Category Archives: everyday ethics

Is life just a competitive game?

In adversarial ethics, we need to be able to differentiate institutions that are adversarial from those that are not. But isn’t competition all around? In any social situation we can imagine there are mutual interests but also competing interests. In some areas like sports, markets, and electoral systems competition is clearly expressed. In others it is not. But that doesn’t mean that it is absent.

There are children competing against each other for the last piece of cake. You may fight against yourself on your daily running track. Even love is a competitive game as ABBA sing in their famous song “The Winner Takes It All”. (Watch the video of the song here.)


The song tells the story of a jilted woman sadly looking back on a love affair and thinking about the new relationship of her ex. The songwriters used the game-metaphor to illustrate the competition in love. The woman in the song is the loser who is “standing small” and “has to fall”. She is the loser in the game against the woman she lost her boyfriend or husband to but also in the game with or against her boyfriend. There is “no more ace to play” – the game is over. Destiny plays a role in that game, too. It is personified by Gods throwing their dice and thereby deciding about the end of that relationship.

ABBA’s song was about the game of love. We don’t know whether they think all human activities are competitive because, well, they really only ever wrote songs about love. But still, doesn’t it seem plausible to believe that competition somehow plays a role in every situation we can imagine? Aren’t we naturally competitive? Isn’t that the reason why we have ethics and moral standards at all? Joseph Heath quotes Kurt Baier who says that being moral means “following rules designed to overrule self-interest whenever it is in the interest of everyone alike that everyone should set aside his interest”. This means, most ethics are there because we cannot all have what we want. They are used to solve collective action problems.

Sure, in some institutions like markets we try to encourage competitive behavior because people or costumers benefit from that competition. In others like a family we want to suppress it – but it is still around. This difference might be the most important distinction between adversarial and non-adversarial institutions. This means, in non-adversarial contexts (family, love etc.) we try to live by the principles of cooperation and even altruism. In adversarial institutions (markets, elections, sports etc.), however, moral ideals that are relevant in non-adversarial settings are forbidden. For example, cooperation between competitors might lead to price fixing. We justify the abandonment of these ideals in competitions by the benefits for the people who are not competing (the customers). The difference is thus different ethical and moral ideals.


The Most Expensive Honey I’ll Ever Have

I’m a skilled dog whisperer. Given that, I was talking with my dog, Honey, the other day about current events. After she complained to me that she was being cruelly starved (really, is it too much to ask for some lasagna and apple pie in her food bowl, too?), she brought up Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals and his actions concerning a prescription called Daraprim. Honey, the intellectual she is, informed me that Daraprim is the only treatment for humans with a parasite infection but not an immune system strong enough to fight it (an example of such a person would be a cancer patient). The medicine costs mere cents to make and was originally sold for about $13 per pill. So, Honey thought, Turing made excellent profits to begin with. But then hedge fund manager Shkreli increased that price to over $700 per pill, making him and the company exorbitant profits (imagine how many chew toys you could buy with that money!).

So, if a human were in the position that he needed Daraprim, he either needs to empty his pockets or die. So what are the people in this situation going to do? They’re going to pay it, if they can, and otherwise they have to wait on a looming death sentence as they die off slowly. Unfortunately, Honey, commented, humans aren’t as lucky as animals because they can’t be euthanized when death is imminent (an ethical discussion for another day).

So, is there a valid reason for this price inflation of Daraprim? Some people might label it greedy. Heartless, even. It’s one thing to pick on people, but to pick on the feeble and dying? That just seems so much more wrong.

Then Honey brought up a good point – people are enraged by this manipulation, but actually it’s more common than you’d think. Such price gouging already exists in the medicinal market; it’s just that many don’t think twice about it because, legally, it involves property. She was referencing herself, her animal friends and veterinary medicine. Honey and my family know the price of veterinary medicine too well. Honey was diagnosed with cancer about 18 months ago. At the time, my family was given two options: (1) let her die within the next few months or (2) treat the cancer, which could keep her alive for years. That treatment, though, would cost hundreds of dollars per month. It wasn’t a hard decision – Honey made a list of all of the good she brought into my family’s life (how else would we get exercise except for chasing her when she stole undergarments and shoes? who was going to perform the important task of shredding wrapping paper on holidays? how would we fill the silence in the morning without her whining…hem…singing?). My family didn’t need much convincing; we created a budget and started Honey’s treatment immediately.

Honey is an integral part of my family, just as many other pets are to their families. It’s not just us that are willing to go to great lengths for our four-legged friend; thousands go to veterinarians with their pets, diagnosed with life threatening conditions, and are willing to do anything in order to same them, even if it costs them a small fortune. How is this so different from when someone’s grandma is diagnosed with cancer and unable to fight off a parasite except for a prescription that costs an arm and a leg, but pay it anyways because they love her? Why are the market ethics of human medical treatment and animal medical treatment so polarized? They both have to do with living beings. Honey thinks that pet pharmaceutical companies, like Shkreli, bank on that emotional attachment to the lives that the law has so cruelly reduced to property. Why are they allowed to profit off of expensive but necessary medication for pets, but it’s taboo if the profit is a byproduct of expensive human medication? I brought up to Honey they differences between human and animal care, especially research funding and healthcare, but she still thinks that both should be approached, at least morally, from similar positions.

Honey’s story has a happy ending (maybe a better word would be continuance) – my family was able to get her the necessary treatment and she, the champion that she is, managed to beat the cancer into remission. The vet thinks that Honey has a lot of years left in her. We think that more animals should have such chances.

Constructive Game-Over and What Makes Brannen Greene’s Dunk a “Dick Move”


brannen greene


A few weeks ago, Kansas University men’s basketball player Brannen Greene dunked the basketball just before time expired in a contest against rival Kansas State.

Before the dunk, the KU Jayhawks were winning by 16.

(You can watch it here.)

KU head coach Bill Self called it “totally classless” and “probably the biggest dick move I’ve ever had a player do during a game.

Other commentators note that “anyone who plays this game understands that you don’t do that when you’re up 16.”

Clearly, Greene violated a norm of basketball etiquette. There is no rule that says you cannot dunk at the end of games, so Greene was technically within the rules. But why does that norm—don’t dunk at the end of a blowout if you’re winning—exist?

The most likely explanation is probably that offered by Myron Medcalf—that when your team is up by 16 with a few seconds left, “the game is over.” Though not technically true, since the game is not officially over until the time is completely expired, underlying what Medcalf points out is that there are situations (like when your team is up 16 with a few seconds to play) where an adversarial athletic contest is constructively over because the final outcome of the contest cannot reasonably be doubted.

Greene knew, or should have known, that the game was constructively over before he dunked the ball.

When the game is over, we expect the competitors to realize that what constitutes proper (or perhaps “ethical”) behavior is no longer subject to the norms of competition. Before and after the contest, socially appropriate behavior is governed by ordinary conceptions of virtue. Ordinarily, we expect the persons who play basketball to have respect for others in a non-adversarial way, which may include being sensitive to the feelings of the players on the other team—or at least not purposely inflicting emotional distress upon a former adversary.

Simply put, we have different expectations for the actions of basketball players playing basketball compared to persons who play basketball. As Joseph Heath has (in my view, persuasively) argued, “the competitive environment licenses a greater range of ‘self-interested’ behavior.” However, choosing to remain in an adversarial role—remaining a basketball player rather than resuming life as a person who plays basketball—when the contest is constructively over is to abuse that limited license. At bottom, we regard as at least unsportsmanlike the choice to act as an adversary even when you are no longer engaged in competition.

And that choice is a dick move.

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post One: Introduction

Like the NFL’s attempts to determine what counts as a catch, this year’s primary contests have been marked by disagreement about what constitutes ethical behavior in campaign competitions. To cite a few prominent recent examples:

At first glance, the negative reactions to these developments are not particularly surprising; all this behavior seems intuitively wrong, at least in the context of everyday morality. Yet there have been other instances of candidates engaging in actions that one would usually frown if witnessed in daily life that that were not met with outrage and controversy. For example:

So what’s the difference? Why do we censure some actions while accepting others as part of the rough and tumble nature of the political game? In other words, what ethical criterion or moral framework does one use to determine the moral ‘wrongness’ of any candidate’s actions? Is it (il)legality of the act? Is the behavior judged in light conventional norms of interpersonal interactions (e.g. lies and insults are generally frowned upon)? Or, are actions judged by something else entirely—like the ‘spirit’ of the competition?

While I eventually intend to develop an empirically informed answer to these questions, this blog will serve as a sort of data collection depository for disagreements about what constitutes fair play in the campaign game. More concretely, I will use it to list and categorize (e.g. take note of the justifications provided by both the accused and accuser) some of the ethical controversies that arise during this election season. I suspect some patterns will emerge and I hope that they will help us make begin to make sense of the ‘inner morality’ of elections and campaigns.

Finally, I should note that I am not interested in making judgments about the morality of any particular action, here. One can find a wide variety of opinions both defending and criticizing a candidate’s behavior, regardless of how outrageous or offensive it might be, elsewhere. Thus, I’ll usually refrain from weighing in on any controversy in the interest of uncovering what others think it means to compete fairly during campaign season.

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.

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: Are We Drowning in Advertising

Advertisements are everywhere.  Cabs and busses are covered in full-size ads, billboards are placed every 50 yards along highways, YouTube now plays ads before you can watch the video you intended, TV events are created out of one-sentence announcements (e.g. Heisman Trophy presentation, American Idol final), pop-ups pervade web browsing while we simultaneously find ads for pop-up blocker applications, high school prom dances turn into ads for the usefulness of duct tape, and people are ever getting paid to get advertisements tattooed on their bodies.  A 2009 study suggests that the average American adult spends over an hour a day watching advertisements on TV alone.

But really, you’ve got to feel sorry for the advertisers, don’t you? Think about it: the more ads that are put into the public domain, the less effective each individual ad becomes.

This stems from the fact that advertisers are competing to satisfy the existing and limited demand of a consumer base, rather than creating new demand.  Think of the sheer volume of ads for food and drinks.  These companies are not assuming that without advertisements people will just not eat at all; rather, they assume that people are going to eat somewhere, and advertisements are intended to direct the consumers’ demand in their direction.

While there is a certain amount of demand created by advertisements, advertisers aren’t so naïve as to assume that they can convince you, with a single 30-second spot, to buy a brand new car out of the blue.  Rather, their primary interest is to direct, and at times exaggerate, a consumer’s existing desires.  This means that marketers are essentially competing to win the same consumer demand, and consequently, with each entrance of a new competitor, the old ones have to fight even harder to maintain its market share.

Imagine visiting a city for the first time and getting lost on your way to the hotel.  Contrast the following scenarios:

Scenario 1 –You pull over and ask someone for directions.  The person says they know where you are intending to go and gives you concise enough directions to follow.

Scenario 2 – You pull over and ask a group of people for directions.  They all say that they know where you are intending to go and each gives you concise enough directions that you believe you can execute—however; everyone in the group gives you a different set of directions that lead you to altogether distinct places!

Presumably in scenario 1, you would simply follow the directions you were given, but scenario 2 seems much more confusing.  Whose directions are you to follow?  The person who has lived in the city the longest?  The one who seemed most confident?  The one who claimed to be a taxi driver?  The one who claimed to be a doctor?  The one who was most well dressed?  In fact, the situation seems altogether so confusing that you will probably reject all of their opinions and ask a new person or try purchasing a map.

The same confusion arises when advertisers compete for your demands.  The more businesses that decide to advertise, the more the existing advertisers have to shout louder, in more places, and in smarter ways in order to get your attention.  This ultimately leads to more and more of our dollars and minutes being spent on advertisements every year. We are, in short, in a commercial race to the bottom wherein the more effort that is expended leads to not only fewer gains but higher costs for both businesses and consumers.