliberately adversarial institutions will not always justify the means if the means are deliberately unethical.

 

Diving in soccer is like [blank] in business

In the comment-thread to a post by “Matiok” about soccer dives, below, I suggested that diving is in some sense significantly worse that most other fouls in sport (say, among fouls that do not involve significantly injuring your opponent). This is because diving involves a player who was not able to better his opponent on the field, and so instead decides to accuse the opponent of a foul in order to gain an advantage. You can’t win fair and square, and not only do you cheat, but you accuse your opponent of being the cheater.

There isn’t a good word for “chickenshit” in formal academic ethics. “Hypocrite” doesn’t quite capture the ethical nastiness of that kind of competitive tactic. (Yes, I realize it’s much more complicated than that, and that we have to look at the way the institution of soccer has evolved, etc, etc. I’ve done some of that in my other blog, here and here.)

But in this post I want to think about how we might fill in the blank in the title of the post. What, in other adversarial realms (like business or politics), resembles diving in soccer?

Well, here’s something similar. In a Reuters story yesterday we learn that:

Nickolas Galiatsatos, owner of Nina’s Bella Pizzeria in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, is accused of putting bags of mice at nearby competitors on Monday afternoon, according to Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood.

The owner of Verona Pizza watched Galiatsatos go into his restroom carrying a bag but emerge empty-handed, and alerted two patrol officers who were in the restaurant, Chitwood said.

The officers found a bag of mice and footprints on a toilet seat, suggesting someone had been trying to reach the ceiling tiles, he said.

The officers then found Galiatsatos near another pizza place, Uncle Nick’s, where he was seen putting something in a trash can. There, police found a bag containing five mice, Chitwood said.

“This guy planted them to put these guys out of business,” Chitwood said. “I’ve been at this for 47 years, and I’ve never seen mice used as a criminal tool.”

Like many divers in soccer, he claimed he had to do this because his opponents were doing the same to him:

Galiatsatos claimed his shop had been infested with mice, and he blamed his competitors for the problem, he said.

Chitwood said that Galiatsatos told police he bought the mice at a pet shop for $10.

He faces misdemeanor charges of cruelty to animals, criminal mischief, harassment and disorderly conduct.

A misdemeanor?! You can NOT be serious, ref! Surely that’s a red-cardable offense.

Are some elections literally slam dunks? Did your Congressman win the way Blake Griffin did?

 

[Note: this is the inaugural post by Brandon H.]

Is politics a sport? Some things such as the rules in sports and the referees who enforce them seem accurately analogous to election laws and the election boards and courts that enforce them. Other more controversial comparisons have been suggested, none more interesting than the comparison between spectators and voters.

The simplest argument against this comparison is that spectators in sports may influence the outcome of the game but they do not directly determine it. To work around this objection, let’s see if there are similarities between (a) voters and speculators in the 2011 NBA slam dunk contest — an example of a sporting event where spectators do have more of a say in the outcome — and (b) the voters in the 2010 mid-term congressional elections.

The 2011 Slam Dunk Contest, which took place in Los Angeles, was highly anticipated for one major reason, the participation of the exciting and high-flying rookie phenomenon Blake Griffin. Blake plays for the local Los Angeles Clippers and opened a nationwide competition that aimed at giving him new dunks that he could use on national TV. Day of the competition Blake was able to electrify the fans and won the competition in convincing fashion. Even those who supported Blake’s victory question whether he was the best actual dunker in the competition. ESPN columnist John Hollinger says “in truth, McGee should have been facing DeMar DeRozan in the final instead of Griffin, but the hometown Los Angeles crowd swayed the judges heavily in Griffin’s favor.” He goes on to say the excitement in the arena every time Griffin dunked was electric and though “it’s not necessarily fair… it’s the reason he won.” In other words he may not have been the best dunker that night, but he knew how to work the crowd and do things they would love, and it was this quality that delivered the trophy.

How does this compare to political campaigns and voters? In recent history there has been a growing trend in campaigns to engage in negative advertising. Often these ads have no information about the candidate’s platform and amount to little more than personal attacks. According to the study by Amherst 54% of ads in 2010 were pure negative advertising. The truth is, whether voters want to believe it or not they are being treated much like the spectators in the Slam Dunk contest. Politicians are trying to distract the voters from the true issues and play to their emotions in order to win. Just like Blake Griffin.

Something to think about next time you hear a political consultant or pundit referring to some candidate’s chance of winning as a “slam dunk.”

New blog alert: Bleeding Heart Libertarians

Ethics for Adversaries is a newish kid on the blogging block. In the life-cycle of a typical blog, it’s probably a toddler now; just beginning to find its legs and sometimes capable of walking in the direction it intends, for at least a few steps.

There’s an even newer kid, though. Still wrapped in blankets and being passed back and forth between parents and nurses: Bleeding Heart Libertarians. It is the brainchild of a clutch of unusually large and active brains, who will occupy themselves there with questions of how to formulate and justify an urbane libertarian-like political philosophy. They don’t put it this way, but the name they chose for the blog could be replaced by “How to be a libertarian without being an asshole.” (I had a professor as an undergrad who wrote a book manuscript with the socialist version of that as his working title.)

In the actual words of one of the founding bloggers, Matt Zwolinski, a philosopher at the University of San Diego:

I’ve created this blog as a forum for academic philosophers who are attracted both to libertarianism and to ideals of social or distributive justice.  Labels are often a greater source of confusion than insight in academic discourse, and no doubt most of the contributors to this blog will wish to qualify the sense in which they fit this description.  Some, for instance, will qualify their libertarianism with a label – “left-libertarian,” or perhaps “liberaltarian.” Others might prefer to think of themselves as “classical liberals” or even “market anarchists.”  But libertarianism, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is a broad intellectual tradition bound together more by rough agreement than by meeting a set of necessary and sufficient conditions.   What we have in common on this blog is an appreciati0n for market mechanisms, for voluntary social cooperation, for property rights, and for individual liberty.  But we appreciate those things, in large part, becauseof the way they contribute to important human goods – and especially the way in which they allow some of society’s most vulnerable members to realize those goods.

Not everybody who is concerned about the design of, and ethics within, deliberately adversarial institutions will consider themselves to a member of Matt’s broad coalition. But everyone in that tent should be interested in the challenges raised here at Ethics for Adversaries. So with this shout-out I happily send them what may well be their first ping-back.

Best of luck, fellows (for so far their team is very masculine). Let us know when we should cross-post.

Bipartisan or Bust?

It seems that nearly every time President Obama or Speaker of the House John Bohener makes a speech the magic B word is somewhere in it—bipartisanship. Just yesterday when the Senate passed a stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown, Obama said, “I’m pleased that Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together and passed a plan.” Throughout his campaign, Obama also crafted an image of bipartisanship. I can’t help but ask the question, do Democrats and Republicans truly want to work together like they claim? If they do, then there actions (like voting to repeal “Obamacare” by the Republicans or walking out of the Wisconsin state legislature by the Democrats) don’t seem to match their words. And if they don’t actually want to be bipartisan, then why do they insist on spending so much time on it?

The American political party system is an example of an adversarial institution. What makes this institution so interesting is that nothing in our Constitution creates a party system, in fact our founding fathers warned against the influence of parties. Now, however, we have a highly regulated system with complex rules and the party system is one of the foremost features of American democracy. There is a common notion, however, that the party system is somehow detrimental to our democracy and that being an “independent” is a matter of pride.

Nancy Rosenblum, a Harvard professor of government, writes in her book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship, that there is a notion in America that anti-partisanship is an ideal to strive for. In an interview with the Dartmouth student newspaper, she said that “Anti-partisanship is as old as politics and as old as the dinosaurs.”

Rosenblum, however maintains that partisanship is exactly one of democracies strongest positive features, and without it the system of American democracy that exists today would look totally different—and worse. “We don’t need independence or post-partisanship, but better partisanship.”

So, maybe instead of always throwing out empty words about bipartisanship and “above the Beltway” rhetoric, our political leaders could do well to reexamine their own party politics.

Be careful what you ask for; you just might get it

In a 1923 essay called “The Ethics of Competition,” Frank Knight, who would become one of the founders of the Chicago School, thought that business had become a kind of game or sport, and he wondered how good or “healthy” a game it was.

Knight begins his classic text by rehearsing the argument from an earlier essay of his, “Ethics and the Economic Interpretation.” He had previously tried “argue against the view of ethics most commonly accepted among economists…” It was, he argued, “against ‘scientific ethics’ of any kind, against any view which sets out from the assumption that human wants are objective and measurable magnitudes and that the satisfaction of such wants is the essence and criterion of value…”

The problem with the so-called “scientific ethics” – by which he means some kind of utilitarianism – is that it cannot really distinguish between “higher” and “lower” wants, and therefore reduces the former to the latter.

But, Knight argues,

the fact is that human beings do not regularly prefer their lower and more “necessary” needs to those not easily justified in terms of subsistence or survival value, but perhaps rather the contrary; in any case what we call progress has consisted largely in increasing the proportion of want-gratification of an aesthetic or spiritual as compared to that of a biologically utilitarian character, rather than in increasing the “quantity of life.”  The facts, as emphasized, are altogether against accepting any balance-sheet view of life; they point rather toward an evaluation of a far subtler sort than the addition and subtraction of homogeneous items, toward an ethics along the line of aesthetic criticism, whose canons are of another sort than scientific laws and are not quite intellectually satisfying.

In short, for Knight, we cannot judge how valuable or successful our lives are in the same way that companies organize and analyze a balance-sheet. In the financial arena the balance sheet is used to analyze what a company has (assets) and what it might be risking or not have (liability).  But how would we ever make sense of the owner’s equity section in a balance sheet? And how are we supposed to ensure that the assets and liabilities sides of the balance sheet should be equal or balanced?

Knight rejects the view that is still predominant in economics more than 75 years later, of “want satisfaction as a final criterion of value.” We can’t accept that because even in our own lives we don’t “regard our wants as final; instead of resting in the view that there is no disputing about tastes, we dispute about them more than anything else.” In fact, for Knight, “our most difficult problem in valuation is the evaluation of our wants themselves and our most troublesome want is the desire for wants of the ‘right’ kind.”

This is a profound, and these days much more widely accepted, critique of utilitarianism. Why is it relevant for adversarial ethics? Because we need to be able to judge whether the market system produces better overall results (via the invisible hand) than some other system. But how do we evaluate what is a better overall result? Not, Knight is arguing, by judging whether it satisfies more wants. We might not really want those wants. Or worse still, as he will go on to argue in this essay, because the system (or adversarial institution) itself has generated the wants that it satisfies.

Sometimes a founder of the Chicago School can sound remarkably like a founder of the Frankfurt School….

 

Red carpet: red in tooth and claw?

[Note: this is the inaugural post by K Listenbee.]

Sunday evening was highly anticipated. From the red carpet to the after-parties, the 83rd Academy Awards was a night to remember — as indicated by tweets, facebook statuses, and even the CNN hot topics list. All eyes might be on the red carpet fashion police and the list of winners and nominees now, but the first Academy Awards ceremony took place out of the public eye. The celebration and recognition of filmmakers and actors still exists, but has the Academy Awards become, along the way, an adversarial institution?

Once upon a time…

May 16, 1929 marked the beginning of a phenomenon – one that now garners more attention and acclaim than some political campaigns. An initially non-adversarial arena, the Academy Awards began as a way to honor the best of the best in the film industry. The first ceremony had a modest guest list, with 270 people in attendance, and only 15 awards were given. It took place during a brunch that was served at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, followed by a party at the Mayfield.

Being recognized as the best in the industry had yet to become center stage, literally. Shortly after its inception, however, enthusiasm for the Academy Awards skyrocketed — a Los Angeles radio station even produced a live hour-long broadcast of the event. Public interest grew exponentially over the years. Rules, regulations, and qualification criteria began to develop. Actors and actresses began to compete for leading roles. Studios sought out the most highly acclaimed producers, directors, and writers in the industry. Thus, an adversarial institution emerged.

“And the Oscar goes to…”

The first awards ceremony had no real surprises. Winners were announced three months before the ceremony took place. The following year, the Academy decided to reveal the winners during the ceremony. The anticipation of winners and the growth in media attention surrounding the second award show aided in the shift: taking something essentially non-adversarial — the recognition of works of art — and putting it in a competitive setting.

Those within the film industry eventually began to take into account the actions of other players in anticipation of what they may or may not do to win. They have also developed tactics to improve their own chances of winning. Some of these tactics involved spending huge amounts of money on gifts and other goodies to influence the voting members of the Academy. And this in turn led to the Academy developing increasingly complicated rules and regulations to forbid “unhealthy” competitive attempts to “buy votes.”

Some accuse the Academy Awards of being influenced by marketing, rather than artistic quality. Others defend artistic merit as the sole requirement to win in this adversarial game. Whatever the case, for many filmmakers, actors, and spectators, the Oscars are not about the impartial recognition of an artistic achievement. They about winning – and by any means you can get away with.