Category Archives: institutional design

Who makes the rules for selecting the rulers?

escher hands

Our major adversarial institutions are not free-for-all, war-of-all-against-all, slugfests. They are highly regulated competitions, with specific rules in place to encourage desirable outcomes: convicting the guilty but not the innocent (law), creating prices and promoting efficiency (markets), electing competent governments (politics), entertaining fans (spectator sports). The “players” are invited to play to win; but the competitions are not in place primarily for their benefit, but mostly for the benefit of those outside the competition.

This, in a nutshell, is why it always matters who gets to write or amend the rules of these competitions. And why we worry when the “players” get to write their own rules. Especially when a subset of the players — the ones who happened to win the last round — get to write the rules for the next round.

As Arash Abizadeh writes in Toronto’s Globe and Mail,

Here’s the problem: letting politicians who won the last election decide future election rules is like letting the team who won the last playoff game decide rules for the next game. There’s an obvious conflict of interest. Electoral rules determine who forms government, and different rules favour different parties.

After surveying the options for a better process of electoral reform, Abizadeh recommends something novel:

how could electoral reform be legitimized? We need a manifestly fair procedure – a neutral body, unbeholden to politicians, that will reasonably evaluate the alternatives.

Fortunately, political scientists have a solution that fits the bill – a randomly selected citizen assembly. The idea is this: randomly select a few thousand Canadians, ask if they are willing to serve, and, from those saying yes, randomly select 100 to 200 to serve on an assembly empowered to determine federal election rules.

Putting regular citizens in charge may initially seem crazy. Wouldn’t citizens with no special experience or expertise make incompetent decisions? But that’s who decides referenda, too. In fact, Canada is a pioneer in using citizen assemblies to make decisions about voting systems.

We’ve done it twice before, in B.C. and Ontario. Political scientists havestudied both cases, and both were in many respects a great success. Once our fellow citizens received expert advice (about voting systems) and consulted the public, they became well informed, and their deliberations and decision-making were extremely competent and reasonable.

No surprise here: it’s well known to social scientists that under the right conditions, there is intelligence in numbers. The decisions of an assembly of regular but diverse individuals are often more intelligent than decisions by a lone genius or expert.

As they used to say in 1960s sitcoms, that is so crazy it just.. might.. work! It is also not beyond the realm of conceivability that the current Trudeau government in Canada, which promised electoral reform in its last campaign, would consider such a thing.

The probability that anything like this will happen south of 49th parallel, where two parties have successfully colluded to secure a political duopoly for generations, is approximately 0.0. Why think outside the box when the box is just fine the way it is? Why not just hire a consultant…

new yorker escher construction


Boaty McBoatface, Primaries, and the Illusion of Democratic Legitimacy


The internet seems to bring out the extreme tendencies of human groups. It can connect us over the greatest of distances and provide for the rapid spread of information — whether in the form of revolutionary tweets or cat pictures. At the same time, the anonymity provided by certain social media platforms coupled with mass social movements can end up having some wonky effects.

One such recent sensation was the saga of Boaty McBoatface. As detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently ran a contest to determine the name of a new $300-million research vessel. The new ship would explore the remotest waters, its side emblazoned with a name chosen by “the people” of the internet. Or such was the idea.

As Atlantic writer Uri Friedman put it:

The NERC had expressed a preference for an “inspirational,” environmental science-y choice. Your “Shackleton.” Your “Endeavour.” And so on.

Of course, internet users jumped on such an opportunity to “participate” in such scientific endeavors. Before long, the leading entry for the name of the new ship was “RRS Boaty McBoatface,” a name which soon became an internet sensation. As links to the contest were shared, the name continued to gain steam, ending with 124,000 votes — over three times the votes of the runner-up entry.


The boat that will NOT be named Boaty McBoatface

Yet the captain (er, Science Minister) Jo Johnson leaned hard on the tiller and, along with the hardy crew (the NERC), decided to bring her about, ignoring the prevailing winds of internet opinion. Such a name just wouldn’t be proper!

This raises the obvious question: if the NERC wanted to maintain creative control over the naming of the ship, why hold the contest at all? Had they never asked the amorphous mob of “the internet” to participate, they could have just named it whatever boring name they wanted. But had the done so, they never would have got people interested. After all, wasn’t the purpose of the marketing ploy precisely to raise awareness for science and give people the feeling that they were somehow participating in the process?

Here we see something pertinent to the study of adversarial institutions: sometimes a contest can be used to give validation or legitimacy to an idea. The logic is generally this: the majority will have little reason to complain about the outcome, since they themselves chose it. Such a notion may appear extremely obvious — after all, we are used to it in its political form: majoritarianism.

Yet the story of “Boaty McBoatface” shows that while a body might set up a such a structured contest to give their actions legitimacy, that same body of organizers might find themselves still wanting control over the outcome. In an alternate scenario, the  NERC could have the people choose between several tried-and-true-and-boring options. But is a choice among options you didn’t pick really a valid choice for the purposes of legitimacy?

The example of Boaty McBoatface seems especially relevant in a U.S. primary season where both major parties have seen strong challenges from candidates considered to be outsiders. On the right, there has been talk of Donald Trump being blocked at the Republican convention by the party establishment; on the left, superdelegates have proved to be a hot-button issue in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Like the NERC, both parties seem to want to have their cake and eat it too: they want to let the people (generally, or of their party) appear to have some input, but they also want to maintain some control over the process.

If there’s one thing that both the saga of Boaty McBoatface and this U.S. primary season will achieve, it will be the raised awareness among citizens and internet-basement-dwellers that sometimes the way that contests are structured matters immensely. Is it enough to have a choice, or is directly choosing the options also required for democratic legitimacy? Needless to say, deciding the scope and limits of democratic legitimacy is and will continue to be a slippery business.


Congressional Military Oversight: A Trial Without A Judge


The US Congress holds the constitutional responsibilities of declaring war and raising, equipping, and maintaining the military (clauses: Declare War, Army, Navy, Regulate, Installations). The framers of the constitution intentionally gave the legislature these powers to divide control of the military between it and the executive. They sought to prevent either branch of government from using the fighting force to oppress the people or to engage in wanton war making. In short, they wanted an adversarial structure to the mechanism that controlled the military; an institutional check on military and executive decisions that relate to war and national defense.

To fulfill this constitutional duty, congressional committees frequently hold hearings to investigate ongoing military issues, to learn about strategies being employed, and to hold military leaders accountable for the decisions they make. When done right, congressional oversight can be extremely effective (Truman Committee: here). The Senate Armed Services Committee handles these duties for the Senate.

Unfortunately, committee members frequently use hearings for personal or political advantage. Consider testimony on the Syrian Civil War and the Iraq War:


On 10/27/2015, Senator Lindsey Graham (above) engaged in an emotional questioning of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (below) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford about the ongoing Syrian Civil War. He asked both individuals questions on the US strategy to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Asad from office and in all cases he proceeded to interrupt and answer for the witnesses (video: here). His line of questioning was less about learning and more about criticizing the Obama administration. Despite hearing such as the one shown here, Congress is still yet to authorize the ongoing military operations in Syria and Iraq, consciously choosing not to vote on an Authorization for Use of Military Force.


On 9/11/07, then Senator Hillary Clinton (Dem) spent 6 minutes giving a speech criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War before ever asking a question. In this speech she essentially accused the witnesses General David Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker of lying (video: here; article: here), stating: “Despite what I view is your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief.” It was later revealed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that Clinton admitted that she only voted against the surge for political reasons (article: here).

In contrast to Senator Clinton, in the same set of Iraq War hearings Senator John McCain (Rep) asked several softball questions that supported the ongoing Bush-Petraeus surge strategy. McCain was a noted supporter of the surge and his leading questions did very little to probe the war effort or provide any real oversight (video: here; support: here).

Although congressional hearings have a question and answer format reminiscent of a lawyer’s examination of a witness in a courtroom and they are similarly intended to seek some approximation of the truth, there is no equivalent to the judge to keep the questions on track and professional. It’s unfortunate that committee hearings frequently turn political instead of being informative. It’s also easy to understand why witnesses so uniformly hate testifying before Congress.

Alexander Hamilton and the Supreme Court nomination crisis

By now there is (probably) not a single person in the country who remains unaware of the impending, but also already incredibly intense, showdown over President Obama’s nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice to replace Antonin Scalia, who died last month. (Facts: here. Conspiracy theories: here.)


In justifying their refusal to consider any nominee, many Republicans cited the authority of both precedent and even some vague Senate “rule,” arguments which have since been unmasked as straight up not true. The number and intensity of opinions seems to be growing wilder and fiercer by the day, so I thought I’d one-up Republicans by appealing to an authority even higher than mere precedent or tradition: Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU does a great job explaining in this article (which can be read alternatively as a cross-posting at The Huffington Post if, for some reason, you prefer Arial to Helvetica) how the framers of the Constitution, particularly Hamilton (and Madison), expected situations like this would be handled by future generations.

As its authors note: “Our constitutional system only works if the institutional players adhere in good faith to the Constitution’s basic rules.”

Politics is an appropriately adversarial system; however, it is inappropriate, and even dangerous, to play political games with the basic, constitutive rules of a government. Politicizing the mere maintenance of the fundamental institutions of a system of government risks gutting the framework and crippling the stability of that system.

Things fall apart: Williams v. Pennsylvania and judicial conflicts of interest

It seems self-evident that no person should be permitted to judge a case in which they have an interest, but our laws do not yet reflect this principle clearly, if at all. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU recently published this article about a capital case—Williams v. Pennsylvania—in which conflict of interest has had a leading role.

This is a particularly timely article because the U.S. Supreme Court—narrowly divided on this issue several times in the past, though now more evenly so with the recent passing of Justice Scalia—heard oral arguments in this case yesterday, February 29th. (Transcripts and recordings of the oral arguments will be available here by March 5th.)

What is important for us to note is that, at issue are not disputes over guilt or innocence, but rather whether the fundamental concept of procedural justice has been tainted by a judge’s conflict of interest; and what kind of threat that would pose to both the perception and reality of justice and fairness in our legal system.

As the article notes, we all have the right to a fair trail before an impartial judge; yet

Mr. Williams was denied that right, by any reasonable reckoning, when Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice, Ronald Castille, who is now retired, declined to recuse himself in a 2014 ruling by his court upholding Mr. Williams’ death sentence, notwithstanding an astonishing conflict: He personally approved and oversaw Mr. Williams’ prosecution and post-trial defense of the death verdict in his earlier role as Philadelphia’s district attorney.



“You look familiar. Have I prosecuted you somewhere before?”

Our legal system is necessarily, and fortunately, adversarial; and removing that adversarial component from this case puts the integrity of the entire system at risk.

Lawyers are to argue their client’s case competently, perhaps even very aggressively, and an impartial magistrate is to judge the proper course of action after listening to and considering both sides. But what might we expect to happen if one of those lawyers were to become the “impartial” judge of the case at a later stage of the trial and then refuse to recuse himself? (Spoiler alert: objectively bad things, many of which are certainly immediately apparent to the reader even as pure hypotheticals.)

Democracy for a race of Mitch McConnells

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)Immanuel Kant famously believed that “the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.” These rational devils will realize that they need well designed and enforced laws for their own self-preservation, even though each “is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them.” So they need “to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such evil intentions.”

In short, in this essay Perpetual Peace, published about 30 years after Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Kant was optimistic that with a well designed constitution, something like an Invisible Hand (and sometimes, surely, a visible foot) could turn opportunistic political behavior into responsible, statesmanlike, governance.

Of course, this is all probably irrelevant for those following the current election cycle in the US. Kant thought that cleverly designed rules for the game could handle greed. But all bets are off if either the devils running for office, or those whose votes they are courting, lack intelligence, understanding, or rationality. So, well, all bets are off then.

A time-traveling Kant would nonetheless be intrigued by the political biography of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. At least, if the account developed by Alec MacGillis, author of The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, tracks the truth. In his recent attempt in The New York Times to explain McConnell’s tactics for the game of selecting and approving the appointment of a new justice to the Supreme Court, MacGillis portrays the Senate majority leader as exactly the kind of intelligent devil Kant had in mind.

The best way to understand Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. has been to recognize that he is not a conservative ideologue, but rather the epitome of the permanent campaign of Washington: What matters most isn’t so much what you do in office, but if you can win again.

As an aspiring young Republican — first, a Senate and Ford administration staff member and then county executive in Louisville — Mr. McConnell leaned to the moderate wing of his party on abortion rights, civil rights and many other issues. It was only when he ran for statewide office, for the Senate in 1984, that he began to really tack right. Mr. McConnell won by a razor-thin margin in a year when Ronald Reagan handily won Kentucky. The lesson was clear: He needed to move closer to Reagan, which he promptly did upon arriving in Washington.

From that point on, the priority was winning every six years and, once he’d made his way up the ranks of leadership, holding a Republican majority. In 1996, that meant voting for a minimum-wage increase to defuse a potential Democratic talking point in his re-election campaign. In 2006, as George W. Bush wrote in his memoir, it meant asking the president if he could start withdrawing troops from Iraq to improve the Republicans’ chance of keeping the Senate that fall, when Mr. McConnell was set to become its leader.

A year later, it meant ducking out of the intense debate on the Senate floor about immigration reform to avoid making himself vulnerable on the issue. It is no accident that the legislative issue Mr. McConnell has become most identified with, weakening campaign finance regulations, is one that pertains directly to elections.

This is also the best way to understand Mr. McConnell’s staunch opposition to the president: It is less about blocking liberal policy goals than about boosting Republican chances.

MacGillis concedes that McConnell’s tactical obstructionism has been successful on its own terms:

The resistance from Mr. McConnell has had an enormous influence on the shape of Obama’s presidency. It has limited the president’s accomplishments and denied him the mantle of the postpartisan unifier he sought back in 2008.

But the game isn’t over yet, and McGillis wonders whether McConnell has overplayed his hand in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

This blog does not really have a dog in that fight. We’re interested more in the concepts and categories we use to think through issues than we are (at least within this blog) in the political conclusions they lead to. My interest in McGillis’s portrait of McConnell is about the viability of Kant’s constitutional optimism. Some deliberately adversarial institutions — like Wimbledon tennis matches, courtroom law, markets without dangerously exploitable market failures — can licence the players to pursue their own interests in a contest with well designed rules and close monitoring for compliance. In these cases those outside “the game” will benefit even if the “players” care only about their own interests.

But can we possibly expect a modern democracy to work well, and justly, if the players vying for, and holding, office are all rational devils? Do the US Constitution and other defining features of the political infrastructure (such as the Federal Election Commission and the 50 different states’ laws for drawing up federal constituencies and voter-eligibility rules) constitute the kinds of rules that will, as Kant put it, convert selfish or evil private intentions into virtuous public conduct?

Even Mitch McConnell (thought not perhaps Francis Underwood) would surely agree that the answer to these questions is No. When this blog ponders politics, it will generally be to explore  “why not?” or “where, then, from here?”





Duke Student Government Elections: Students actively avoid adversarial tactics

While national democratic politics are generally adversarial, it turns out democratic politics in the context of student governments at American universities are not. Last week, the Duke Student Government held its annual debate for candidates running for student body president and vice president. The presidential candidates had very similar platforms, so the moderator spent most of the debate asking questions about their leadership styles. In a race where candidates differed on personal, rather than ideological, attributes, the candidates did surprisingly little to distinguish themselves from their opponents. None of the candidates directly criticized the other, and when asked to the name the biggest weaknesses of their opponents, one candidate declined to answer for sake of “constructive conversation.” Interestingly enough, the candidates were willing to scapegoat the school’s administrators on every issue.

Without any conflict, the debate lacked entertainment, for sure—but also substantive value. The platforms of all the candidates were vague and inflated, and they all got away with inaccurate statements. The candidates had plenty of opportunities to go after each other, but none of them did.

Much of this lack of conflict can be explained by the candidates’ relationships to one another. At the end of the campaign, the candidates will inevitably see each other again in class or at a party. They don’t have the luxury of returning to their home states or hiding behind a camera. The candidates have to directly confront each other, and a contention taken the wrong way would make future interactions awkward. On the national stage, it is easy to call your opponent a flip-flopper. On a cafeteria stage in front of a group of peers, a comment with even the slightest contrast can be taken offensively.

In some ways, a government where members are sensitive to conflict will be a government with a lot of mutual respect and cooperation. However, less conflict means fewer substantive policies are crafted on the campaign trail, and candidates win with broad promises without a map to completion. Additionally, voters cannot make informed decisions—without the ability to compare differing platforms or leadership styles, voters inevitably base their decisions on recommendations from peers and name recognition.

At the end of the debate, the uncontested candidate for vice president lambasted the presidential candidates for their remarks about the administration (see it here at 1:00:35), and the audience responded with hoots and applause. The candidates may not like conflict, but the voters sure do.

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.

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.

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.”

Bubbling up in the Ethics-for-Adversaries lab…

In this blog we have spent a lot of our time with case studies drawn from the “Big 4” large-scale deliberately adversarial institutions: markets, electoral politics, sports, and the justice system. But some of the most illuminating analyses are sparked by adversarial activities in other realms, or in peculiar corners of the Big 4.

Based on an initial brainstorming session with this year’s team of bloggers, here are a few of the realms of structured competition you can expect to see future posts on:

  • University Student Politics (ought we to expect an emphasis on certain unwritten democratic norms that have fallen by the wayside in big-money national politics?)
  • Debate Club (how is it like a sport? what is its function? is this a better way to develop public-speaking and logic/rhetorical skills than other pedagogical or social means? what formal and informal rules and norms surround the competitions?)
  • Academic Philosophy (similarly, what can we learn by contrasting student and professional academic philosophy communities that place greater or lesser emphasis on aggressive argumentation?)
  • Job Hiring for Non-Adversarial Institutions (there are formal and informal competitions going on all the time in even the most non-adversarial institutions. E.g., competitions for student placement or job hiring. How do otherwise non-adversarial institutions best handle and constrain these competitive moments?)
  • Ballet-Company Politics (one such non-adversarial institution — after all, its purpose is to put on a show that is evaluated on its own terms by aesthetic criteria — is the ballet company. And yet at all levels, we are told that the competition between dancers, and their parents, is like a blood sport.)
  • Animal Mate-Selection (what can we learn from the mostly genetically-encoded norms that govern mate-selection in different parts of the animal kingdom? Robert Frank has recently written that  Darwin, not Adam Smith, is really the father of modern thinking about market economics. So what can we learn from Darwin about the social benefits of a well-designed adversarial practice?)
  • International Relations, Diplomacy, Espionage, and War.  (At the limit: surely one of the oldest, and most ritualized, deliberately and inherently adversarial practices.)
  • Scientific Research (a cooperative community in a common search for the Truth, or red in tooth and claw? What kinds of tactics and strategies are justifiable in the competition for grants, patents, and publications?)

Expect this list to grow over the coming weeks. If you have suggestions for other  adversarial realms we should be working on, please let us know in the comments section, below.

Race-to-the-bottom watch: The sensational path to the gutter

In today’s 24-hour coverage by cable and internet news media, keeping abreast with current events has become more convenient than ever, but has the increased quantity of news come at the expense of quality?

The ubiquitous nature of news as a product of technological innovation has created a fierce competition among media outlets. Cable news networks such as FoxNews, CNN, and MSNBC compete daily to increase their market share of a limited number of viewers. In this market of perfect or almost perfect substitutes, the logical option to beating your competitors would be to try as much as possible to differentiate your product from the rest of the field, and this is exactly what cable news networks engage in.

A favorite strategy of networks in distinguishing their products is to rely on the over-the-top personalities of their journalists. As a consequence, we have seen a gradual shift of importance away from the news and towards the newscaster, as the voices of Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Mike Huckabee, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Lou Dobbs, and many others work to define a particular station’s unique image. The assumption underlying this trend is that news on its own is not enough to attract viewers; therefore, networks compensate for the dull news with flamboyant hosts (and extreme guests) who do extended opinion shows on the events of the day.

The conundrum is that as one network becomes more entertaining, the others have to scramble to catch up if they want to avoid being left in the dust.  So far, the three major networks have all done their share to stay competitive, but what has been left in the dust is the news they were originally intended to report.

A recent study done by the found that, while there is a significant number of misinformed viewers of all cable news outlets, FoxNews viewers are the most likely to be misinformed about objective facts in current affairs. This may come as no surprise however, as the industry incentives to sensationalize have, for example, frequently led FoxNews’ primetime pundit Glenn Beck to turn world news into entertaining puppet shows for his audiences to enjoy. And puppet shows are not even the end of the story. Some viewers have even turned exclusively to Comedy Central’s Colbert Report or The Daily Show for their portion of the day’s news.

For cable news, the race to entertain viewers has led to a race to the bottom in factual reporting. In order for a network to be competitive, it has to have its own brand of radical anchors that cater to a specific and ever-more partisan audience. The result has been the creation of a perpetually polarized atmosphere and an uneducated viewership. Only time will tell if the demand for entertainment news programs will continue or if viewers will become disillusioned and seek alternative or additional sources for news, hundreds of which are already available online.

The Primaries: what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger?

That special time of the election cycle is approaching us—the primaries. A time when members from the same party begin a four to six month cycle of in-fighting that makes even the nastiest of family arguments look like a walk in the park. I have always found the American Presidential Primary system to be fascinating because of the quick shift that the Democratic and Republican (and…Tea??) Parties must undergo between competition and unification. They compete heavily and often ruthlessly for the nomination amongst their own party, but then everyone in the party is expected to turn around after the convention and promote a unified stance behind whoever the nominee may be.

Essentially, what we see in American politics is that our entire political system was established to be a very deliberately adversarial institution. Americans believe that a one-party system, without debate and negotiation, can lead to corruption, or—our Founding Fathers’ biggest fear—a non-representative monarchy. But, within this system we have developed political parties, which are not deliberately adversarial institutions. Yet, every four years the parties break their norm of cooperation and, essentially, become adversarial institutions in order to attempt to elect the candidate who will win the White House.

This seems pretty unusual, right? Well, I would argue that this is actually a commonplace practice amongst many institutions that are not necessarily adversarial in and of themselves, but must compete in a larger adversarial context. Law firms are perhaps the greatest example. The American legal system is very adversarial, but law firms themselves are supposed to be cooperative bodies that are working towards the same goal. However, in order to motivate employees and attempt to rise to the top of their field, law firms often create inter-office competitions that pit employees against one another.

After: It's a different story after the primary, when party unity trumps all.


The American Presidential election system is often criticized, and as we begin yet another election cycle the pundits and criticism will rise anew, but maybe we should all think more about why it is designed this way and how effective competition can be first.

Race-to-the-Bottom Watch: Fishing for Trouble

What’s the most deadly occupation in America? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s fishing. Commercial fishing, to be precise. Why is fishing so dangerous? Fisherman can be trapped in a perfect storm of collective-action problems and, well, actual storms.

The harsh competition in this already dangerous industry is leading workers to labor in ever-worse sea conditions in order for businesses to stay afloat (so to speak). The best fishing grounds are often found in the most treacherous seas, and the clock ticks down quickly in some fisheries (say, the crab fishery off the coast of Alaska) where the seasons last only a few weeks. When one vessel decides to go out in stormy weather in order to get a competitive edge, crews of other vessels are faced with the dilemma of either falling behind the competition or following suit in braving the potentially life-threatening conditions.

This dilemma is only exacerbated by the depleted state of many of the world’s most important fisheries.  In an effort to stem the “tragedy of the commons” of overfishing, authorities have commonly resorted to setting an overall limit of fish that can be caught in a given fishery for a given season.  The approach of giving an aggregated limit breeds intense competition because each fish caught by one fisherman entails one fewer available to all the others.  This creates what has become known as a “race to fish” wherein fishermen are willing to do almost anything in order to nab a greater share of the overall quota before it runs out, including foregoing safety precautions.

So this race to fish is really a race to the bottom. One crew deciding to risk the elements in order to gain a competitive advantage starts the race. But once the other vessels join the competition by going out in perilous weather conditions, the competitive edge that motivated the first mover vanishes, while the risk of death for all of the fishers increases.  Thus, in the race to fish we can see how individuals attempting to act in their own interest, while responding to the actions of others attempting to do the same, can all end up worse off.

Is there any way out of this race to the bottom? Some authorities have replaced the overall quota with individual allocations to prevent such fierce competition.  Critics protest, however, that this solution does not live up to the free-market principles of American capitalism.  However, it is evident that the case of a totally free market for fishing (in which fishers and their customers do not pay the cost of replenishing the fish stock) is likely to lead to overfishing and ultimately the end of any kind of market for fishing. What if the rights of individual allocations were auctioned off in advance?



Bipartisan or Bust?

It seems that nearly every time President Obama or Speaker of the House John Bohener makes a speech the magic B word is somewhere in it—bipartisanship. Just yesterday when the Senate passed a stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown, Obama said, “I’m pleased that Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together and passed a plan.” Throughout his campaign, Obama also crafted an image of bipartisanship. I can’t help but ask the question, do Democrats and Republicans truly want to work together like they claim? If they do, then there actions (like voting to repeal “Obamacare” by the Republicans or walking out of the Wisconsin state legislature by the Democrats) don’t seem to match their words. And if they don’t actually want to be bipartisan, then why do they insist on spending so much time on it?

The American political party system is an example of an adversarial institution. What makes this institution so interesting is that nothing in our Constitution creates a party system, in fact our founding fathers warned against the influence of parties. Now, however, we have a highly regulated system with complex rules and the party system is one of the foremost features of American democracy. There is a common notion, however, that the party system is somehow detrimental to our democracy and that being an “independent” is a matter of pride.

Nancy Rosenblum, a Harvard professor of government, writes in her book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship, that there is a notion in America that anti-partisanship is an ideal to strive for. In an interview with the Dartmouth student newspaper, she said that “Anti-partisanship is as old as politics and as old as the dinosaurs.”

Rosenblum, however maintains that partisanship is exactly one of democracies strongest positive features, and without it the system of American democracy that exists today would look totally different—and worse. “We don’t need independence or post-partisanship, but better partisanship.”

So, maybe instead of always throwing out empty words about bipartisanship and “above the Beltway” rhetoric, our political leaders could do well to reexamine their own party politics.

For Milton Friedman, life is but a game, sweetheart

(Note: This is the inaugural post by “tiaramer.”)

One big open question for those thinking about ethics in deliberately adversarial institutions concerns how literally or directly we can transplant the vocabulary of sports to other domains. Are markets, for example, just games, or just like games, or only metaphorically and very imperfectly like games?

For Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, this question doesn’t seem very open at all. He seems to take it as obvious that not only markets, but life in society in general, is very similar in structure to a game.

The day-to-day activities are like the actions of the participants in a game when they are playing it; the framework, like the rules of the game they play. And just as a good game requires acceptance by the players both of the rules and of the umpire to interpret and enforce them, so a good society requires that its members agree on general conditions that will govern relations among them, on some means of arbitrating different interpretations of these conditions, and on some device for enforcing compliance with the generally accepted rules. As in games, so also in society, most of the general conditions are the unintended outcome of custom, accepted unthinkingly. At most, we consider explicitly only minor modifications in them, though the cumulative effect of a series of minor modifications may be a drastic alteration in the character of the game or of the society. In both games and society also, no set of rules can prevail unless most participants most of the time conform to them without external sanctions; unless that is, there is a broad underlying social census. But we cannot rely on custom or on census alone to interpret and enforce the rules; we need an umpire. These then are the basic roles of government in a free society: to provide a means whereby we can modify the rules, to mediate differences among us on the meaning of the rules,  and to enforce compliance with the rules on the part of those few who would otherwise not play the game.” (Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962, p. 25; emphasis added)

So for Friedman we willingly, and usually unthinkingly, accept many of these “rules of the game” although we may not know their origins. And if we don’t, there is always an “umpire” there to enforce them anyway!

But his thorough-going acceptance of the direct parallel between good games and good societies raises more questions than it answers. Even if markets can be quite game-like, what does it mean for life in general to be compared to a game? Are we talking about the same kind of “goodness” when we think about a “good game” and a “good society”? Does a “good” society really require acceptance of rules by all of the citizens?

And what if you don’t want to “play” any more? Is it even possible to pick up your bat and ball and go home?


Even if it’s broke, don’t fix it

Should women lacrosse players be required to wear helmets? Should people be allowed to text and drive?

We learn a lot about the dynamics of regulation in deliberately adversarial institutions by looking at the social-science laboratories known as sports. The guardians of heavily regulated competitions in sports and life are presented with an irresistible solution whenever systematic “issues” arise within their contests: tweak the rules.

The guardians of a sport or, say, an industry, get to “play god” with it. But as any fan of science fiction knows all-too-well, those playing god, or accused of playing god, tend to lack god’s omniscience. They have a hard time foreseeing the dynamic consequences of their rule-tweaking. This is especially true when putative solutions involve simple technological fixes. Game-players excel by using strategic rationality, so rule-changes will change behavior, but not always in the direction the regulators intend.

Across the sporting world, the past year has been the Year of the Concussion. The Onion recently satirized the trend with its article on “Puppy Bowl Marred by Tragic Spinal Injury.”

The injury, which occurred only minutes before the Kitty Halftime Show, followed a routine midfield burst of play. Slow-motion footage from the sideline and water-dish cameras show Alvin romping flat out down the sidelines before taking a risky crossing route to come at the football from an angle, at which point two larger puppies, Amy, a golden retriever, and Big Red, a 13-week-old shepherd mix, laid a massive hit on Alvin, who responded with a shrill yelp that was suddenly and ominously cut off.

Dark stuff.

But if competitors can use strategic rationality, so can regulators. A fascinating case study is going on right now in NCAA women’s lacrosse. Unlike their male counterparts (who play a vicious, gladiatorial game), the women play with speed, finesse, and without helmets. And sure enough, they get concussions. A lot of concussions.

Simple solution: make them wear helmets. Or not. As the New York Times reports in a provocative article entitled A Case Against Helmets in Lacrosse, many inside the sport believe that introducing helmets would simply lead to more violent or reckless play — and thus to more head injuries, not fewer.

“It’s hard to absolutely prove, but what we’ve seen is that behavior can change when athletes feel more protected, especially when it comes to the head and helmets,” said Dr. Margot Putukian, Princeton’s director of athletic medicine services and chairwoman of the U.S. Lacrosse safety committee. “They tend to put their bodies and heads in danger that they wouldn’t without the protection. And they aren’t as protected as they might think.”

Of course, this does not show that every regulatory impulse is misguided. Automobile makers resisted installing seat belts for years, and did not work on designing more effective seat belts until relatively late in the game. Eventually, they were forced by regulators in the 1960s and 70s to make seat belts mandatory. But even then many dissenters continued to argue that belts would cause more harm than good: that it would be better to be “thrown clear” of the crash, than trapped inside it. (Yes, thrown clear at, say, 60 mph…into on-coming traffic.) Studies would eventually prove the effectiveness of good seat belts, and by the 1980s their use was becoming mandatory in most jurisdictions. It is doubtful that seat belts led to drivers becoming more reckless because they now felt safer and less prone to injury — though that has surely happened in hockey and American football.

Still, consequences of regulating are often unforeseen and perverse. Not least when the “players” do not observe the spirit of the new rules. There is clear evidence that texting while driving is extremely dangerous. More dangerous than illegal levels of alcohol in the driver’s blood. So many jurisdictions have banned texting while driving. Sensible? Sure. Has it reduced accidents? No: in an effort to escape detection, people are now texting in their laps rather than up over the wheel (where they can hope to see traffic in their peripheral vision), and texting-related accidents are on the rise.

Conference Announcement: Property, Markets, and Morality

At least since the publication of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776, most discussions on the foundations of political economy have been about the design of a very important deliberately adversarial institution we call “the market.”

Here is an announcement for a conference on some of the philosophical and ethical issues at the heart of capitalism (so to speak), taking place in my neck of the wood.


18-20 March, click here for an early schedule.

University of North Carolina Greensboro


Hillel Steiner (University of Manchester), “Greed and Fear”

Richard Arneson (UC San Diego), “What is Wrong with Working for a Boss?”

Daniel Russell (Wichita State University), “Capabilities, Redistribution, and Ownership”

Michael Munger (Duke University), “Euvoluntary Exchange and the Difference Principle”

Julian Lamont (University of Queensland), “University Education, Economic Rents, and Distributive Justice”


Eric Mack (Tulane University)

Geoffrey Brennan (UNC Chapel Hill / Australian National University)

Jonathan Quong (University of Manchester)

Daniel Shapiro (West Virginia University)

Bas van der Vossen (UNC Greensboro)

This symposium is hosted by the philosophy department at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and the BB&T program in Capitalism, Markets and Morality.

All welcome. Attendance free, but registration required.

To register and for more information, please contact Bas van der Vossen:

Before there was there was Ethics for Adversaries, the book

This blog shares its name with what we believe was the first academic book to deal with the dilemmas of ethics across a broad range of what we are calling “deliberately adversarial institutions.” Arthur Isak Applbaum’s book came out in 1999, and continues to be widely read and cited in the scholarly community. But it cannot be said to have spawned a new subfield. Yet.

There have been philosophical worries about the perverse consequences of competition in public and private life ever since Socrates denounced political corruption, and Plato scorned the Sophists (the lawyers of his day) for discarding the truth when it was not in their clients’ interest. But few before or after Applbaum have tried to develop a framework for addressing these dilemmas across the full range of competitive institutions, and to link this up with more “foundational” ethical and political theories.

(Applbaum is not founding member of this blog team; though he would certainly be welcome if he wanted to join us.)

From time to time, we will post salient quotes from scholarly works, including Applbaum’s. Let us start where Applbaum himself did (in the preface to Part I of his Ethics for Adversaries: The Morality of Roles in Public and Professional Life), with a quotation from the 16th-century French thinker, Michel de Montaigne:

“Likewise in every government there are necessary offices which are not only abject but also vicious. Vices find their place in it and are employed for sewing our society together, as are poisons for the preservation of our health. If they become excusable, inasmuch as we need them and the common necessity effaces their true quality, we still must let this part be played by the more vigorous and less fearful citizens, who sacrifice their honor and their conscience, as those ancients sacrificed their life, for the good of their country. We who are weaker, let us take roles that are both easier and less hazardous. The public welfare requires that a man betray and lie and massacre; let us resign this commission to more obedient and suppler people.”

Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Useful and the Honorable.”

Montaigne is addressing the morality of roles. There are defined roles in all institutions (i.e. adversarial and non-adversarial), and some of these will require role-holders to do things they could not do outside of those roles. In this blog we will focus especially on the roles within deliberately adversarial institutions, which are even more ethically treacherous. Montaigne’s reluctant public servant administers poison-as-medicine for he knows it is ultimately for the public good. But in contemporary adversarial institutions like financial markets and electoral politics, that links between legal and winning tactics, on the one hand, and the invisible-hand benefits for the public good, on the other, may be so tenuous or dubious they look like delusional rationalizations. If only we could be sure that it was not the “weaker” among us who gravitate toward these roles….

The State of the Union, part 1: toward a more perfect competition?

Democracy is a delicate — well, often not so delicate — balancing of competition and cooperation. The competitive aspects of democracy are largely justified as the best available means to good government in the public interest over the long haul. By forcing would-be leaders to compete for the loyalty of the electorate, they are incentivized to at least appear to act and to propose policies that will benefit the public and not just themselves.

But again, the rough-and-tumble of the democratic competition does not guarantee good government. Sometimes winning tactics might undermine the public good. Sometimes cooperation across the partisan divide can be a more effective way to do what is best for the society. Opinion polls routinely find the electorate clamoring for more cooperation and less partisan gamesmanship; but they also reveal that people want both sides to cooperate around the policies already favored by their prefer partisans.

Adversarial ethics in the political realm is in part about when the competitors should set aside their attempt to “win” the next contest and instead cooperate with their opponents to achieve more directly results in the public interest.

I suspect that all State-of-the-Union speeches implore the members from both sides of the aisle to put aside their differences — and their focus on the next election — and to work cooperatively together. And President Obama’s speech tonight was no exception. In fact, it led with this “adversarial ethics” issue.

It’s no secret that those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years. The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands. That’s what helps set us apart as a nation.

But there’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference.

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation.

Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

I believe we can. I believe we must. That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all – for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.

At stake right now is not who wins the next election – after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It’s whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world.

This way of defining the basic war in the breast of any democratic polity — between competition (to benefit the public indirectly) and cooperation (to benefit the public directly) — could be uttered by any President of either stripe. Of course, all it really does is describe the inherent, perennial conflict.

It says nothing of any substance about the solution — unless you consider the globbing of sweet nationalist syrup over this mess to be a solution. Do we really think that it is a shared sense that we are members of a common family that sets Americans apart as a nation? Do we have to believe that we are a beacon of light to the rest of the world in order to set aside our partisan differences and work together? If we can’t set those differences aside to come up with, say, a sane system of healthcare for all members of the American nation, are we really going to do it because we are duty-bound to light that beacon for foreigners who are counting on us to lead the way?!

The absurdity or vacuousness of this appeal to nationalism just shows how acute this tension is between competition and cooperation in 21st-century democratic federal politics in the United States of America. It is a perfectly adversarial union.

Bankers Bonuses and Multi-Level Structured Competition

Here’s an interesting story about structured competition within an organization. By Michael Flaherty and Sarah White, as appearing in the Globe and Mail: Gap in bankers’ bonuses spurs discontent

Annual bonuses at top global banks are causing friction that could drive an outsized round of defections as weaker profits and tougher rules widen the pay discrepancy between star performers and everybody else.

That growing difference between a small number of top-fee earning investment bankers and the bulk of their colleagues may see an exodus from big European and Wall Street banks to smaller upstarts or different industries in the weeks and months ahead….

Actually, what we see here are several nested levels of structured competition:

  • Competition between bankers, structured by the banks that employ them, in order to incentivize them for maximum productivity;
  • Competition between banks (structured by the legal and regulatory environment) to see who can offer an incentive structure that attracts (and retains) the best talent;
  • Competition between industries to see which industry can attract (and retain) the best talent, at least to the extent that such talent is mobile and involves transferrable skills.

Did I miss any layers?

Each of those competitive structures of course implies its own set of ethical norms, both for those who design the institution and for those who are subject to it. The intersection between, and conflict between, those alternative sets of competition-specific ethical regimes, seems a fertile ground for investigation.

Adversarial ethics and Sarah Palin’s “gun sight” ad

There is surely nothing else to add to the debates over Sarah Palin’s infamous attack-ad that seemed literally to “target” 17 sitting members of the House of Representatives, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Interestingly enough, much of what needed to be said was posted in the blog Joe. My. God. back in March 2010. He reprinted the ad (from which I copped the jpg you see here), and highlighted her “Don’t retreat, RELOAD!” tweet. And nine months before Giffords would be shot in the head, he asked, not rhetorically as it transpired, “What will Palin say when one of her supporters takes her literally?”

(Note: at this point I’m not sure we know whether the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was a supporter of Palin’s or if he had even seen the ad in question. But this is not my issue here.)

The ad, the tweet, and the free-for-all debate about political ethics that followed the shooting help us to frame a central feature of ethics within deliberately adversarial institutions (like electoral politics). The aim of these institutions is to regulate contests that will benefit not only the “players” in the competition, but also (or mainly) the larger public outside of the competition. (In economics, such benefits to third parties are called “positive externalities.”) Much of the design challenge for these institutions is to find a set of rules, and a way to monitor and enforce them, that will maximize the likelihood of these positive externalities.

Democratic systems are the quintessential “deliberately adversarial institutions.” Throughout most of human history we have not “selected” leaders through such regulated competitions. Princes and princesses were handed the job from their parents; coup leaders or revolutionaries stole the job in unregulated contests. But in democracies you have to win the job by competing for votes with rival contestants.

Now here’s the point illustrated by the “gun sight ad” debate: we can never expect to design competitive institutions that will “guarantee” positive externalities. And in particular, the regulations will almost always unintentionally incentivize competitive tactics that can enable competitors to win to the detriment of the larger society. So deliberately adversarial institutions always require something like ethics or professionalism or self-regulation on the part of their participants.

And this frames much of the post-shooting debate (or, as Oh. By. God.‘s post from last March reminds us, the post-ad debate): did Palin’s people “cross the line” — that is, violate the ethical constraints that are expected of participants in a “civilized” democracy? And if so, should we actually change the regulations for political advertising?

Over at This Sporting Life, I have talked about how the NFL tries to respond to every unanticipated and unwelcome event, on and off the field, by tweaking the rules or the way they are monitored or enforced. If Roger Goodell, the NFL’s Commissioner, were the czar at the Federal Elections Commission, it would already now be illegal to produce a political ad using gun-sight imagery. But there are special limits on the tools available to the engineers of democratic systems. Many restrictions on political activities — even limits on campaign finance — can be interpreted as limits on free speech. And in many political systems, especially the American one, free speech is protected even in cases where it is clearly “anti-social.”

Yet just because you have a right to do something or say something, that doesn’t mean you ought to do or say it. This is why we are talking here about “ethics for adversaries.” How do we “draw the line,” if not through regulations? [corrected to remove ambiguity] Given that regulations are never enough, how do we ‘draw the line,’ that is, figure out how far we should self-regulate by refraining from partisan, competitive behavior?

Just hunting

One of my favorite adversarial-ethics cartoons comes from the magazine named after a certain city that’s so nice they named it twice. 

To explain its humor is to identify one of the most intriguing ethical dilemmas at the heart of any “deliberately adversarial” institution.

And yes, hunting is an adversarial institution of sorts; though it’s atypical in that usually one side in the competition (the hunter) is only ever on offense and the other is only ever on defense (the hunted).

The ethical dilemma at the heart of adversarial institutional design is also at the heart of this cartoon: is it ever morally permissible (or even obligatory) to do something within a legitimate adversarial institution that it would be unethical if done outside it? (Of course, some may question whether recreational hunting is in fact legitimate, but that’s another issue.) It’s never ethical to shoot your drinking buddy just for fun. Does it suddenly become OK just because one of you has now decided he is a hunter and you are prey?

And to suck every last bit of humor out of this cartoon — does harming your buddy (say, by driving him into bankruptcy) suddenly become permissible if it is “just business”? Is “just business” just business?

Well, yeah; maybe.

And they’re off!

This blog is based on a hypothesis: that we made a slight mistake when we carved out the sub-fields of ethics and political philosophy. The blog will not, for the most part be trying to prove this hypothesis in a heavy-handed way, but hopes to make it a little more compelling by way of examples.

What was the mistake? At some point “we” assigned some scholars to work on the foundations of moral theory, and others to work on the foundations of political philosophy, and then several other mutually exclusive bands of scholars to look into the peculiar ethical challenges facing professionals working within particular kinds of institutions and professions, like business, law, politics, international relations, journalism, accounting, international relations and, say, sports.

So what’s the hypothesis? That there just may be something similar about the challenges faced in design of all the aforementioned institutions, and also in the ethical dilemmas faced by people working within these settings. And further, that the challenges of designing and justifying these institutions may strain any more foundational theories of justice that have not adequately accounted for how different these competitive institutions are from other “merely administrative” institutions. (And we suspect this includes almost all famous theories of justice — not least John Rawls’s.)

The institutions, professions, and practices that we will be exploring throughout this blog are what we might call “deliberately adversarial.” They set up highly — but never completely — regulated competitions in order (ideally, in principle, as if by an invisible hand) to benefit those outside the competitions. We do not need to use free(ish) markets to produce and distribute goods and services, but if we do so in the right way, consumers should get better value for their money. We have not always had an adversarial legal system, or democratic elections, but when we do, citizens should be less likely to face injustice. We could have events where athletes show off their individual physical talents, but we tend to find competitive sports, where they do this in an attempt to win, a more satisfying spectator experience.

When does it make sense to try to get results from competitions rather than merely by attempting to achieve them directly? Why aren’t cooperation, mutual deliberation, and professionalism more efficient and just ways to deliver services? And if we do need to structure competitive environments, how do we ensure that the system won’t be “gamed” by the players so that they benefit more than the intended beneficiaries (like consumers, criminal suspects, or the general public)?

These will be the sorts of questions we will have in mind in this blog as we search for examples of effective or flawed “deliberately adversarial institutions” all around us.

We offer no prizes for the best leads, but we would be delighted if readers pointed us to interesting issues arising in deliberately adversarial institutions you are paying attention to.