Daniel J.H. Greenwood

Visiting Professor of Law

A.B., Harvard College
J.D., Yale Law School
E-mail: Daniel.Greenwood@hofstra.edu

Daniel J.H. Greenwood

Team Spirit: Doing Bad Things in the Cause of Good

Daniel JH Greenwood(1)

printable (.pdf) version

I. Two Views of Morality

A. Sacrificing for the team

After September 11th, a high American official called the suicide bombers "cowards." Something is wrong in that description. They were murderers, terrorists, fanatics, enemies. They did something fundamentally terrible. But they were not cowards: A coward thinks only of himself and his own self-interest narrowly understood. The Sept 11 terrorists killed themselves for a cause they believed in. Were their acts not so repulsive and the link to any decent cause not so impossible to discern, we would say they "sacrificed" themselves.

The puzzle I address in this essay is how people can come to "sacrifice" themselves in the cause of evil? More generally, how is it that people doing bad things so often are able to justify their actions to themselves as good?

My own expertise is in corporate law. Here, an issue similar to that of religious or nationalist murderers is also quite common, if not usually so fatal. How do corporate executives justify their actions when they sell a product without testing, or that pollutes, or squeeze their employees or their customers?

And the answer, I will claim, is that for our team - broadly understood - we do many things we might not do for ourselves. Sacrifice, even heroism, selflessness, mutuality - one might go so far as to say love - are all characteristic of our relationships to our teams. But while those things sound like virtues, and indeed are virtues, they are virtues in a procedural sense only. They can be in the service of good or bad, depending on the goals and tools of the team. Self-sacrifice, team spirit, patriotism, martyrdom, heroism are marks both of great good and great evil. Love in the cause of hate is not so paradoxical as it might sound.

B. Clear rules and moral conflict

Some people are just bad: Jeffrey Dahmer, serial killer and cannibal, comes to mind. But a strikingly large part of the evil in the world is committed by people who think they are trying to do the right thing. While we heard a few days ago of fictional Nazis whose devotion to cruelty took over their lives, more common seems to have been people who could execute their neighbors and nonetheless remain loving spouses and parents, who could run concentration camps and also care for sick dogs. Far more common still are seemingly good and decent people who believe that at work they are obligated to maximize profit, even if it means doing things they would abhor at home.

Ordinarily, we think of people who work for their country as people who are doing something good: patriotism is a good thing. But shockingly large numbers of people continue to feel they should support their country (and its projects) even when their country is clearly doing something bad. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with profit, in its place. But put people in an institution and tell them that their job is to increase profits, and a startlingly large number seem to take leave of their ordinary moral sensibilities.

Sometimes there is just basic disagreement about the meaning of right and wrong, good and evil. No doubt you've met someone in business who has convinced himself or herself that pollution is not a problem or that paying children $1 a day to work in a Third World factory is better than the alternatives.

But most of us share a relatively clear set of moral principles even when we are at work. Nearly everyone agrees

And when they do things that we, as outside observers, see as clear instances of evil, they generally explain them not as evil but as necessary consequences of one of these basic principles:

Much evil, then, is done in the name of good. And it follows that most claims that evil is good are intelligible as claims that a particular (acceptable) moral rule applies (or doesn't apply) in a particular sphere. Debate and comprehension and criticism are usually possible, even when we are faced with the most extraordinarily horrible positions. That doesn't mean that talking is always sensible: If you have the chance to restrain Dahmer or the Nazis, you should do so, and save the discourse for later. Just because someone's position is intelligible doesn't mean that there is anything right about it or that they are persuadable to do what is right. But it does mean that talking is often possible even when you might think it wouldn't be.

C. Teams and Strangers

I will focus on one particular conflict: the rules that apply inside our team and the rules that apply outside it.

The distinction between in-group and out-group seems to be universal among human beings, and so too is the rule that different rules of morality apply to people who are part of us than to people who are part of them.

What there is not agreement about is the boundary between us and them. In fact, there is no boundary - only a continuing controversy, an ongoing dispute, a shifting of frames. Sometimes us is as broad as all living beings; sometimes it is so narrow that it does not encompass all the aspects of a moral actor's own personality.

Let us turn then, to the two sets of rules I see.

1. Moral Rules Among Strangers

First, the rules among strangers.

The rules for strangers have, I think, a common etiology despite their seemingly wide range: they stem from the problem of competition and our attempts to restrain it.

Competition for power is a zero-sum game. As Hobbes said, those who seek power (which he took to be everyone) must have "a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death."(2)

In this competitive mode, anything good for you is automatically bad for me. As Hobbes noted, left to itself, this competition can easily get out of hand: the logic of unrestrained competition is the logic of the war of all against all, in which life, famously, is nasty, poore, brutish and short.

Hobbes, however, missed that we live in families, tribes, companies, corporations, departments, communities, nations. (3) We are not in a "war of all against all," but rather a war of teams against teams.

And even between those teams, the war is fought, nearly always and nearly everywhere, within rules that are meant to, and often do, restrain the competition.

The rules of decent inter-team competition are fairly clear:

The first part is why not every competition ends, moose-like, in antlers too large for survival, nor is the commons usually a tragedy,(4) nor does every state preemptively attack its neighbors lest they, cheating, attack it. Justice's requirements are relatively clear. But the second is why violations, or mis-perceived violations, or entirely imaginary violations (as in the Blood Libel and its modern successors) easily spiral into disaster.

The rules for fair play among strangers are often explicated as forms of liberal disinterestedness or utilitarian maximization of the greatest good. They also include, however, radically different sets of rules: the rules of trickery exemplified by Odysseus or Jacob; the rules of revenge and honor known to students of Medieval Christendom's knights in shining armor or the modern Middle-East; the riddle games of the sphinx or Tolkien's Hobbits. I don't mean to obscure the differences between different conceptions, but rather to emphasize their commonalities: a limited claim to restraint in the war of team against team.

The rules of war, like the rules of a decent liberal society, are an attempt to escape from "anything goes" into a more or less empathetic respect for the other's claims of justice. At base, all the variants are founded in a recognition that all people have the right to be treated according to a common - if often limited - set of rules.

But, the potential for collapse is always present. The stranger's claim to be treated properly is completely dependent on reciprocity: the expectation that you will receive back in turn as you give. Hobbes, the pessimist, assumes that a strong governmental referee is necessary to keep the game from descending into chaos. Others rely on fear of Heavenly punishment, or reciprocated shared and internalized senses of justice and fair play.

For, when the other side refuses to play fair, ours doesn't have to either. Not only is this the basis of President Bush's view that Al Qaeda's murder of 3000 Americans makes his killing of 5000 Iraqis not murder, it is the reason why, as we heard on the first day of this conference, Caesar cannot be a Christian. A true Christian, if such a thing exists, simply turns the other cheek. Ordinary people defend themselves.

Of course, I needn't repeat Hobbes' own description of what happens when every person is a judge in his own case. Even when the rules are clear and don't contradict each other, usually people will not see the facts entirely objectively. And when multiple rules arguably apply, usually any reasonably self-interested person subject to ordinary processes of cognitive dissonance or defensiveness should be able to - entirely without malice - understand why the rule that should apply is the one that gives them the most.

So much for morality between teams. I take it this is mostly familiar. The short version is that, like international law, the rules are fairly clear but the application never is; and the potential for both sides to (relatively reasonably) view themselves as greatly wronged is great. Even people who have rejected the law of the jungle can easily begin to act as if they were following it.

One aspect is, or should be, controversial: I think, although obviously I cannot prove, that generally even enslavers, mass murderers, genocidal maniacs, ethnic cleansers, followers of apartheid, Hitler, Pol Pot or Sheikh Yassin, accept the basic structure of inter-team morality on some level. That is why racist programs so often deny the humanity of their victims, calling the other "insects," "viruses" or the like, and simultaneously rhetorically elevate them into super-human enemies who control the world, threaten all of civilization, or otherwise violate the norms of reciprocity by their very existence. Were it not for the basic morality of reciprocity, nationalists could murder based on competition alone. The very rhetoric of race hatred demonstrates its acceptance of the moral structures that should preclude it. And that, in turn, is cause for some hope in what otherwise could be a depressing world.

2. Within Teams: The Morality of Lovers

Within teams, a different ethic applies. When I help my children, partners or country, I help myself. No Hobbesian war, what is good for my team is good for me. This is not a world of limited resources but the opposite: the more I give, the more I have. Unlike in the market or the competitive world of power, here, your gain is my gain, not my loss. I shepp nachas when my children, or my team, do well. The patriot who sacrifices for his country, like the parent who sacrifices for her children, gains in the process.

Like the rules of morality between teams, the rules of morality within teams are also clear and accepted. They are variants on love thy neighbor as thyself, or a mother's love for her child.

Isaiah Berlin, in a famous essay, contends that the natural way to share a cake is equal slices, that this division alone requires no special explanation. But between friends, he is just wrong. A better choice for a base-line division would be: How much would you like?(5) Team members give to one another without looking for quid pro quos. Thus, it is insulting - wrong -- to count pennies with a friend or to expect something back for every gift you give your child. Parents support their children; lovers love one another. They don't worry, at least in the short run, about equality or relative status.

This team morality applies to all sorts of groups: not just parents and children, but sports teams and their fans, work groups, ethnic groups, peoples. It is why civilized countries provide medical care for all and don't let citizens starve (although foreign aid is at best a form of charity). It is the great benefit of the rah rah spirit that any good manager seeks to promote among the managed. It is the volunteer spirit that makes patriotism work, and the togetherness that veterans of peace movements and wartime solidarity alike remember so fondly. Within the team, we give freely, looking only for a general reciprocation of the sentiment.

D. Defining Teams

But the teams themselves are unstable, undefined, and constantly controversial. Who is "us":

Conversely, are "they"

Teams are constructs, and shifting ones, not natural artifacts. Not only nations are "imagined communities." All teams, even the most "natural" seeming are. Indeed, for every family that (sometimes) works according to the ethic of love, there is another (or another time) when it is strictly competitive, where every achievement of one sibling threatens the self-esteem of another sibling (or even parent).

Thus, consider one of our oldest and most widely shared myths: Genesis I. Genesis' creation story begins with a notably broad version of the team story. In the beginning of God's creation, God created the Heavens and the Earth - and the first human, a single being, out of the dust of the Earth. So certain was God of the basic unity of all God's creation, that God assumed that any of the creatures could serve as a proper mate to the human: God offered to marry Adam to each of the animals in turn. Will you Adam take this iguana as your lawful wedded wife?

Even after God was disabused of this mistake, the story continues to emphasize our common ancestry and our common plight. Even the story of Eve, so often read to justify the oppression of women, emphasizes the fundamental similarity of the genders. "Male and female He created [the first human]"; the only way to make a fitting companion, it turned out, was to divide the one into two. In case you didn't get the point the first time, the entire story is repeated at the flood: we are all descendants of the same drunk. No blue-bloods need apply: Your ancestry is not significantly different from mine.(8)

But Genesis emphasizes the other side as well. If a single creation by a single Creator of a single creature creates the mythological basis of a broad concept of team and the foundation of a morality of mutual concern, the first family demonstrates that there is nothing inevitable or blood-determined about team views. Cain and Abel, the first brothers, perform the failure of trade, mutuality and common feeling right at the start. No one need view others as on their team; even families can degenerate into zero-sum competitions where the more He loves Abel the less He must love me. Any economist can tell you that trading between shepherd and hunter should enrich them both, but instead it destroys them.

In short, we define who is we and who is they. And we always retain the possibility of transforming anyone into a "they" so foreign as to lose all claim on our friendship.

I've claimed that love is not necessary. Even between strangers, the morality of fair play should apply. But with it comes the ever-present possibility that because they are cheaters, evil doers, sinners, infidels, foreigners, heathens, class enemies, insects, inferior races, we are relieved of our obligations to fellow children of Adam and may Cain-like, kill Cain before he kills us. As Pharaoh says in enslaving the Jews: "See, they are growing strong. Let us oppress them, lest they grow too great for us." President Bush calls it "preemptive war."

II. Team Spirit/Team Morality

On macro and micro levels,(9) self-sacrifice in the cause of the team is both the highest form of human morality - and the source of its worst crimes. The evil done in the name of team spirit and for the greater glory of God, country and family is too often evil done by heroes to prevent the victory of evil. Evil -- not without evildoers but at least without conscious Satanism, without "evil be now my good"-- does more damage than Dahmer and his ilk. The teams we live by also generate the behavior we abhor.

The problem is easily understood but not easily solved. Two radically different ethics, one competitive and self-interested, the other communal and mutual, exist simultaneously, ready to be tapped into for good or bad. Neither can be rejected; neither can be accepted. And with two rules available, misuse is always possible: self-sacrifice in the cause of evil; disinterested and fair competition ignoring it.

Moreover, multiple rules mean multiple misunderstandings. When my lover treats me as a friend, I am likely to be mortally offended. When a stranger treats me according to one view of equality, but I expect another, I am likely to see not equality but insult, and insult merits insult back. President Bush's retaliation against Al Qaeda offended or hurt people on several continents, most of whom would not have imagined themselves to be allies of Al Qaeda. But once you've been dissed, the common understanding allows you to diss back - and more, and perhaps preemptively as well.

Team spirit means self-sacrifice, heroism, turning the other cheek, giving beyond the call of duty. It powers sports teams, but also successful corporations, all churches, and charities. It is what republicans call virtue and nationalists patriotism. It is why Hobbes was wrong to believe that no subject would remain loyal or law-abiding when his life was threatened. It is what prevents soldiers from deserting at every chance - when it is missing, the soldiers go missing too, as my ancestors and those of so many other Americans did, fleeing the un-solidary drafts of the old Russian, Ottoman, Austria-Hungarian and other Empires. At law, it motivates the laws of agency and tort, as opposed to the self-interested law of contract; it is the ethic of partnership rather than market.

Team spirit, then, is the source of much good in the world. And just as much evil. Patriotism turns into virulent nationalism, self-sacrifice into fanaticism, Christianity into crusades, love (of our team) into hatred (of the other), self-defense into preemptive war as easily as psychological insecurity or defensiveness turns into nastiness or hostility or spousal love into horrific divorces. Evil need not come from evil people, or even from bad intentions. The mental state of a war hero need be no different from that of a war criminal. The good professional may well be a bad citizen.

I leave you then, with this difficult conclusion. Restraining evil is not a matter of defeating or eliminating or restraining bad people. On the contrary, labeling someone as evil is often the first step towards forgetting that they, too, are on some level part of our team -- fellow creatures if nothing else. Somehow we must

Murder is always wrong, but nearly all of us can imagine times when killing is right. The difference between good and evil is no more, and no less, than getting that line correct.


1. © 2004, Daniel JH Greenwood. Professor of Law, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. A.B. Harvard College, J.D. Yale Law School. My work cited below is downloadable at http://law.hofstra.edu/greenwood.

2. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, I, xi. Conventional economics elides the zero-sum nature of competition by pointing out that trade makes it possible to increase the total number of things in the system: more people can eat with trade than without. Without contradicting this important insight, I follow Thorstein Veblen Theory of the Leisure Class 41-80 (1899; Houghton Mifflin 1973): beyond (and perhaps even then) an extremely low level of economic activity, mostly we are not concerned with things (we are more likely to have too much food than too little) but with conspicuous consumption as a means to the end of demonstrating relative power or prestige. Cf. Daniel Greenwood, Beyond the Counter-Majoritarian Difficulty: Judicial Decision-Making in a Polynomic World, 53 Rutgers Law Review 781 (2001).

3. The group basis of human life appears to be universal and perhaps even to predate our humanity. See, e.g., Michael L. Wilson & Richard W. Wrangham, "Intergroup Relations in Chimpanzees," The Annual Review of Anthropology 32 (2003):363-393 (showing evidence that our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees, in a pattern familiar to anthropological studies of hunter-gatherers, live in male- kin-defined bands with fiercely defended territories).

4. Garrett Hardin, "Tragedy of the Commons," Science 162 (1968): 1243-8 and his critics, some of whom note that many commons seem to work just fine.

5. In Beyond Dworkin's Dominions: Investments, Memberships, The Tree of Life and the Abortion Question (An Abortion Midrash), 72 Texas Law Review 559 (1994), I contested Isaiah Berlin's claim that equal division is the rule that needn't be defended: friends and other teammates share on other bases, such as need, contribution, desire, etc.. Cf. Jeremy Waldron, Law and Disagreement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999) 192-3 (contrasting the circumstances of justice with Hume's "golden age of benevolence in which justice is not a virtue" and, contrary to my claim, suggesting that the golden age isn't theoretically significant). Anthropological studies and common sense suggest in the long run friendships do require some level of mutuality (although in parent/child relations the long run may be very long indeed); on the other hand, the avoidance of exact counting among friends seems nearly universal. See, e.g., Joan B. Silk, "Cooperation Without Counting: The Puzzle of Friendship," in Peter Hammerstein (ed.), Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation (Cambridge MA, London: MIT Press 2002).

6. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London, New York: Verso 1991).

7. See, e.g., Orson Welles Mercury Theater on the Air, War of the Worlds (1938); Roland Emmerich (director) Independence Day (1996).

8. American racists understood the radical implications of this story, and sought to lessen or eliminate them with theologies of the Curse of Cain (or, for more careful readers, Ham) or straightforward denials of the fundamental biblical point. See e.g., Louis Agassiz's 1850 rewriting of the Genesis myth to give Africans an entirely different ancestry from Europeans, described in Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb 170-1 (New York: Norton 1980).

9. I've discussed the contradictory role-morality demands in corporate law resulting from conflicting understandings of team membership in Fictional Shareholders: ‘For Whom is the Corporation Managed,' Revisited, 69 Southern California Law Review 1021-1104 (1996) and Enronitis: Why Good Corporations Go Bad (2004).

 


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