Blogs & Comment

Jack Layton and adversarial ethics

Adversarial systems like politics and business require very special ethics; Jack Layton provided a great example.

Candles mark a Vancouver vigil for the late NDP leader Jack Layton, August 21, 2011 (Photo: Darryl Dyck/CP)

Today Canada mourns the loss of Jack Layton, a politician beloved by his allies on the left and grudgingly respected, I sense, by a great many opponents on the right. Layton was, for most of the last decade, the tireless leader of the New Democratic Party (traditionally Canada’s “third” party), and eventually led it during its historical first turn as the Official Opposition in the House of Commons.

Layton has left behind a considerable legacy of public service, but his career also holds lessons for how we think about business ethics.

One of the things the market and the realm of electoral politics have in common is that both are deliberately adversarial. We want participants (political parties, in one case, and business firms in the other) to compete vigorously with each other, rather than cooperating. The idea is that when participants compete, third parties (voters in one case, and consumers in the other) reap the benefits. Such systems are interesting, and ethically complex. Competitive behaviour is often considered anti-social, and so it requires careful thought to figure out just what the boundaries of competitive behaviour are when we actually encourage people to act that way.

Here are two facts about Layton that serve as perfect illustrations:

First is that he spearheaded an effort to bring greater civility to debates in the House of Commons. This is not surprising, coming from the Federal politician voted to be the one Canadians were most likely to want to have a beer with. But that sort of effort is also absolutely essential to any adversarial system. Just as norms of good sportsmanship keep violent games like football and hockey within reasonable boundaries, norms of civility in politics keep that game from devolving into something intolerable.

But some may also recall that Layton was declared (by impartial academic researchers) the “least civil” participant in recent Canadian parliamentary debates. Critics were quick to use that story as ammunition against the affable politician. But the authors of that study rightly pointed out a structural reason for Layton’s place in the ranking: Layton was leader of one of the opposition parties, and zealous debate in Parliament is one of the opposition’s few tools in Canada’s parliamentary system. Canadians would have been worse-off if Layton, in his role as leader of an opposition party (and later as Leader of the Official Opposition), had been more polite.

Clearly, the challenge Layton faced—and by all accounts met admirably—is the same one faced by business leaders everywhere. And that is how to compete zealously in order indirectly to promote the common good, while at the same time resisting the natural temptation to behave in such a way as to bring the entire endeavour into disrepute. Competing in a zealous but civil way is an essential part of Jack Layton’s legacy, and a crucial challenge for all leaders in the worlds of politics and commerce.

Correction: The original version of this blog entry claimed that Layton was Leader of the Official Opposition during the time-frame of the academic study mentioned. That was incorrect, and has been fixed. Thanks to reader Lew for pointing this out.

A video montage of the late NDP leader Jack Layton, from his earliest days in city politics to his run in federal politics. Courtesy