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)

3 responses to “What if… adversarial relations are good in their own right?

  1. For support for the notion that conflict — battle — is glorious, we need look no further than the 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian…

    Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life?
    Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.
    Mongol General: That is good! That is good.

  2. Great post!
    In addition to Nietzsche, perhaps we could look to Hegel for a moral foundation for conflict and argument as well. I haven’t studied his work in any real depth but the idea of the dialectic seems to fit the bill. The very basic idea of the dialectic is there is inherent moral value in argument or discussion between two points of view because there will eventually be a synthesis that is closer to the meta-idea of ultimate truth (or God as they used to say). This makes intuitive sense as well. If two open minded people are discussing an idea that they have different views on and come to a new conception of that idea, whether that is one of the original ideas or a hybrid of the two, the process seems to ensure that there is a greater value to the resulting idea than the original ones in terms of truth.
    Arguably most people aren’t all that open minded and debate in the real world and the dialectic may seem like more of an idealized kumbaya type evaluation. Nonetheless I think its widely applicable and defensible both empirically and theoretically and can contribute to our conception of inherent moral value in adversarial institutions.

  3. When trying to maneuver the liminality of adversarial ethics, it is difficult to remain oblivious of Adam Smith’s notion the self-serving nature of competition. Thus, I do not believe the question is whether adversarial ethics should be looked at as moral because they are inevitable, but instead will humans be able to cope with the idea that no hope for true morality exists? Instead, we should accept the unacceptable that has become a major part of competition, despite its affects on the many realms of society: politics, markets, and games.

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