Category Archives: non-adversarial institutions

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.


Gaming the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice

This blog is about to wake up big-time: there’s a new seminar on Adversarial Ethics at Duke full of eager bloggers — and it’s election season in the US. The neverending Presidential-election season provides us not only with a hyperactive example of one of the classic “deliberately adversarial institutions,” namely electoral politics. But it has a tendency to suck almost every other institution, including many that are not supposed to be adversarial or partisan, into its flames.

Exhibit A: the selection of a new justice to sit on the putative non-partisan Supreme Court.

There is not a single political commentator or politician who has not already weighed in on what the President and the members of the Senate ought to do now that Antonin Scalia’s sudden death has opened up a new seat on the bench. Richard Lempert‘s post over at The Brooking Institution’s Fixgov blog does a nice job of mapping out the likely scenarios in the language of game theory.

Assuming — kind of big assumption, no doubt — that the President (who is constitutionally required to nominate a new justice when there is a vacancy) and all of the Senators (who must confirm the nomination) are all rational, well informed, and intelligent, game theory should help us to predict what they are likely to do, given their divergent interests and options. I won’t rehearse them here. Lempert’s post is here.

The Supreme Court is a striking example of a kind of paradox or contradiction we see in many quintessentially non-adversarial institutions. The Court itself, and the role the justices have, is supposed to be strictly non-partisan. When they vote on a decision or opinion, the justices are supposed to interpret the law. They are not supposed to be supporting a cause or political movement they sympathize with, nor are they to base their votes and arguments on their own principles. And yet swirling around the Court are tornadoes of partisanship:

  • we know — because psychology — that each justice’s attempts to provide “strictly legal” interpretations of law and the Constitution are influenced in conscious and unconscious ways by values that are hotly contested in the political sphere;
  • for this reason, the nomination process we are seeing now involves high political stakes for the elected politicians who get a say;
  • many of the Court’s decisions have huge implications for the actors in other deliberately adversarial institutions — from those involved in electoral politics to corporations and their stakeholders in the marketplace, and even for sports leagues and athletes;
  • and last but not least, as a Court atop the adversarial legal system, the justices preside over a contest played out between lawyers who are committed to making any argument that will help their client’s interests in the cases at hand.

new yorker scotus ping pong


But the Court and the justices themselves are supposed to have the role of a neutral umpire, with no personal interests in any given case, calling strikes and balls as she sees them.

In principle.

Lempert finishes his post with the following reflections of this intriguing “game” we are now watching:

It is interesting to treat the contest between Obama and the Republicans as a game, and to think about the best strategies for each, and how the moves of one might affect the choices of the other. Yet we are not talking about a game. We are talking about consequential political choices that could change the direction of the law in this country for a generation. Voting rights, money in politics, access to abortion providers, environmental regulation, and much more could turn in the short run on the choice of Scalia’s replacement, although in the longer run there are enough aging Justices that the next presidential election is likely to be more consequential. Now it appears the long and short term outcomes may turn out to be intertwined, for the fate of Obama’s nominee may influence what happens in the election. The “game” being played by Obama and the Republican Senate is, however, one that we, the people, can only watch, though we are permitted to root for our favorite team.

It doesn’t hurt that Justice Scalia’s death set the contest in motion during that lull in the American sporting calendar between the Super Bowl and March Madness….

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.

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: 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.