Adversarial Ethics and the Sports Fan: How Crazy is too Crazie?

We can all agree that athlete’ s behavior falls under the purview of a deliberately adversarial code of ethics. In a basketball game, a player who fouls another as she’s shooting isn’ t considered immoral, rather she is violating a rule of the game. Further, we hold athletes and coaches to a code of “sportsmanship” that extends both on and off the court. They shouldn’t cheat even when they can get away with it; they shouldn’ tfake injuries to draw a foul or penalty on the other team, and they shouldn’t ingestperformance-enhancing drugs while training.

But, what about the fans? Is a team cheating if its fans behave in ways that give the team a strong home-court advantage? Very few of us will ever rise to the level of collegiate or professional athletes, but that doesn’ t stop millions of people from being heavily invested in the outcome of sporting events. Fans are often the worst perpetrators of both pre and post-game “ trash talk” and have been known to direct demeaning and even vulgar chants at opponents. Does adversarial ethics engage with this type of fan behavior? Or is does this kind of behavior simply fall under codes for what it is to be a decent person in general?

Consider the “Cameron Crazies”, Duke University’s die-hard, bleeding-bluemen’s basketball fan base. ESPN writes that the “Crazies have earned a reputation as the rowdiest, wittiest, best-organized college basketball fans in the land.” Known for camping out for the notorious Duke-UNC game in Kryzewskiville for up to two months,the Crazies are notorious for their rambunctious behavior in games.

A few years ago,ESPN’s “Page 2” series wrote an article on “Cameron’ s Craziest” moments. Some of the more controversial moments included:

  • After disagreeing with referee Dick Paparo’s call the Crazies chanted: “You suck, Dick!” (The comma wasn’t as evident in the verbal chorus.) It’s worth nothing, however, that Coach K was not a fan of this chant and demanded the Crazies, “ keep it classy.”
  • When a Maryland player was rumored to have sexually assaulted another student, the Crazies mockingly chanted: “HEY, HERM, DID YOU SEND HER FLOWERS?”
  • Although not listed in the ESPN article, I myself, as an admitted Cameron Crazy, have witnessed a few borderline offensive cheers. While playing an opponent where one of the team members was accused of sexual assault this year, some in the crowd chanted “NO MEANS NO!”

Often, chants are aimed to intimidate or  psych out”opponents, taking aim at their personal lives. Some chants even include profanity, although recently Coach K has encouraged Crazies to “be more creative” than that in his pre-game talks. So the question is, where do we “draw the line” between appropriate cheering and offensive, even unethical, fan tactics?

Certainly there are clear examples: when the Crazies cheer enthusiastically after a dunk or 3-pointer for instance, or when fans shout “Defense!” Such cheers that are simply in support of the fan’s team seem clearly within the appropriate range of fan tactics. Things become murky, however, when fans like the Crazies draw in personal attacks on players. It’s worth noting, as well, that these are not professional athletes, but rather 18-22 year old “student athletes.”

Is it right to mock these players for their personal lives, is it right to make light of subjects as sensitive as sexual assault in a sports atmosphere? And perhaps most importantly from the perspective of adversarial ethics, is it fair for the Blue Devils to gain an advantage on the court because of some of these dubious fantactics?

I certainly don’t have the answer to these questions, and I must admit that while in the mob mentality of the Cameron Crazies the answers clearly seem to be YES! Although I believe that much of our thinking about the adversarial ethics should extend to fans, I believe there is a strong case, particularly in college sports, for drawing a distinction between fun, competitive cheering and derogatory or mocking jaunts aimed directly at the personal lives of opponents.

[For a follow-up post, taking the historic Duke-UNC game of 9 Februrary 2011 into account, click here.]

Cheating in Adversarial Institutions: The Viral Effect

[Ed. note: here is the first of (we hope many, many) posts this spring by our Duke University student bloggers.]

If you were wondering how adversarial ethics is different from our “normal” conception of ethics, I think this passage from Joseph Heath’s paper “An Adversarial Ethics for Business” (published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2006) is a good place to start.

“In a non-adversarial context, the fact that one person acts unethically does not in itself create any additional pressure on others to do so. For example, if one surgeon performs some unnecessary procedures, it does not necessarily give other surgeons a reason to do so. In a competition, however, the fact that one person is deriving an advantage from unethical conduct necessarily generates a disadvantage for everyone else, and therefore creates pressure for everyone to follow suit.”

In a non-adversarial setting, we don’t take one person’s ethical violations as an invitation or reason to follow suit. Heath uses the example of healthcare to illustrate this. (Note: Heath is approaching healthcare with a system like Britain’s or Canada’s in mind. In principle, these systems are much less competitive and profit-oriented than America’s system.) If one surgeon is using “unnecessary procedures” — perhaps to expedite the surgery or be able to bill for more — this does not necessarily motivate other surgeons to act the same way. Doctors swear to the Hippocratic oath and are generally expected to adhere to strict ethical standards and codes. And in any case, one surgeon’s cheating the system in this way does not take away business from the others, or in any other direct way threaten their livelihoods.

Now, take this same situation, but substitute in “baseball players” for “surgeon” and “steroids” for an “unnecessary procedure.” Baseball, like all sports, is a deliberately adversarial institution, a zero-sum game. Here we see, as Heath says, that one player’s getting an advantage from unethical conduct gives all the others player at least a reason, and maybe a very compelling reason, to do the same.

We might say that in adversarial settings, certain kinds of cheating or unethical behavior can spread like a virus, infecting even those who had no prior interest in cheating.

Should we be Worried When Competitive Arenas Compete with Each Other?

[Ed. Note: This is the debut post by founding member, Dominic Martin.]

The Deutsche Boerse announced this week that it was in advanced talks to buy NYSE Euronext in a deal that would create the world’s largest stock market.

And by complete coincidence, on the very same day, the London Stock Exchange Group (LSE) had also announced that it would merge with the TMX Group Inc. (who owns the Toronto Stock Exchange). Both of these mergers (Frankfurt-New York and London-Toronto) are presented as a necessary measure to compete with other stock markets at the international level.

So here is a big question. If competition is justified within properly regulated and self-contained competitive arenas, should it also be justified, at a “meta-level,” between these arenas themselves?

My intuitive answer is … yes.

Because competition already goes on at many different levels: corporations compete against each other (obviously), but also, in other ways, with their suppliers and their customers; consumers compete with each other over products that are scarce (houses, for instance, or art), and even national markets compete with each other to attract investors, increases their exports, and so on. What is a tax haven, if not a competitive national economy that plays “dirty” at that game? (Or so say highly taxed and less internationally competitive economies, like Canada or France.) Competition among stock markets also contributes to the dynamic that makes rivalry desirable in the first place.

However, a few things have to be kept in mind regarding the London-Toronto stock exchange merger:

  • What Canadians will gain, in terms of stocks volume, they will lose in terms of control over their own national stock market.

Even if LSE CEO Xavier Rolet is seeking to reassure Torontonian financiers, and even if the Canadian authorities will require some guarantees that TMX won’t lose all its sovereignty in the merger, the fact remains that the bigger player is the LSE. It will hold 55% of the share of the new corporation. It will occupy eight seats at the Board of directors, compared to seven seats for TMX. What will happen when UK’s financial interests conflict with Canada’s? To ask the question is to answer it.

In 2008 TMX acquired the Montreal Stock Exchange. Let’s just say that Montreallers’ interests would now be even further down the food chain.

  • If you are out in the market of stock markets, ready to merge with another player, why not go after the biggest one?

The TMX-LSE merger will create the biggest stock market in the world in terms of subscribers, but only the second in terms of market capitalization. The first one being the New York Stock Exchange (now I let you do the math if NYSE Euronext is acquired by the Deutsche Boerse). So why didn’t the TMX try to merge with that group? Shouldn’t Canadian’s benefit ever more from that transaction?

The fact that the stock markets owned by TMX and LSE specialized in similar product might be an acceptable rationale, however. Once taken together, the London and Toronto stock exchanges will become the biggest market for merchandise, natural resources, energy, and small- and medium-sized businesses in the world.

  • Did they really have a choice? And if not, what does the TMX Group should be accountable for?

Technological development (that allows decentralization of transactions) and the integration of world-wide economies (that increase the size of markets and corporations) have pushed many stock exchange to merge since 2000. Some like to say that these mergers are unavoidable (see Professor Louis Gagnon’s comments in the Globe and Mail for instance). If it is the case, does it wave all obligations for the corporations that own these stock markets? Ought they to promote their respective national interests?


Farmers, Organics, & the Ethics of Industry Organizations

Over at my Food-Ethics blog, I just posted a short piece called “Caution on ‘Green’ Claims for Organics”. It’s about a suggestion, from the head of a UK farming organization, for organic farmers to be cautious about claims that their produce is, categorically, more environmentally-friendly than non-organic foods.

The interesting thing from the point of view of adversarial ethics has to do with the role of industry associations. Industry associations are a mechanism by which businesses that would normally compete against each other engage in certain forms of cooperation. The catch is that some forms of in-group cooperation are socially beneficial (or at least innocuous) while others are pernicious. For example, when companies cooperate on standard-setting (so that, e.g., competing models of computers can all use the same peripherals), that’s a good thing. When they cooperate on prices, that’s called price-fixing, and it’s bad for consumers (and is illegal in most places). In the case cited above, the organization is calling for a stop to in-fighting over the virtues (in the strong, moralized sense of that word) of various products. Whether that’s socially beneficial depends, in part, on the significance of the moral debate that the organization is hoping to stifle.

“As if the heavens and the earth have been turned upside down”

To figure out what is different about regulation and ethics for deliberately adversarial institutions, we obviously need clear examples of (relatively) non-adversarial institutions.

If sports are the touchstone examples of deliberately adversarial institutions, then various physically challenging art forms (like modern dance, ballet, acrobatics, cheerleading, “pro” wrestling, a Bruce Springsteen concert…), ritualistic displays (including dances, running in front of bulls in Pamplona, standing on one leg for hours or days in India…), and forms of exercise (yoga, aerobics, sweatin’ to the oldies…) are the closest non-adversarial cousins.

The appeal of sports is that they put on display most of the physically beautiful or breathtaking features of those non-adversarial practices, but they add to it several elements derived from the competitive challenge: the incentive to innovate and improve, the uncertainty, the partisan affiliation of the spectator, the tactics and strategic rationality, defense, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. (And this is why we see so many attempts — some of them successful, alas — to move physical activities from the latter categories into the “sport” category, by using judges to decide whose yoga poses, dance routines, bodybuilding, skateboarding tricks, etc, deserve to “win.”)

And then there’s sumo wrestling.

Is it a sport or a ritual? Well it’s both, obviously. The Japanese public is said to consider “sumo — which traces its origins to rituals of Japan’s indigenous religion of Shinto — [to be] a venerable tradition. Wrestlers, their hair in samurai-style topknots, have been seen not just as athletes, but as upholders of a stoic work ethic and noble public behavior.” So how important is the “sport” part of this practice? Opinions are divided. But a recent match-fixing scandal suggests that the competitive element may be essential to maintain interest. (Police have found text-message evidence of two wrestlers orchestrating and fixing a match, as an article in the New York Times recounts. ‘“Please hit hard at the face-off, then go with the flow,” one of the wrestlers, Kiyoseumi, texted on the afternoon of May 10…’)

Some fans, it seems are not terribly worried about the draining away of the competitive element of sumo, as long as the illusion of competition remains. “It’s been going on from the old days,” Shintaro Ishihara, 78, Tokyo’s governor, told reporters Friday. “We should just let them trick us into enjoying it,” he said, adding, “It’s just like Kabuki theater.”

But other fans, especially younger ones, are voting with their feet (or their remote controls or smart phones) — deserting sumo in favor of baseball and soccer. There are surely plenty of reasons for sumo’s declining popularity in contemporary Japan. But the contempt of true fans in the face of cheating scandals is most telling — though we cannot be sure what it exactly it tells us. Is it that the ritual is just not interesting enough on its own unless we can believe that both adversaries really are doing everything possible to win? Or is it that by cheating, these guardians of ancient samurai traditions in the post-modern world are betraying the values of the “ritual” element of the sport?

The Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan considers the scandals to be “a very serious betrayal of the people.” And the Chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, Hanaregoma, sighs that “It is as if the heavens and the earth have been turned upside down.”

Baseball in America is mostly sport, but also part national ritual. Still, the steroid scandal of recent years never prompted quite this reaction. So I suspect sumo is more ritual than sport — but that the deliberately adversarial nature of the ritual is an absolutely essential element.

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?

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:

Organic Farmers “Cheating”

Any time standards are established for the production of some product, and if money can be made by skimping on those standards…well, skimping is liable to start happening. Nowhere is that worry more obvious today than in the realm of organic agriculture.

See this little note from The Morning Sentinal: ‘Cheating’ organic farmers mostly from overseas

The brunt of the problem is with overseas farmers who sell much of the certified-organic food in the domestic, American and Canadian retail markets. Who’s watching them? Well I’ll tell you. for the most part, they’re watching themselves. And they undercut American and Canadian organic farmers like Thoet four times out of five.

Clearly, if people in China, Mexico and Indonesia are cheating, we need to start field testing on a surprise basis to weed them out. I’m not sure why exactly that message bothers some organic farmers, like Thoet, but the good news is that the overwhelming majority of organic farmers in North America agree completely….

Notice here the multi-layered competition:

  • American organic farmers are competing with each other;
  • American organic farmers are competing with with American non-organic farmers;
  • American organic farmers are competing with foreign organic farmers (or maybe “organic” farmers);

It’s also worth noting that, perhaps less obviously, American organic farmers are competing with American farmers who adhere to a “nearly organic” method of farming, but who do not or cannot meet the standard necessary to gain the regulated designation “Organic.”

In each case there’s a competitive environment, subject to a more-or-less formal set of rules; and in each case, the opportunity exists to break rules, or to game them in various ways. Notice also that, when one sees oneself as playing several separate games at once, one has in principle the opportunity to justify cheating at one game by appealing to the rules of the other games. (For instance, “Yes I know I was bending the rules for USDA Organic, but it’s more important that we beat out imports from Indonesia!”) Does this happen in practice?

(See also: The Challenges of Organic Certification, over at my Food Ethics blog.)

Skins and the Edge of Indecency

Last week there was some controversy over MTV’s “edgy” teen drama, “Skins.” I’m quoted giving a business-ethics perspective on the show in this story, by the NYT’s David Carr: “A Naked Calculation Gone Bad.”

What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room.

And you’d be right.

Last week, my colleague Brian Stelter reported that on Tuesday, the day after the pilot episode of “Skins” was shown on MTV, executives at the cable channel were frantically meeting to discuss whether the salacious teenage drama starring actors as young as 15 might violate federal child pornography statutes.

Over at my Business Ethics Blog, I focused on the way the Skins controversy serves as an example of how a kind of corporate group-think can end up producing a product that might, on second thought, not be such a good idea.

But it’s also worth noting (for purposes of this blog) that TV is fiercely competitive. Viewers generally benefit from that competition, as in any industry, but there are limits on competitive behaviour. What are the relevant limits, here? TV is relatively loosely regulated. The Federal Communications Commission does regulate TV (see their rules here) but their main focus is on avoiding ill-defined “indecency.” But their process has to begin with objections from someone in the community. And what we take to be “indecent” is surely evolving, a fact that broadcasters are both subject to and contributing to. Something more like “bright line” might be found in child pornography laws, the spectre of which has been raised in the controversy over Skins. But even there, there’s plenty of room for interpretation, and plenty of room for broadcasters, in a competitive game, to play along the edges of the rule.

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:

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….

Why, oh why, would teachers help their students to cheat?

Here’s a depressing story; albeit a fascinating one for those of us interested in adversarial ethics. In Atlanta nearly 100 teachers are suspected of cheating — including erasing and correcting their students’ answers on standardized tests — and in neighboring DeKalb county, highly suspicious tests have been found in 26 schools.

Why are so many teachers in and around Atlanta helping their students to cheat on standardized tests?

The answer is so obvious that this rather long newspaper report doesn’t even bother to connect all the dots. Cutting to the chase: the teachers corrected many of their students’ tests scores because the teachers and schools themselves are now locked in a competition — for funding, and even for their jobs — that is won or lost on the basis of their students’ scores.

If we wanted to look for an example of a deliberately non-adversarial institution, a local school board would traditionally be as good a candidate as any. For as long as anyone can remember, the local authorities were responsible for delivering education to the youths of their municipality or county. They would typically have to follow a state-wide curriculum, but they’d deliver the service in a bureaucratic and mostly non-adversarial way: hire teachers and principals, etc, and try to teach the kids. Teachers’ and schools’ performances would be evaluated in various ways (or not); but they were not literally in competition with each other. The worst teachers were not automatically voted off the island.

But now they are — thanks to the federal No-Child-Left-Behind Act of 2001 (as well as other state and local policies) that punishes teachers and schools whose students do worse on standard tests. (The Act’s name does not officially contain hyphens. But come on: it’s a compound adjective, people!) This was supposed to give teachers and schools an incentive to teach better; but it also incentivizes “correcting” the test papers of weaker students. There’s a decent summary of the pros and cons of the Act here.

Of course, there has always been “cheating” by teachers. E.g., the incompetent and lazy ones have, for generations, cheated kids out of a decent education and a hopeful future. Is the kind of cheating or “gaming” that arises as the institution is made more adversarial worse than the cheating that happened in its non-adversarial era? Are the other “unintended” consequences of teacher and school competition (such as an unwillingness to “waste time” teaching untested things like art and music) worth the intended gains in more “efficient” teaching and learning?

We can’t even begin to answer these questions on the basis of this depressing report on teacher cheating. But it is worth recognizing that the education system is a whole new game now.

How China Won…

We’ve featured a few posts over the last week on what seems to be a spike in the use of competitive rhetoric to characterize the new global economy. Even the President can’t resist motivating the economic and education policies he favors by suggesting that the road to success — victory — runs through a competitive showdown with our Chinese and Indian rivals. (See here, and here, for example.)

Well, in this context, I can hardly resist linking a recent BBC article that interviewed a handful of Duke students, including one of the best ones I ever taught here.

We put together a team of Duke’s best and brightest – including three Chinese-born students – to discuss America’s place in the globalised world. We showed them a slick and controversial advert aired during the recent congressional election campaign by a group called Citizens Against Government Waste. Set 20 years in the future, a Chinese professor is lecturing students about the fall of the American Empire. Reckless spending led to crushing debt, he explains, before adding: “Of course we owned most of their debt so now they work for us.” The message: America, be scared of China.

The students’ responses are all interesting, and the first couple in particular cast skeptical light on the “competition” metaphor or framework everyone, from the President on down, seems to be taking for granted.

Jack Zhang, who was born in China but grew up in Pennsylvania, was dismayed by the confrontational take.

“It portrays it as a zero-sum game and that somehow Communist China is just the mortal enemy of the US and that the way forward is through competition of some sort. I think that’s the wrong approach.”

Sharon Mei, who runs an “Understanding China” house course with Jack, said the advert played on fear.

“What I was most hurt by was when they had the audience of young people and everyone was yelling in a hostile and malicious manner – these are the people on the other side of the world who will take us over if we don’t do something about it.”


State of the Union, part 3: the reactions

Over the past two decades, academic political philosophers spent a lot of time thinking and talking about “deliberative (read: cooperative) democracy.” But can there be any doubt that our actual democracy is overwhelmingly adversarial or competitive and not cooperative? Consider this typical analysis of last night’s SOTU by The New Republic‘s Ed Kilgore, under the headline: “Snore or Snare: the State of the Union set a cunning trap for Obama’s enemies.” This piece appears in a section of the on-line magazine called “Politics. The Permanent Campaign.”

The piece operates under the assumption that important political moments must always be partisan. So even when the message itself is explicitly cooperative, as Kilgore thinks it was, it must ultimately be a tactic in the contest. Here are some representative snatches from the piece.

Much of it could easily have been harvested from any number of interchangeable speeches given during the last 20 years—not just by presidents by members of Congress, governors, mayors, and CEOs—from both parties. Yet that may have been exactly the point. By staking his claim to decades of well-worn political detritus, I think Obama has set a cunning political trap for his enemies...

And that’s the beauty of Obama’s address. He basically put together every modest, centrist, reasonable-sounding idea for public investment aimed at job creation and economic growth that anyone has ever uttered…

Paul Ryan’s deficit-maniac response played right into Obama’s trap

Moreover, Obama’s tone—the constant invocation of bipartisanship at a time when Republicans are certain to oppose most of what he’s called for, while going after the progressive programs and policies of the past—should sound familiar as well…

By playing this rope-a-dope, Obama has positioned himself well to push back hard against the conservative agenda. …  Boring it may have been, but as a positioning device for the next two years, Obama’s speech was a masterpiece.

What better proof can we have that Obama’s speech was cunning and adversarial than that it sounded so perfectly non-partisan and cooperative!

Competitive Ethics in the Dairy Industry

Over at my Food Ethics Blog, I’ve just posted a short entry on regulating competitive behaviour in the dairy industry: Using, Regulating and Testing for Antibiotics in Milk. The key point, there, from the perspective of ethics for adversaries, lies in looking at the obligations that competitors have to those they server (consumers of milk, in this case) compared to the obligations they have to other members of society. In sports terms, it’s the comparison between what a baseball team owes its fans, versus what it owes to people whose windows might be smashed by a stray ball.

The State of the Union, part 2: our Sputnik moment

The second “adversarial ethics” theme in President Obama’s State-of-the-Union speech last night came with the rhetorical emphasis on “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

For those any younger than Obama — and I guess that includes me, for I am three weeks younger than Obama — “Sputnik” was the name of the Soviet satellite that won them the first round of the “space race” in 1957.

(For those younger than, say, my students, many of whom were born in the 1990s, the Soviet Union was basically Russia. Russia and America were competing, in part to prove to the countries that were wavering on the sidelines that their system of government and political economy was the one to emulate. They decided to try to demonstrate their superiority by being the first to master space. To boldly go where no dog, monkey, or man had gone before. Both sides built their space programs on the backs of Nazi rocket scientists they captured at the end of the Second World War. But the Russians seemed to have snatched the smarter ones. They won the first three quarters of the contest by getting the first satellite, the first animal, and the first human into space; but America won with a touchdown late in the fourth quarter by landing the first man on the moon. There’s a great exhibit on the whole race in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It was kind of a Big Deal, as the headline in the New York Times, above, makes clear.)

So the time has come for our generation’s Sputnik moment. Only now it is the Chinese and the Indians we are competing against. (The Russians are not our main competition any more. It turns out, capturing some Nazis and making them build you rockets does not prove that your political and economic system is superior. But I digress.)

The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection.

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us…

The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.” …

Now it’s our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future. And tonight, I’d like to talk about how we get there…

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.

In an earlier post here we highlighted Paul Krugman’s skepticism about this renewed emphasis on international competitiveness. From the perspective of adversarial ethics I would add only that it is a curious (rhetorical, no doubt) framework for motivating a number of policies and investments that aim to improve the American economy. Again — as with the argument for squaring the competitive instincts with the cooperative spirit which I discussed in the post below — this argument for taking seriously the international competition with the Asian giants appeals baldly to American nationalism. How dare they try to beat us at our own game! We practically invented innovation and entrepreneurship. (As George W. Bush once said, “the French don’t even have a word for ‘entrepreneur’.”)

It’s a curious appeal to nationalism and national pride. If we can’t be motivated to adopt smarter policies for the simple reason that they would improve our lives, are we really more likely to adopt them so that those uppity foreigners don’t prove they are better than us? As a humble philosopher, I don’t know the answer to that question. But the President is paying good money to people who presumably do. Our Sputnik moment indeed.

All that said, I generally liked and admired the speech. Politician’s speeches are not usually about showing why they believe a policy is justified, but rather about trying to move people who are not inclined to agree with them. And they do this because they are locked in a fierce competition with people who don’t want them to succeed. That’s what adversarial democracy is all about. A bit of rhetorical flourish is surely not unethical in such a contest. Is it?

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.

A Modern Legal Ethics: Adversary Advocacy in a Democratic Age

This book by Daniel Markovits is a couple of years old, but Princeton University Press has recently brought it out on paperback and used this as an excuse to send me an e-mail about it. It looks like somebody working on this blog ought to read it soon. Here’s PUP’s blurb:

A Modern Legal Ethics proposes a wholesale renovation of legal ethics, one that contributes to ethical thought generally.

Daniel Markovits reinterprets the positive law governing lawyers to identify fidelity as its organizing ideal. Unlike ordinary loyalty, fidelity requires lawyers to repress their personal judgments concerning the truth and justice of their clients’ claims. Next, the book asks what it is like–not psychologically but ethically–to practice law subject to the self-effacement that fidelity demands. Fidelity requires lawyers to lie and to cheat on behalf of their clients. However, an ethically profound interest in integrity gives lawyers reason to resist this characterization of their conduct. Any legal ethics adequate to the complexity of lawyers’ lived experience must address the moral dilemmas immanent in this tension. The dominant approaches to legal ethics cannot. Finally, A Modern Legal Ethics reintegrates legal ethics into political philosophy in a fashion commensurate to lawyers’ central place in political practice. Lawyerly fidelity supports the authority of adjudication and thus the broader project of political legitimacy.

The PUP webpage for the book lets you download the first chapter and a podcast with the author (who is the Guido Calabresi Professor of Law at Yale University).

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.

Is Business (Like) War?

This Bnet blog entry by Margaret Heffernan is right up our alley: Debunking the Myth that Business is “War”

Much of what Heffernan says about the differences between business and war is true. But some of the disanalogies are more important than others. She notes, for example, that one important difference is that “It is possible for societies to flourish without war — but they won’t do so without business”. Others are weaker. She points out for example that “In business, your adversary will never be defeated.” That’s not always true (sometimes competitors are driven into bankruptcy). And sometimes adversaries are not defeated in war: sometimes one or both sides opts to limp off the field. Who won the Korean war in the 1950s or the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, for instance? Neither side was really “defeated”, though though both suffered serious losses.

There are significant similarities between war and business, and not just in the simplistic sense that is often appealed to as a way of justifying the most brutal of business behaviours.

Both war and business are, in the sense in which this blog is interested, structured competitions. In both cases, competitors seek to win, but they generally do so in a way that observes at least some rules. Focusing on the differences obscures the fact that both war and the market represent structured competitions with social benefits. Now, of course, the idea that war as an institution has benefits may be hard to swallow — at least until we make some qualifications.

First, I’m talking about the kind of limited war that we saw most frequently during the 20th century, wars fought by professional armies on battlefields, constrained (at least to some extent) by the laws of war, including most significantly the Geneva Conventions. Second, we need to think of the costs and benefits of that kind of war in comparison to other ways of doing things. To see the social benefit of that way of solving international disagreements, you only need to look at what the alternatives are: wars of population-against-population, wars fought using chemical and biological weapons, etc. So while war of a certain kind isn’t — unlike the market — a competition designed to produce a net benefit, it is a competition designed to produce less bad outcomes than might otherwise be obtained.

The Simpsons perpetuating “The Competitiveness Myth”

As Krugman pointed out in the column linked in our previous post, below, we’ve been down this road before. Americans are suddenly worried about being overtaken by the surging Chinese; just as 30 years ago they fretted over the surging Japanese.

In 1993, when the Japanese miracle was a fait accompli, the Simpsons worked it into their famous Citizen-Kane-referencing “Rosebud” episode. Mr Burns is allowed glimpses of his own youth, as he toured the proto-atomic plant founded by his grandfather:

[Mr. Burns is reminiscing about his grandfather’s old Atom Smashing Plant]
Burns’ Grandfather: Come on, men! Smash those atoms! You there, turn out your pockets.
[Two goons seize a waifish worker and turn out his pockets]
Burns’ Grandfather: Aha – atoms! One, two, three, four… SIX of them! Take him away!
Waif: You can’t treat the working man this way! One of these days we’ll form a union, and get the fair and equitable treatment we deserve! Then we’ll go too far, and become corrupt and shiftless, and the Japanese will eat us alive!
Burns’ Grandfather: The Japanese? Those sandal-wearing goldfish tenders? Ha ha! Bosh! Flimshaw!
Mr. Burns: Oh, if only we’d listened to that young man, instead of walling him up in the abandoned coke oven.

Of course, it’s a lot funnier with animation and goofy voices.


Free trade and fair competition between the US and China

Is it my imagination, or has the language of “fair competition” suddenly exploded in discussions about trade between China and the US? We used to worry about supporting a totalitarian regime, a regime and firms that violated human rights, helping to grow the economy of a military rival, unfairness in the restriction on foreign investment and imports, not to mention the exporting of American manufacturing jobs.

But now the talk is all about how the US should conceive of China as a rival and competitor, and what the appropriate rules of this competition should be. Those rules might be formal ones — i.e. the rules for a deliberately adversarial institution, as governed internationally (say, through the WTO) or through bilateral treaties — and informal or “ethical” rules that both parties are expected to follow.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, gave us a mouthful of what seems to be a new framework-in-progress during her interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s Good Morning America last week, during Chinese President Hu’s official visit to Washington last week. There’s a link to the ABC clip, and a transcription of the interview on the blog Still4Hill, here.

Here is an interesting excerpt:

QUESTION: Madam Secretary, thanks for joining us this morning. The White House is really rolling out the red carpet for President Hu, but I think a lot of Americans, especially those having trouble in the job market, are having a hard time figuring out how to think about China. Are they friend or foe, ally or adversary?

SECRETARY CLINTON: George, one of the reasons why we are rolling out the red carpet and having President Hu Jintao come for a state visit is because we think that we’ll be able better to answer such a question as we move forward. And my hope is –

QUESTION: You don’t know yet?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, my hope is that we have a normal relationship, a very positive, cooperative, comprehensive relationship, where in some areas we are going to compete – there’s no doubt about that – but in many areas we’re going to cooperate. And we’ve seen that pattern in the last two years and it’s a pattern that I think reflects the reality and the complexity of our relationship.

QUESTION: It’s tough competition on the economic front especially. Your senior senator in New York, Chuck Schumer, has said America is getting fed up with the way China is manipulating its currency, closing down its markets, and he says that at times they are seeking unfair economic advantage. He’s actually proposed legislation that would sanction them, have tariffs if they don’t stop manipulating their currency.

Can you see a point where the Administration would get behind something like that?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, George, let me say first that I think Americans need to put this relationship into perspective. Our economy is about three times the size of the Chinese economy, where they have four times the number of people. So our standard of living is much higher, our innovation, our creativity – all of that is really to America’s advantage.

They have a huge labor market. They have lower costs. And they are going to be a really tough competitor. And what we’re looking for is a competition where nobody’s got their thumb, or their fist, on the scale.

Our understanding of the concept of trade has been complicated at least since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations — in part because trade, especially international trade, seems like a cross between cooperation and competition. The idea of a “fist on the scale” is also a cross of metaphors that seems unusually revealing here.

Meanwhile, Nobel-prize-winning economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman is worried about “The Competition Myth” that lies behind the new/old buzzword “competitiveness” that he sees trending in recent communications from the White House.

But let’s not kid ourselves: talking about “competitiveness” as a goal is fundamentally misleading. At best, it’s a misdiagnosis of our problems. At worst, it could lead to policies based on the false idea that what’s good for corporations is good for America.

The Economist this week is following the West’s competition with China to the primary schools and nurseries. In its Banyan column on “[China’s] Tiger Cubs v [the West’s] Precious Lambs” it reports on the astounding recent test scores of Chinese students, and the tiger mothers whose all-work-no-fun parenting makes it happen.

Do we only lament the innovations and improvements that arise from competitions when we sense ourselves beginning to lose? Will there always be a cognitive bias or rationalization that will try to explain such competitive failures in terms of gamesmanship, if not cheating? And oh, what about the poor children?! How can we allow them to be the innocent victims in this competition?

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.