Monday, August 4, 2014

Rites, Rules, and Regulations:
constraining, or enabling competition?

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. -- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations Book I, Chapter X, Part II

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. -- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chapter 13.
Taming Leviathan. People tend to fear guns and pitbulls, unless they can control them for their own purposes. Similarly with competition. Corporations work to forestall inroads by employee unions. Unions, once accepted, struggle to establish closed shops. Sectarian priesthoods struggle against each other even as their laities, unless severely tamed, pursue religion despite priestly warnings against going beyond Church walls.

Bluntly put, whether competition is looked upon as a benefit or a threat depends upon who is looking and whose interests are threatened. But it is a widely-used, critical stratagem to obscure or deny this insight into idiosyncrasy.

So it is that we often hear those who feel threatened by possible competition -- whether “liberal” or “conservative" -- to decry “selfish individualism,” “lack of social conscience,” or “pernicious relativism.” Those who see that same competition as offering them an advantage welcome it as “personal liberty,” “transformative social benefit,” or “a fundamental social dynamic.” (See Believer vs Atheist, Conservative vs Liberal, and other distracting frauds.)

Moral Talk. The assumption of the moralist -- and I don’t mean to dismiss or demean it here -- is that human actions can be evaluated not only on a scale between effective-ineffective, or wise-unwise but also as good-bad. What makes the moral dimension special is that good-bad characterizations are intended to prescribe or proscribe for everyone, whereas a single individual’s action may be judged as effective-ineffective or wise-unwise for his purposes alone without prescribing or proscribing that action for others.

“How many divisions does the Pope have?” Joseph Stalin is purported to have said, dismissing Winston Churchill’s concern with the Pope’s influence. Clearly, moral importunity can be proferred where either knowledge or power is lacking. The ancient philosophical chestnut is accurate: Is is not Ought. And even evils themselves can be morally recommended, whereas non-facts and unwisdoms are not.

”Moral” Language as Constructive. There is an interesting use of moral language which has little or nothing to do with Good or Evil. Imagine that you are involved in a game. You and your competitor are being closely watched by a referee of some sort. Ask yourself, why, when you play, say, chess, (or baseball, or scrabble…) you should follow the rules of the game?

Well, if your intent is to best your opponent at chess, (or baseball or scrabble) then (being caught} “cheating” invalidates any result you might accomplish by your deviance. “Game-morality” is constitutive morality: what it is you are doing is only recognized and awarded as such if you concede to the restrictions of the game's rules.

Whatever game-competition occurs, only occurs by virtue of the moral framework of the rules. All your boxing skills matter little if you bite your opponent’s ear off.

But to play a game you have to concede consensus to a framework of rules and regulations. Game-moralities are generally not controversial for consensual participants: mostly because participation is optional. An interesting point: although people may compete with each other within a framework of rules that constitute a game, competition among people is not possible across the boundaries that distinguish one game-type (say, chess and checkers). from another. Rules and regulations define what is recognizable as within-game competition.

“Life-Morality” is not a Game. By way of contrast, morality when pursued outside of well-defined games, is not proposed as merely optional, a matter, say, of choosing a pasttime. People who propose life moralities, e.g. religions, ethical systems, class or tribal mores, etc. are not usually offering choices among competing options.

A strategem used by moralists of this sort is to not recognize differing views as competitors, but as deviants from the Truth or from Right Thinking, e.g. heretics, apostates, the invincibly ignorant, etc. Moral language in this context insinuates a consensus that tends to be highly restricted to “the faithful.” Such language is highly sloganistic, generating, even among members of a given congregation, false consensus on the meanings of basic concepts of faith. (See Slogans: junkfood, dead-weight or poison? )

So it is that you can find increasing numbers of people who hold that their personal faith alone guarantees their salvation, although their consensus on what defines such things as faith, charity, mercy, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, and even God, is rather haphazard, even when they refer, for example, to a common Bible. (See God, Church and Schooling for Democracy: American Faith in "Faith.")

Can Competition Be Moral? Those of us who see competition as an expression of individual liberty have to (a moral “have to”?) face an interesting conundrum. It is rules and regulations which provide the frameworks within which competition can be judged to be something more than merely efficient or wise. For Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, morality -- for them, Enlightenment Christian morality -- provided such a framework within which economic competition could be allowed to be “free.”

Present-day claims that fewer governmental constraints must necessarily increase benefits to society as a whole, are not so much the conclusions of arguments based on the theories of Smith and Burke. Rather, they are masks for present-day agendas of dubious morality. (See Masks: Words That Hide Agendas)

For more information on these and related issues, see Choosing The Lesser Evil: a Moral Failure?

--- EGR