Monthly Archives: February 2012

Incentives and Rules: Constraints on Individual Autonomy

Posted by KevinJ

In adversarial institutions there are always “rules of the game.” In fact, these rules largely define the institution itself. If you play a game that looks sort of like baseball, but has four strikes and three balls, you are not playing baseball. In adversarial ethics we care about both how to design and evaluate the best rules; and also about what obligations “players” in that institution might have over and above those spelled out in the rules.

But surely there are many different kinds and categories of rules, and we could sharpen our normative theories by distinguishing some of them. Does it matter, for example, whether rules dictate what actors must do or must not do, on the one hand, or whether the rules are structured through the use of incentives to do or refrain from doing certain things, on the other? In a brand new book entitled Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives, Ruth Grant (professor of political science at Duke University) challenges a number of our standard assumptions about the use of incentives in public policy about markets and other domains.

It is commonly assumed, for example, that incentives leave the decision-maker with a free, or autonomous, choice between several options. Of course, even if all autonomous choices are voluntary, not all voluntary choices are autonomous. When given the choice between your wallet or your life, you voluntarily decide to hand over your wallet. But was the choice was not made autonomously.

The same argument could be made for properly created incentives; they place the player in a situation where only one choice is rational. The player voluntarily selects the rational choice, but may not be as autonomous as we would like to believe. Ruth argues that “Incentives ‘strictly speaking’ are a particular kind of offer: (1) An extrinsic benefit or a bonus that is neither the natural or automatic consequence of an action nor a deserved reward or compensation; (2) A discrete prompt expected to elicit a particular response; and (3) An offer intentionally designed to alter the status quo by motivating a person to choose differently than he or she would be likely to choose in its absence.” With each of these qualities, decisions are reached that are not “natural” to the individual.

The upshot: the use of incentives to get someone to do something they didn’t want to do may not be as innocent or uncoercive as we generally assume.

But how do incentives within institutions differ from other kinds of rules and regulations? They both adjust the balance of the costs and benefits of a particular choice and aim to alter an actor’s course of action. Incentives and other regulations may lead to the same end-result — but do incentives do this in a way that is less coercive or more voluntary? Ruth’s answer is: it depends! She looks at a wide variety of incentives used in public policy, and we have different “gut” reactions that are often confirmed by closer ethical analysis. Some we feel perfectly free to take or leave (say, an incentive to file tax returns on time) and some (say, a plea offer to a risk-averse and poor accused man who is in fact innocent) can feel coercive, exploitative, or like abuses of power or authority.

I can’t induce you to read Grant’s thought-provoking and highly readable new book. But I’m pretty sure you will never again assume that incentives are necessarily more freedom-enhancing alternatives to other forms of regulation and rules.

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Can Adversarial Contexts Be Socially Integrating?

Recently, Michael Gillespie wrote an article on March Madness and the unifying character of sports in American culture.  What is it about sports, and March Madness in particular, that it is able to organize and direct a group of otherwise — to borrow a term from John Rawls — “mutually disinterested” individuals towards impassioned support of a common goal?  How can a mere game transform a diverse group of individuals into an almost singular consciousness, where personal identities dissolve into a shared communal existence?

Gillespie answers similar questions in terms of Nietzsche’s view of Greek tragedy, which is, at its core, a merging of both the individual and communal elements of life (or the Apollinian and Dionysian).  Nietzsche’s conclusion is ultimately that life is redeemed only as an aesthetic phenomenon, and a sense of meaning is derived from a sense of struggle in which the individual sacrifices his happiness for something greater.

College basketball, and indeed sports generally, might play this redemptive role in American culture, as it is through sports that we experience life in all its peaks and valleys — from the ecstasy of an unexpected win by a buzzer-beating three-pointer, to the despair over an impossible upset in a tournament’s first round.  Insofar as basketball is representative of the unifying character of adversarial institutions, how else might this dynamic play out towards a goal of social integration?  That is, how might conflict help transform a Gesellschaft (society) into a Gemeinschaft (community), to use Max Weber’s terminology.

A similar situation might be seen in the United States during World War II, where civilian support was widespread.  It is well documented that the U.S. contribution to the war effort increased U.S. GDP, through increased productivity and the better mobilization of the workforce.  This had a taxing effect on the U.S. population, but this struggle was tolerated because of, among other factors, some sense of unification expressed as patriotism.

Indeed, this point about economies and markets as an expression of social integration is interesting.  It has been argued* that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, when interpreted in conjunction with his Theory of Moral SentimentsLectures on Jurisprudence, and Letters on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, forms a comprehensive theory whereby markets are not exclusively constituted by interactions of “competitive and strategic individuals to secure their material preferences,” (553), but rather as a central mechanism for social order derived from the “inexorable struggle by human agents for moral approbation and social recognition” (ibid).  This reading, furthermore, goes on to state how Smith perceived markets as an analogue to the classical Greek polis, as the site where people seek mutual recognition.

Before we commit what Alfred North Whitehead termed the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” we would do well to recognize that this represents an idealization, which might be quite undersupported, especially in the context of contemporary market transactions.  While Smith’s Wealth of Nations argues for lack of government manipulation and intervention in markets, the events of recent years has made some people skeptical of the efficacy of this kind of unrestrained free-market capitalism.

Part of the problem is that there is rarely the sense of a common goal among actors within American corporations.  Some economists such as Paul Krugman claim that the U.S. economy has become dominated by the financial sector, and one criticism against financial institutions is that employee’s have no personal investment in the firm beyond their limited tenure.  Performance is usually assessed in terms of a very short time-horizon, and significantly long-term strategies to increase market capitalization might not be implemented if they sacrifice short-term performance.

Obviously, I have no resolution for these difficulties.  Perhaps adversarial contexts could be socially integrating, and the main issue is how might the unifying character of sports, for example, be applied to other adversarial contexts, like markets.  Smith’s model might have been descriptive for its time, but it’s a real question as to whether our contemporary economic climate is one that can ever be socially integrating in this way.  It might be that our attitudes towards the firm is unsupportive of individual responsibility towards the long-term financial health of corporations, insofar as this comes at the expense of short-term personal compensation.

* Kalyvas, A. and Katznelson, I.  “The Rhetoric of the Market: Adam Smith on Recognition, Speech, and Exchange,” The Review of Politics, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Summer, 2001), pp. 549-579.

David Brooks on Linsanity and the difference between the morality of religion and sports

Posted by Wayne

David Brooks, the New York Times‘s supposedly conservative columnist, regularly looks to sports as a way of making sense of our political and popular culture. This week he used the Jeremy Lin phenomenon as a pretext for some reflections on the gap between the ethos of sport and the ethos of religion (because Lin, like Tim Tebow, is a devote Christian). For Brooks the gap is a chasm that can probably not be fully or safely bridged.

The discussion is relevant for this blog because Brooks claims that the “sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.” Our ethical thinking in certain adversarial contexts or institutions will — and ought to — differ from the way we think ethically in other parts of our lives, even if we are deeply religious.

The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.

The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.

He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.

His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.

This is what we go to sporting events to see

Brooks identifies this ethos with “modern sports,” but take away the inclusion of female athletes and ESPN, and the description of the virtues, goals, motivations, and glories of the athletic hero (or warrior) would not have looked out of place in Ancient Greece or Rome.

Of course, it is easy to see why these qualities are troubling for adherents of many traditional and religious moral traditions in the West and East. A “moral hero” in these traditions would not be described in any of the ways I have emphasized in bold font in long quotation from Brooks. (Although he or she would, presumably, be just as courageous as the sporting hero, even if this was not his or her primary virtue.) Brooks himself goes on to paint a similar broad-brush portrait of the religious life, and explains why he thinks the sporting and religious characters can never be fully reconciled. Following the Jewish theologian Joseph Soloveitchik, Brooks believes

that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Note that Brooks is focusing almost entirely on one component of a moral or ethical perspective — the part that concerns virtues or characters traits. But we also care about what rights, freedoms, and duties people have; and with the how to design just institutions (which will, in turn, assign various rights and duties to individuals occupying particular roles). So we might also ask whether the rights and duties of “players” in deliberately adversarial institutions will necessarily conflict with the dictates of a religious follower’s conscience.

Here too the answer seems to be Yes, but for very different reasons than the ones Brooks has highlighted. The best summary I know of for this case comes from Joseph Heath‘s important paper in the Journal of Business Ethics, “An Adversarial Ethics for Business: or When Sun-Tzu Met the Stakeholder” (2006). Here is how Heath sums up an argument explained over several pages:

Much of everyday morality has as its goal the prevention of a collective action problem. It is possible to secure certain advantages by lying, but if everyone did it, no one would believe what anyone said, and everyone would be worse off… This is why the… Golden Rule capture[s] much of the spirit of everyday morality. But because the central mechanism in a competition is an unresolved collective action problem, there are bound to be numerous prima facie conflicts between competitive imperatives and those imposed by everyday morality. This is reflected in the fact that a naïve or mechanical application of the Golden Rule in a competitive situation is likely to generate the wrong results. Before kicking the winning field goal, we do not want football players to be thinking, “How would I like it if the other team did that to me?” Similarly, before lowering prices, we do not want the gas-station owners to be thinking “How would I like it if the station across the street did that to me?”

The bolded phrase is the key to understanding the reason we actively encourage a different kind of ethical thinking or ethos in what we are calling deliberately adversarial institutions (like sports, markets, and democratic politics). These institutions regulate a competition in order to create benefits for “non players” outside the competition — what economists call “positive externalities.” So in all of these institutions we deliberately prevent the competitors from cooperating in ways that will be to their advantage but not to the advantage of outsiders.

Traditional morality is about cooperating and mutual assistance: adversarial ethics is about how to generate social benefits by preventing certain forms of cooperation; but also about how to make sure that the players use only appropriate tactics in their attempt to succeed. Heath’s article is as good a place as any to see the outlines of, and tensions between, these two features of adversarial ethics. But you should also find these tensions in almost every case study we highlight on this blog.

Incidentally, Heath’s article could be of some service to pious, but ferociously competitive athletes like Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin. They can play hard to beat their opponents, but show self-restraint in doing so by embracing the “spirit of the rules” and by treating their opponents with respect. And of course, they can and should be as cooperative and humble as possible with their own team mates. Within the team itself, there is still no “I” in Golden Rule.

The Adversarial Ethics of Reality TV

Posted by businessethicsduke

The Adversarial Ethics of Reality TV

It has been said that love is a battlefield, or a contact sport. But most people like to think of their own romantic lives or relationships should be all about cooperation and not competition.

But cooperation is so boring! Every Monday night I get together with a group of my girlfriends to watch a two-hour, no-limits catfight.  It’s called The Bachelor and last year it was the most watched reality TV in the United States.  Without the intention of being mean, we all look to the show as source of mockery and amusement.  We are utterly ashamed of the female competitor this season who went to our own college, Duke, and we squirm embarrassedly when she stated, decisively, that after climbing a bridge with the Bachelor, that they could overcome anything through their love for one another.

In The Bachelor, love is war and weapons include low-cut halter-tops, dates on private yachts and skinny dipping in the ocean.  “It’s institutionalized infidelity,” one friend of mine commented last week.  And the more I thought about it, the more her offhanded comment rang true to me.  The entire premise of the show is to allow a man or woman, who is “looking for true love”, to meet and romance 25 members of the opposite sex for ten weeks and then, despite having romantic relations with a number of them during the period, propose to one.  In real life, this type of situation would not only be considered unconventional, but undeniably exploitive.   I certainly can’t imagine many beautiful, educated and successful young men and women exclusively dating one partner while he or she is allowed to explore and choose from an equally qualified pool of 24 others.  If this were to happen in real life in some beautiful villa in the Californian countryside, we would call it a cult.  Charlie Sheen was publicly humiliated for having two Goddesses, yet we continue to watch The Bachelor Ben Flajniak date tens of girls, who all claim to be madly in love with him, simultaneously.

The deception and infidelity that underscore the actions of every Bachelor or Bachelorette, season after season, reminded me of a question posed by Arthur Applbaum in his formative text on Adversarial Ethics.  Applbaum asks. “How can acts that ordinarily are morally forbidden – violence, deception, coercion – be rendered morally permissible when performed by one who occupies a professional or public role?”  Indeed, Flajniak could be questioned in much the same manner:  Is he granted the ability to cheat and lie to loving women simply because he is the protagonist of a popular TV show?  Moreover, does the “profession” of being a reality star entitle individuals to perform acts that would otherwise be morally unacceptable?

With a bit of research, I have discovered that morally questionable and often dangerous or damaging situations are extremely common to reality TV.   In the next several weeks, I hope to explore this topic in much more detail.  An initial list of issues I will discuss are as follows, but I am certain that this will evolve in posts to come!

–       Deception: Is reality TV really real?

–       Reality TV and Lawyers:  The legal framework that makes these shows possible

–       Physical and Mental Endangerment: Of participants, rejects and their circles

–       The Business of Reality TV: Examining Economic Motivations

–       Why are we watching this?! We won’t watch a show about karaoke singers or morbidly obese people working out and losing weight – unless it is a competition.

War Ethics for Dumdums (Bullets)

Posted by Sarah:

Before sports or electoral politics, there was war.  It is the primordial adversarial institution and only recently has there been a concentrated effort to legally establish permitted weapons, methods, and targets.  Yet, with common sayings like, “all’s fair in love and war,” and “war is hell,” it’s clear that these efforts have had only modest impact on “civilizing” war by bringing deliberate ethical standards to its conduct.

Unlike other adversarial institutions, such as sports and business, there no powerful global regulatory authority to make states play by the rules.  Instead, adherence to the rules of war depends, for the most part, on positive reciprocity and mutual self-respect. Deposed dictators and war criminals on the run may get dragged into international courts now. But powerful states have always been free to choose to forgo the rules – e.g., in situations where the enemy is at a distinct military disadvantage or where abrogation confers the only or best opportunity to defeat a superior enemy.

The US and its NATO allies have routinely been accused of flouting the rules of war in recent engagements. But we can find great powers selectively ignoring, or “gaming,” the rules of war for as long as there have been attempts to formalize such rule.

Consider how the British ignored the St. Petersburg Declaration (1868), which outlawed exploding “dum dum” bullets, in the Battle of Omdurman (1898) during the Mahdist War (also called the Anglo-Sudan War) between the Mahdist Sudanese and Egyptian/British forces.  The effectiveness of the dum dum bullets allowed the British to kill over 11,000 Dervishes, compared to only 47 British casualties.  The British justified their actions by arguing that the St. Petersburg Declaration only applied to signatories, which did not include the Dervishes.

As one Greek officer during the Balkan Wars reasoned, “When you have to deal with barbarians, you must behave like a barbarian yourself.  It is the only thing they understand.” Such logic implies that that the “barbarians” will not adhere to the rules of law and thus, “civilized” societies must adopt barbaric practices as well — otherwise it would be like fighting with one hand tied behind their back.  When one side refuses to comply with international agreements limiting weapons or tactics, abiding by a standard that was designed to be bilateral puts a state at a distinct disadvantage.

It is clear, however, in this battle, the Dervishes could not have used dum dum bullets, regardless of whether they were signatories to the St. Petersburg Declaration.  With no threat of retaliation, the British took advantage of a legal loophole to obliterate the enemy with the most effective weaponry at the time.

When the object is decisive victory with the lowest cost, were the British actions at the Battle of Omdurman “cheating” or immoral – or were they ethically acceptable?  If both sides have not agreed to adhere to the rules, are all actions morally permissible? What mechanisms mediating international relations exist or might be created to augment incentives to comply with ethical norms in conducting war, particularly when conflict is asymmetric, involving inferior or irregular combatants?

These are the kinds of questions I’ll be exploring in future posts on this blog.

Competitive extemporaneous speaking: unchecked rhetoric is a race to the bottom

Extemporaneous speaking (extemp for short) is a competitive event in high school speech and debate where competitors are given thirty minutes to come up with a seven-minute speech on a randomly selected topic. Competitors are judged on their analysis of the topic, their use of sources, and their oratorical presence. A video of the 2004 National Champion in Domestic Extemp can be found here. By putting a non-competitive activity (public speaking) into a competitive arena, students find a fun and engaging way to hone their skills.

In addition to their own knowledge, competitors are allowed to use and cite sources from a tub of evidence they prepare before selecting their topic. All other factors being equal, competitors who cite more sources in their speeches win more. In the past, the standard number of sources for a good speech was three. Three sources in a speech works because most speeches are structured to have three separate points, and while three was not a written rule, it was a known convention. However, competitors over time have defected from this collective agreement in order to improve their chances of winning. In a classic race to the bottom, other competitors deviate from the three-source standard to keep up with their opponents, and over time, the average number of sources per speech has risen to nine.

How is this different from any other race to the bottom? In thirty minutes of preparation, a competitor has to scour mounds of newspaper clippings to find relevant sources, incorporate those sources into a speech outline, memorize the speech, and practice it a few times. Simply, it is impossible to write and practice a speech with nine distinct sources in thirty minutes; so, competitors choose to cite fake sources. Judges rarely check if competitors are citing real sources—one could spend more than the entire speech’s seven minutes back-checking nine sources. In a competitive event that teaches students how to persuasively and eloquently convey information, students are also learning how easy and convenient it is to lie.

Lying in a public speech is not unique to high school forensics—politicians regularly lie in debates, because the short-term benefits of making a seemingly valid point outweigh the long-term effects of a lie. Rep. Michelle Bachman, in the recent Republican Primary Debates, was notorious for this—she regularly misrepresented the views of her opponents (check it out at 2:00 here). Many news organizations, notably the New York Times, try to ‘live fact-check’ these debates, but there is little damage to the liar if they come out of the debate unscathed.

Having nine sources in your extemp speech does not necessarily mean you are citing fake sources. Some competitors craft universal sources for every speech they could possibly give by memorizing a citation for a popular book or study. While these ‘canned sources’ are successful, they defeat the extemporaneous nature of the competition.

Conflict and Creativity: The Myth of Brainstorming

In a recent New Yorker article, Jonah Lehrer debunks the myth that a conflict-free brainstorming session is the optimal environment to start the flow of creative juices.  ‘Brainstorming’ is a method that was popularized by the Mad Men era B.B.D.O partner Alex Osborn (1948), with the publication of his book, Your Creative Power.  Osborn posits that this method was integral to his firm’s success, and, as Lehrer writes, it turned B.B.D.O admen into “imagination machines.”  What is unique to brainstorming, and is ostensibly the key to its creative successes is that it is practiced in an environment free from criticism and negative feedback.  Brainstorming is, in essence, the ultimate non-adversarial context where every idea, no matter how asinine, is considered a legitimate candidate for non-judgmental discussion: “Forget quality; aim now to get quantity of answers.  When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted.  Never mind.  You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination.”  These words, lifted from Osborn’s pages, is the distillation of his theory of optimal creative production.

The practice of brainstorming is certainly prolific.  Indeed, if you’ve never heard of brainstorming, it wouldn’t be a stretch for me to welcome you back from your long sabbatical under that rock.  Despite its vast influence, the efficacy of brainstorming has long been empirically undersupported.  As Lehrer notes, a Yale University study dating back to 1958 shows that brainstorming actually restrains individual creativity.  Subsequent research further supports this conclusion, and it even shows that individuals working in isolation who later pool ideas are more effective than brainstorming groups.  Despite this, however, group thinking is becoming a necessity, as our contemporary problems are so complex that the solitary scientist or thinker is now rendered obsolete, the humanities notwithstanding.  How well would a resurrected Alexander Graham Bell compete with the hoards of Google PhD-toting engineers?  Probably about as well as Myspace competed with Facebook.  Wait, what’s Myspace you ask?  QED.

No, the debate isn’t between the individual thinker toiling in isolation or the group where no idea is too stupid to introduce, but rather between non-judgmental brainstorming or a group dynamic that leverages conflict and debate as a means to produce the best results.  Empirical testing, of course, shows that the latter wins out, by a margin of more than twenty percent.  So, if conflict is actually a boon to creativity, then I think this engenders further curiosities concerning human psychology and the optimal conditions for productivity.

How would the Socratic dialogues read if dialectic was replaced with Osborn’s method?  Well, they probably wouldn’t be read at all.  Explicit criticism of ideas has long been the preferred method in philosophy, especially within the analytic tradition.  Thinking about what we call Hegelian dialectic (which was, incidentally, never formulated by Hegel himself), we can see that coupling a thesis with its negation, or antithesis, is resolved by the synthesis of the two, and this reconciliation is intended to produce a higher level of understanding.  Why shouldn’t we jettison the tradition of brainstorming for a group dynamic that fosters and encourages explicit conflict, especially if this conflict produces better results?  Moreover, what these findings prompt is the question of explicitly non-adversarial institutions.  Would certain practices that are currently conceived as such be made better or more effective through their re-structuring into explicitly adversarial or conflict-welcoming institutions?  If there is something essential to our human psychology such that we thrive on conflict, shouldn’t we incorporate this feature rather than try to suppress it?

What is that old saying?  “Judge not lest ye be judged.”  To that I might say, “judge me, since I play to win.”