Ethics and Competition

International Bernheim Workshop (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium)
October 14-15, 2010. Université catholique de Louvain

As part of the Bernheim Course « Social Responsibility in Economic Life » (LESPO2212)

Convenor : Axel Gosseries. E-mail:
This workshop will bridge perspectives from philosophy and the social sciences on ethics and competition. We wish to thank here the Bernheim Foundation for its financial support. 

Thursday, Oct. 14
Morning Session, Salle Oleffe (Halles universitaires)
Chair: Adina Preda


I – 9h30-10h45. Torbjörn Tännsjö (Philosophy, Stockholm University)

Competition and justice: Sport vs. Society in general
In sport an idea of justice prevails that we do not accept elsewhere in society: only those who are naturally strong should be allowed to excel. We admire them for their natural talents. If they enhance their capacities through doping or genetic engineering we see this as a form of cheating. This admiration for natural strength is immoral. If we jettison this idea of justice we will happily accept various different kinds of enhancement in sport. This is so outside sport already. We have a more relaxed view outside sport: the violinist may well take beta-blockers if this means that she gives a better concert. But should there be any limits to this acceptance of enhancement in society? In particular, how does a liberal view of enhancement fit into a highly competitive society? In particular, is it acceptable to treat economic competition as a game? Is there any equivalent of enhancement in business, similar to what we see in sport?

Torbjörn Tännsjö is Professor of Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University. He has published extensively in moral philosophy, political philosophy, and bioethics. Among his most recent books are Global Democracy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP/Columbia UP, 2008) and Understanding Ethics, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP/Columbia UP, 2009). Further info :
Discussant: Vincent Aubert

II – 11h-12h15. Melinda Roberts (Philosophy, The College of New Jersey)

Causing Harm in the Multiple Agent Context
Lawyers and philosophers have found it challenging to construct an account of when an act causes harm that is (A) broad enough to address multiple agent problems but (B) not so broad that it fails to distinguish between genuinely harming a person and (merely) imposing a condition on a person that, considered in isolation, we deem undesirable.  Thus, we may think an act causes harm only if it makes a difference.  If the effect is the same whatever the one agent does in virtue of what the other agent does or is prepared to do, it may seem that what the one agent does makes no difference.  Multiple agent problems are endemic.  Legal classics include the example of two fires, each “tortiously” set, converging on a single barn.  The physician faces a multiple agent problem when he or she understands that refusing to provide the fertility treatment a patient demands will just lead to another, perhaps less qualified, physician providing the treatment instead.  And corporations face the problem, when they project that conscientiously refraining from drilling for oil at a particular site—or locating waste facilities at the mouth of a certain river or engaging in antitrust activities—will not in the end safeguard a particular system or community or market but rather open the door to the still more deleterious activities of still another corporation.
This paper grounds an account of causing harm in the multiple agent context in the point that, often, even if the individual agent cannot improve the plight of the victim, the group can.  We then say that the agent harms, not as an individual, but rather as a participant in the group.  Advantages of the account include its ability to discern as exceptions cases in which the agent’s nonparticipation would have made things still worse (as in the film The Negotiator) and to distinguish cases involving a mix of natural and man-made causes (Anderson v. Minn. Railway, 179 NW 45 (Minn. 1920)).

Melinda Roberts is a professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey.  She is especially interested in the formulation and analysis of alternative (in particular “person-affecting”) forms of maximizing consequentialism that avoid (1) objections based on the nonidentity problem and (2) commitments to what is sometimes called “moral actualism.”  Books include Abortion and the Moral Significance of Merely Possible Persons (2010) and a collection (co-edited with David Wasserman) Harming Future Persons:  Ethics, Genetics and the Nonidentity Problem (2009).  She earned her doctorate in philosophy from the Five-College Ph. D. Program in Amherst, Massachusetts and a law degree from the University of Texas School of Law. Further info:
Discussant: Olivier Jégou

Afternoon Session, Doyen 21
Fiscal Competition and Justice
Chair: Conceiçao Soares (Economics and Management, Universidade Catolica Portuguesa, Porto)

III – 14h-15h15. Ronen Palan (Political Science and International Studies, Birmingham)

Innovation, Diffusion and Sabotage: Competition in International Relation
Lacking a stable governance structure, the international system is inherently competitive. There is great ambivalence, however, in international studies towards the concept of competition. The ‘realist’s school believes that a competitive international system is a source of conflict and insecurity in the world; an historical sociological school maintains that competitive international system is a source of the great vibrancy and growth of European civilization. Only now that the great Asian civilizations are embracing competition, they are regaining their historical position in the world; the ‘competition state’ theory suggests that competition is highlighted for ideological and political purposes in order to restrict and limit the capacity of individual states to pursue political-economic agendas (such as welfare provisions and so on). Competition is thought of, therefore, as a source of innovation and diffusion of modernizing practices in the world, but also as a Veblenian techniques of sabotage.

Ronen Palan is Professor of International Political Economy at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Birmingham and one of the founding editors of the Review of International Political Economy (RIPE).  Selected recent publications include: Tax Havens: How
Globalization Really works, Cornell UP, 2000 (with Richard Murphy and Christian Chavagneux); The Imagined Economies of Globalisation,  Sage, 2006 (with Angus Cameron);  The Offshore World, Cornell UP, 2003; Global Political Economy: Contemporary Theories, Routledge, 2000. Further info :
Discussant : Igor Caldeira

IV – 15h 30-16h15. Peter Dietsch (Philosophy, Université de Montréal)

Multinationals and states in the struggle for revenue, capital, and economic security
A normative perspective
The ultimate goal of competitive struggle in an economic context is to attain a dominant position in which one becomes relatively immune to the competitive attacks of others. Economic theory advocates competition for firms, while it predicts its failure to promote welfare in the provision of public goods. Surprisingly, today's economic practice does not conform to this analysis. Multinationals obtain more and more market power while states engage in regulatory competition of various kinds, tax competition in particular. The consequences of these trends on distributive justice are significant.

Peter Dietsch is associate professor in the Dept. of Philosophy at the Université de Montréal, Canada. His research interests lie in the philosophy of economics and ethics, with a particular emphasis on questions of distributive justice. He is currently working on developing a normative framework for international fiscal policy. His work has been published in journals including Politics, Philosophy & Economics, the J. of Moral Philosophy and the J. of Social Philosophy. Further info :
Discussant : Edoardo Traversa (UCL, Faculté de droit)

Friday, Oct. 15
Morning Session, Sénat Académique (Halles Universitaires)
War, Competition and Ethics
Chair : Ronen Palan (Political Science and International Studies, Birmingham)

V - 9h-10h15. Helen Frowe (Philosophy, University of Kent)

Ethics, War and Competition
The familiar adage ‘all’s fair in love and war’ implies that there are times when the usual moral rules do not apply.  The suggestion is that what would ordinarily be impermissible can become permissible when the relevant parties are engaged in a form of competition.  Many people think that something similar is true of business dealings.  Some people think that it is also true of war, and that it is the state of mutual competition that explains why combatants can break the ordinary moral prohibitions on killing, maiming and the like.  I argue that it is a mistake to understand war as a competition, within which all, or at least most, bets are off.  Rather, the very same rules that apply to ordinary life govern the behaviour of combatants in war.   Waiving certain moral rights in competitions, such as boxing matches, has moral force only when neither participant acts wrongly from the outset.  That all wars are (as I shall assume) unjust on at least one side means that we cannot take the fact of mutual competition to entail the waiving of moral rules.
Helen Frowe did her PhD at the University of Reading. She just completed a two years Leverhulme Fellowship at the University of Sheffield, working on a book called Defensive Killing (forthcoming with OUP).  She also just finished another book called The Ethics of War and Peace, coming out with Routledge.  She works mostly on the ethics of war and the ethics of self-defence, but she also published on deontological ethics more generally. She is currently a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent. Further info :
Discussant : Adina Preda (Philosophy, University College Dublin & Hoover Fellow)

VI - 10h30-11h45. Ariel Colonomos (Political Science, Sciences-Po Paris)

Swiss Banks during WWII. Ethics and the two level competition game

The British diplomat Anthony Eden is quoted as having said during the war, “had the Swiss banks not traded with the Nazis, the war would have ended sooner”. Switzerland traditionally justified its national policy of neutrality arguing that, had it refused to engage in trade and banking relations with the Nazis, their country would have been invaded. Swiss leaders relied on a vision of international politics inspired by realism according to which states compete for the maximization of power and pursue their national interest. However, after 1943, Swiss leaders were well aware that, no matter what, Germany would have not occupied their soil. They simply used this rationale as a pretext to develop their economy. Meanwhile, trains carrying goods used by Germany and its army transite through Switzerland. Swiss banks accepted Nazi gold, spoiled from the Jews and other victims, such as for example golden teeth that were extracted from corpses lying in the gas chambers. After the war, Swiss banks had been unwilling to restitute the deposits made by those who perished in the camps; their heirs were denied access to these accounts because there were not able to provide any death certificate of their parents and relatives.
These series of events point at the double moral responsibility of the Swiss state and its banks that are indirectly collectively responsible of prolonging the war and therefore the suffering of its victims. The argument of interstate competition has been used by the Swiss state as a false moral justification of an immoral decision and an immoral policy that made its companies even more competitive. The profitableness of Swiss companies helped prolong the war and the prolongation of the war accrued the companies’ profits as well as the suffering of the Nazis’ victims. The issue of competition lies at the heart of this vicious circle.

Ariel Colonomos is a CNRS Senior Research Fellow at CERI (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales) in Paris. He teaches international relations, international ethics and the ethics of war at Sciences Po. Among his latest publications, Moralizing International Relations – Called to Account (New York, Palgrave, 2008) deals with issues of collective responsibility in post-Cold War international relations and discusses reparations for historical injustice and multinationals’ social responsibility. His last book - Le Pari de la guerre – Guerre preventive, guerre juste? – (Paris, Denoël, 2009) analyzes the justification of the preventive use of force. Further info :
Discussant : Jean Michel Chaumont (UCL, Chaire Hoover)

VII - 11h45-12h45. Rik Vanmolkot (consultant, coordinator of the Topf & Söhne Exhibition)

Topf & Söhne, a very ordinary company.

On the banality of evil and competition within company walls

Rik Vanmolkot (1953) holds master degrees in communication sciences and anthropolgy. He worked as cultural researcher (KULeuven 78-79), as programmer for the UN in Sudan and Egypt on employment matters (79-83), as technology marketing consultant - mainly in th PR of China (83-96), as advisor to Brussels 2000 (97-98) and as project manager Brussels for the King Baudouin Foundation (03-05). Since 1997 he is a self-employed consultant in the broad field of culture: policy advisor, editor, exhibition curator, concept developer, moderator, lecturer and rewriter in het various cultural fields. He is administrator of various national and international organisations and networks dealing with the role of culture and the arts in society. He focusses on remembrance activities, culture and exclusion, culture and memory and international cultural cooperation. Rik Vanmolkot also co-ordinated the Topf und Söhne exhibition in Mechelen (Kazerne Dossin in 2007-2008.)

Afternoon session, Room Sénat Académique (Halles Universitaires)
Can competition be fair?
Chair : Philippe Van Parijs (UCL, Chaire Hoover)



VIII - 14h-15h10. Jonathan Wolff (Philosophy, University College London)
The Ethics of Competition
Contemporary ethical concern regarding competition focuses on questions of how to keep competition free and fair. However, in the writing of Marx, Bentham and Mill there is another concern: that to succeed in competition is to damage the interests of those who lose Consequently to encourage economic competition is to encourage a form of harm. My task in this paper is to consider whether we should be more troubled, ethically, by economic competition than we often seem to be.

Jonathan Wolff is Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Justice and Health at University College London. He is the author of Robert Nozick (1991) An Introduction to Political Philosophy (1996 and 2006) Why Read Marx Today? (2002) and, with Avner de-Shalit, Disadvantage (2007). He is currently completing two books, on Philosophy, Ethics and Public Policy, and The Human Right to Health. He has published many papers on contemporary political philosophy and the history of political thought. For further info :
Discussant : Nicholas Vrousalis (ARC Post-Doc Fellow, Hoover Chair)

IX - 15h20-16h30. Christian Arnsperger (Economics, Université catholique de Louvain)


Concluding words : Axel Gosseries




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