Author Archives: jdougross

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…