Tag Archives: Posted by Wayne Norman

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.