Category Archives: everyday ethics

Is bluffing just business, or is it bad business?

Consent and fair play can both provide reasonable justifications for the deceptive behavior in some contexts. If you agree to play poker with me, you can’t complain if I bluff — though you certainly could complain if you caught me playing with a marked deck. But these reasons do not necessarily work in the case of all adversarial institutions.

To an extent, part of what adversaries do is deceive and coerce people in order to win the game that they are a part of. This deception amongst adversaries is part of the game, not accidental. The minute difference between a foul and an intentional foul in the sport of boxing is just one example. In order to win, some boxers try to disguise intentional fouls as mere accidents. In his book Ethics for Adversaries, Applbaum argues that those within adversarial institutions have a better chance of getting away with actions that might not be as acceptable in other situations.

“One cannot coherently claim that one aims at the good ends of a competitive system if one seeks to undermine features of the system that make it good. Perhaps the claims that adversaries make about their aims and the actions that they take cannot be made to cohere. Or perhaps the good ends of the system are for its practitioners a sort of idle hope that is unconnected to what their actions aim at. But there is no plausible way to redescribe the violation that adversaries aim at as accidental, a foreseen but unintended side effect. If, to pass a test of reasonable acceptance, actions cannot aim at violation, then much of the violation that results from adversary institutions does not pass the test” – Applbaum, p. 187

When one plays to win, it can often involve actions that undermine the aims of the game. If adversaries are aiming at good ends, then the violations they inflict upon one another can be reasonably justified. As the final sentence of the quote implies, however, not all violations of normal moral codes (like honesty) in adversarial institutions are accidental.

In short, for Applbaum, the good ends of deliberately adversarial institutions will not always justify the means if the means are deliberately unethical.


Sh-Boom, maybe life isn’t a game

We can’t understand what might be special about the regulation of, and ethics within, adversarial institutions unless we can get a clear idea of what analogous non-adversarial versions of those institutions might be like. It helps to be able to contrast a sport like gymnastics with an art form like modern dance; or to compare inquisitorial legal systems with those that structure a competition between the prosecution and the defense; to think about the relative merits of benevolent dictators and democratically elected leaders (and to think hard about which category we would want to stick Mike Bloomberg in).

In the previous post, we see the economist Milton Friedman almost instinctively assuming that life in general is but a game or sport. But lest we forget, this is not the way most poets have thought about life. The 1954 doo-wop classic, “Sh-boom,” comes to mind. You can find all you need to know about the song here.

There doesn’t appear to be anything especially adversarial about the Crew Cuts’ vision of life as a dream.

Oh, life could be a dream (sh-boom)

If I could take you up in paradise up above (sh-boom)

If you would tell me I’m the only one that you love

Life could be a dream, sweetheart

I mean, the singer doesn’t even seem to be concerned about the possibility of a rival with whom the sweetheart might possibly find an even dreamier life. Of course, it is all rather hypothetical. Life could be a dream. Maybe that’s because he currently experiences it as game (like the similarly crew-cut Milton Friedman) or… a battlefield.


“Tim Duncan Urges All-Stars To Use Inside Voice During Game”

The headline above was from The Onion last week. Like most articles in the satirical newspaper and website that calls itself “America’s Finest News Source,” the headline contains as much punch as the article that follows.

If you found it mildly funny (as, presumably, the 300 or so people who tweeted it directly from the site did), why? What is the underlying “truth” that the joke is riffing off?

Could it be that it’s playing on our instinctive, but usually inarticulate, understanding of the difference between ethics in “everyday” contexts, on the one hand, and ethics in “competitive” contexts, on the other?

In everyday contexts we teach children how to use “indoor voices” so they will not bother or annoy other people they are sharing space with. Like much of everyday ethics, it is designed to facilitate cooperation and solve collective-action problems (or in this case, collectively-sharing-space problems). You show respect for others, and make things go better for them, by piping down in their proximity.

But the last thing we want in a sports arena is for everyone to be using their indoor voices and sitting on their hands. Indeed, as discussed by student bloggers on this very blog recently (here and here), rowdy home-side spectators are part of the attraction and entertainment-value of sports for everyone. Even when that crowd noise is deliberately trying to help your team, and distract or demoralize the visitors, we all think that is perfectly acceptable from an ethical point of view. (Which is not to deny that there are limits to what kind of fan behavior is acceptable, as the previous posts emphasized.)

The great thing about satire is that it captures all of that in a headline or a caption. It takes a philosopher to spend 300 words sucking all the fun out of it.