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)