Category Archives: professionalism

Bob Gibson, War, and Sportsmanship

Bob Gibson‘s stare from the mound shouted what Jules’s wallet merely whispered in Pulp Fiction. His fastball was badder still. In 1968 he set a live-ball-era MLB record with an ERA of 1.12, and a playoff record with 17 strikeouts in a single game. He was as responsible as anyone for the lowering of the pitcher’s mound — to give the hitters back a fighting chance — from 15 to 10 inches in 1969. (That rule-change was not a minor tweak: with the possible exception of the introduction of a designated hitter in the American League, that is probably the most important revision of the rules of baseball since the debut of the more lively ball in 1920.)

He was a competitor through-and-through, as we see in a quote from the February issue of the US edition of GQ (this part of the issue doesn’t appear to be readily available on-line at this moment; I’ve blogged about it over at This Sporting Life), by fellow Hall-of-Famer Joe Torre:

There were guys who wouldn’t talk to the opposition — Drysdale was like that. But Bob wouldn’t talk to anybody who wasn’t on the Cardinals. Ever. [When I was a Brave] I caught the ’65 All-Star Game, and Bob closed the game out with a one-run lead. After the game, we were the last two in the shower, and I congratulated him. He didn’t acknowledge I was even in the neighborhood. When I came to St. Louis in 1969, Bob was the first to welcome me; we became friends. But baseball was war for him.

And Gibson was a sniper.

This is, of course, how many successful competitors in deliberately adversarial institutions feel, be they on Wall Street, K Street, or Pennsylvania Avenue. But not all. Hockey players famously have a long, drawn-out line of handshakes after a brutal playoff series. Some linebackers will help a quarterback up after sacking him. Julius Peppers and Aaron Rogers could be seen smiling and embracing each other after the Packers’ conference championship victory last week — a game in which Peppers landed a crushing and illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on Rogers that nearly knocked him out of the game. That is the “no-hard-feelings, it’s-just-business” (or just hunting) attitude to competition and to one’s adversaries. It is a sign of mutual respect, and a recognition of the purpose and context of the competition. The attempt to beat the opponent is not personal. It’s not hatred. It’s part of our fairly complex concept of what it is to be a “good sport.”

Even in war there is a long, if surely inconsistent, tradition of mutual respect among officers of opposing armies who hold no animus against one another, even when one is being held as a prisoner of war by the other.

That was not, evidently, how Bob Gibson rolled. Nobody is accusing him of cheating. But this is beyond “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” This is beyond war. It’s tribal.

Tribal, in small doses, can be cute in sports. But it’s surely unfortunate in most other competitive contexts.

Should Coroners Be Elected?

A lot of major social and political institutions these days are what we are calling “deliberately adversarial.” In fact, so many are — to varying degrees — that we have to search harder for good examples of “deliberately non-adversarial institutions.”

Take the criminal justice system. Some parts of it are fairly adversarial, most notably the highly regulated competition between prosecutors and defense attorneys. And some parts of it are relatively non-adversarial: for example, as the narrator at the beginning of Law & Order always put it, “the police who investigate crime.” A police force is largely bureaucratic service agency. Policies and orders are conveyed hierarchically. Employees are trained and hired to carry about the basic tasks, like investigating crimes and handing out parking tickets. We could imagine a deliberately adversarial alternative to this way of “keeping the peace.” There could be private firms that individuals and firms contract for security, to investigate crimes, to make arrests, and so on. (These services obviously exist in the market now to supplement the work of the police.) But in all civilized societies, we now rely heavily on bureaucratic police forces, not vigilantes and hired goons.

Another part of the criminal justice system involves coroners and medical examiners. And that is also, surely, a non-adversarial system where highly trained medical experts are hired to determine the causes of all deaths (in order to decide if the death was possibly caused by a criminal activity that needs to be investigated).

That’s how it always is on TV. But not, it transpires, in all parts of the US:

In a joint reporting effort, ProPublica, PBS Frontline and NPR spent a year looking at the nation’s 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices and found a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes.

Blunders by doctors in America’s morgues have put innocent people in prison cells, allowed the guilty to go free, and left some cases so muddled that prosecutors could do nothing…

More than 1 in 5 physicians working in the country’s busiest morgues—including the chief medical examiner of Washington, D.C.—are not board certified in forensic pathology, the branch of medicine focused on the mechanics of death, our investigation found. Experts say such certification ensures that doctors have at least a basic understanding of the science, and it should be required for practitioners employed by coroner and medical examiner offices….

And here’s the kicker:

In many places, the person tasked with making the official ruling on how people die isn’t a doctor at all. In nearly 1,600 counties across the country, elected or appointed coroners who may have no qualifications beyond a high-school degree have the final say on whether fatalities are homicides, suicides, accidents or the result of natural or undetermined causes.

The NPR report on the radio included interviews with two rival candidates for the office of coroner in Colorado (I believe). One has held the job for a while and is a medical doctor. He has run as a Democrat, and just barely won the last election against a Republican tide where many voters vote for the entire ticket (i.e. vote for every Republican running for every office on the ballot). His rival for the office is a businessman, not a doctor, and his platform was based on a complaint that the “sitting” coroner was wasting too much money by performing too many autopsies.

In many cases, it is a relatively easy call whether an institution should involve a deliberately adversarial element — like an election or the use of a market — and in these cases are main issues are about how the competition should be regulated and how the individuals occupying special roles should negotiate various ethical dilemmas.

But in the case of coroner or medical examiner, surely there is a good case for saying that the selection procedure should be non-partisan and based on expertise. No? Especially in the relatively unusual (by international standards) American case where police chiefs, district attorneys, and judges are elected and usually affiliated with political parties. In the case of suspicious deaths (say, someone who dies in police custody) we wouldn’t want to also be suspicious of whether the coroner was protecting these political allies… would we?

Not sure this is what Montaigne had in mind

By coincidence (given the quote from the 16th-century French philosopher in the previous post), via the eponymous magazine of the city so nice they named it twice:

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?

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.