Monthly Archives: April 2011

If only academic disputes came with live referees…

A deservedly viral proposal for the American Philosophical Association.

Created by Landon Schurtz

My favorite is the middle signal in the second-last row. It is the signal for a “safety” in American football — when a team is unable to carry the ball out of its own endzone and concedes two points; like an own-goal in soccer.

The ethics of not voting

This new book, The Ethics of Voting, by Jason Brennan, looks tailor-made for our blog. I’ve just ordered a copy, but as advanced publicity for it, here’s a quick shout-out.

In democratic theory we rightly pay a lot of attention to the design of the system — especially the electoral system and campaign finance. And we pay some attention (as Bethany and Justin have in posts here and here) to the obligations of professional political actors. But what about the obligations of those other participants in the democratic system, the citizens and voters?

As the blurb says:

Nothing is more integral to democracy than voting. Most people believe that every citizen has the civic duty or moral obligation to vote, that any sincere vote is morally acceptable, and that buying, selling, or trading votes is inherently wrong. In this provocative book, Jason Brennan challenges our fundamental assumptions about voting, revealing why it is not a duty for most citizens–in fact, he argues, many people owe it to the rest of us not to vote.

Somebody had to say it. Amen.

“From each according to ability, to each according to need?” Not in sports! Or Politics 101: Learn to play the game, fairly or not

Frank Knight, one of the founders of the so-called “Chicago School” of economics, took seriously the idea that markets are a kind of game. But he wondered whether something that is both a game and a system designed to satisfy wants could be fair.

“In a system which is at the same time a want-satisfying mechanism and a competitive game we seem to find three ethical ideals in conflict.  The first is the principle already mentioned, of distribution according to effort.  The second is the principal of ‘tools to those who can use them.’  This is a necessary condition of efficiency, but involves giving the best player the best hand, the fastest runner the benefit of the handicap, and thus flagrantly violates the third ideal, which is to maintain the conditions of fairness in the game.” (“The Ethics of Competition,” p. 54 [1923])

There is no reason to think the system or game can meet all of our ethical expectations. If winning is a priority for the team, can we expect them to play fair? Does being fair to the team and its fans (e.g. by giving them the best chance to win) require being unfair to certain players (e.g. not letting them play because they aren’t as good)? And are these notions of fairness in games appropriate in settings dealing with people’s livelihoods? Is it right for firms to give some workers benefits that others don’t get? Should firms be able to horde secrets that might make all firms more efficient if they were shared?

So what is fair and what is foul in sports or business? Knight seems to be suggesting that it is hard to tell because we have at least three “ethical ideals” for justice and they each give us different answers to this question.

Race-to-the bottom watch: competitive babies?

This spoof cover from the Onion advertising “How to get your premature babies into the best incubators” presents a comical account of parents anxious to give their children a leg up on the competition.  The humor of the cover, however—like the comedic value of most good jokes—comes not from its outlandishness but from the close-to-home truth it conveys.

Particularly in the fields of academics and athletics, parents are reacting to competitive pressures by pushing their kids to start earlier and work harder.  The 2008 documentary Nursery University documents how some New York City preschools are charging up to $20,000 per semester per child—higher than the average tuition of private American universities.  It should come as no surprise that this escalating preschool market is taking place in one of the most densely populated places in the world.  The high volume of children in the city results in a high demand for a limited amount of spots at “elite preschools.”

Many bloggers, including economics professor Charles Wheelen, have noted that participation in sports has also become increasingly competitive among younger players.  The goal of little league – in which I was taught “to have fun”—is slowly fading away as parents and coaches enforce the omnipresent urge to win.  Sometimes pursuing the goal of winning even comes at the cost making kids prone to certain kinds of avoidable injuries, which at times even eventuate into the need for reconstructive surgery.  Wheelen writes:

“If all of this makes kids and young families happier than they were 20 years ago, terrific.  But I don’t think that’s what is going on.  As far as I can tell, sports have three purposes: To get exercise, to have fun or to get your kid into college, earn a scholarship, turn professional and become rich and famous.

The evolution in youth sports appears to be mostly about the third one.  Here’s the problem with that:  The number of scholarships (and college athletes) is more or less fixed.  So is the number of professional athletes and the total amount of money to be won on the PGA Tour.

If everyone practices three times as much, the same folks will probably end up with the scholarships, prize money and Nike endorsements.  And if we assume that the extra practice, coaching and spending on equipment comes at the expense of other things (like riding a bike for fun, playing other sports or doing something really crazy like playing ‘kick the can’ in the backyard for a few hours), then our kids’ lives are worse for it.”

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of a race to the bottom is the difficulty or impossibility of escaping it.  If parents prevent their children from starting competitive sports until they are ten years old or even older, then those kids will have to live with a competitive disadvantage unless all the other parents make this same decision.  On the other hand, pushing kids into sports and preschools earlier and earlier degenerates into a race to the bottom in which everybody comes out worse off.

It remains to be seen what mechanisms could prevent this collective action problem.  Wheelen points out that little leaguers are operating with fewer regulations that professional athletes.  While this lack of regulation used to suffice due to a lack of necessity, it seems increasingly possible that regulations are needed to protect even the youngest of the current generation from plunging into various races to the bottom.


Race-to-the-bottom watch: The sensational path to the gutter

In today’s 24-hour coverage by cable and internet news media, keeping abreast with current events has become more convenient than ever, but has the increased quantity of news come at the expense of quality?

The ubiquitous nature of news as a product of technological innovation has created a fierce competition among media outlets. Cable news networks such as FoxNews, CNN, and MSNBC compete daily to increase their market share of a limited number of viewers. In this market of perfect or almost perfect substitutes, the logical option to beating your competitors would be to try as much as possible to differentiate your product from the rest of the field, and this is exactly what cable news networks engage in.

A favorite strategy of networks in distinguishing their products is to rely on the over-the-top personalities of their journalists. As a consequence, we have seen a gradual shift of importance away from the news and towards the newscaster, as the voices of Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Mike Huckabee, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Lou Dobbs, and many others work to define a particular station’s unique image. The assumption underlying this trend is that news on its own is not enough to attract viewers; therefore, networks compensate for the dull news with flamboyant hosts (and extreme guests) who do extended opinion shows on the events of the day.

The conundrum is that as one network becomes more entertaining, the others have to scramble to catch up if they want to avoid being left in the dust.  So far, the three major networks have all done their share to stay competitive, but what has been left in the dust is the news they were originally intended to report.

A recent study done by the found that, while there is a significant number of misinformed viewers of all cable news outlets, FoxNews viewers are the most likely to be misinformed about objective facts in current affairs. This may come as no surprise however, as the industry incentives to sensationalize have, for example, frequently led FoxNews’ primetime pundit Glenn Beck to turn world news into entertaining puppet shows for his audiences to enjoy. And puppet shows are not even the end of the story. Some viewers have even turned exclusively to Comedy Central’s Colbert Report or The Daily Show for their portion of the day’s news.

For cable news, the race to entertain viewers has led to a race to the bottom in factual reporting. In order for a network to be competitive, it has to have its own brand of radical anchors that cater to a specific and ever-more partisan audience. The result has been the creation of a perpetually polarized atmosphere and an uneducated viewership. Only time will tell if the demand for entertainment news programs will continue or if viewers will become disillusioned and seek alternative or additional sources for news, hundreds of which are already available online.

What if… adversarial relations are good in their own right?

So far in this blog we’ve had a lot of discussion about the ethical nature of adversarial interactions, and much of it has revolved around the moral acceptability of certain potentially shady practices – whether in business, law, sports, or politics.  The easiest way to justify some of these dubious practices is to point out how the entire system, or “game,” in which they operate has better overall consequences than its non-adversarial alternatives.

The 19th-century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, was no fan of such philistine Anglo-Saxon consequentialism. He turned the stone tablets upside down and asks an entirely different question: could adversarial institutions be morally justified solely on the grounds that their competitive nature is something of intrinsic moral value?

“What is a life of struggle and victory for? … the Greek genius tolerated the terrible presence of this urge [to struggle] and considered it justified; while the Orphic movement contained the idea that a life with such an urge at its root was not worth living.  Struggle and the joy of victory were recognized – and nothing distinguishes the Greek world from ours as much as the coloring, so derived, of individual ethical concepts, for example, Eris and envy.  And not only Aristotle but the whole of Greek antiquity thinks differently from us about hatred and envy, and judges with Hesiod, who in one place calls one Eris evil – namely, the one that leads men into hostile fights of annihilation against one another – while praising another Eris as good – the one that, as jealousy, hatred, and envy, spurs men to activity; not to the fights of annihilation but to the activity of fights which are contests.” (Frederich Nietzsche, Homer’s Contest, 1872)

Who has Nietzsche got in his bracket?

We describe in great detail the ethical norms of everything from the World Cup to the World Trade Organization, but the 19th-century German philosopher Nietzsche (as discussed in a previous post, here) invites us to consider the possibility that sheer competition is valuable in and of itself.

So what would Nietzsche think of the Tournament?  For those currently taking up residence under a rock (evidently one with internet access), the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament is simply a big deal.  TV ratings skyrocket, Economists complain of the hundreds of millions of dollars lost in office productivity (oxymoron noted) across the country, and the Leader of the Free World takes a stab at picking the winners.  But what’s the fuss about?  The tournaments of the last two years should suffice as an example.

In both tournaments, parity has been the name of the game around college basketball – once tournament time comes around, all sixty-some-odd teams are on the same playing field.  Fans go berserk for upsets galore, but not, I think, so that more difficult teams are eliminated, paving the way for their own favorite.  I would argue that  only the true killjoys hope for all the No. 1 seeds to win their games as expected (I’m sorry, Mr. President).

What is interesting about this, however, is that one would expect that the truly epic games would be heavyweight bouts rather than these popular David-and-Goliath rehashes.  One would also expect that the tournament is held to determine who is the best team in the land.  But we all know for absolute certainty that we don’t care if the “best team” wins – in fact, in our heart of hearts, we root against it with all our might.  So what do we want?

Nietzsche discusses the Ephesians’ banishment of one of their foremost citizens, saying “Among us, no one shall be the best; but if someone is, then let him be elsewhere and among others” (Homer’s Contest, 1872).  This weekend, it’d be worth reflecting on whether we’re hoping to discern who the “best team” is.  However, I think this answer is a resounding “no”.  Six games of single-elimination wouldn’t come about that way.

What we’re really in it for is a wild ride.

When discussing adversarial ethics, we become concerned with the regrettable situation which happens in contest, whereby someone must lose.  However, what if the real pity in this weekend’s Final Four is that someone has to win?  The contest must end, and as an unfortunate byproduct, we must have a champion – not necessarily the best team, mind you, but a champion.

In the interest of full disclosure: this last year – when Duke was still very much alive in the Final Four – I was, of course, focused like a laser beam on the process of crowning a champion. But with Duke out in the Sweet 16 this year, my thoughts seem to have turned decisively to a certain 19th-century German philosopher…

A friendly chat about adversaries

This blog got plenty of free publicity last Friday when I (Wayne Norman) did a turn on Duke University’s weekly “Office Hours” live tweet-in show. For better or for worse, the conversation should be permanently accessible here:

Some of the topics of conversation were plucked from my other blog, This Sporting Life, including one on Why the NCAA Tournament is the American Idol of Sports, and What’s Wrong with the Wonderlic Test.

Bethany’s post here about what we learn about political ethics from primary elections also got a quote and a shout-out during the interview, and it can be found here. Stay tuned for some of her follow-up thoughts on that topic.