All in the game

Breaking rules is wrong, but who sets them in the first place?

Last month, the sporting world gave a collective sigh of relief that the Beijing Olympics had passed without any major cheating scandals. But the dissenting voices were not completely silenced: some claimed Michael Phelps's Nasa-designed swimsuit gave the eight-gold-medal winner an unfair advantage over his competitors.

They had a point, but they should perhaps accept this as an intrinsic part of game-playing. Despite the common recognition that rule-breaking is "wrong", we have a more ambivalent attitude towards unfair advantages which nevertheless are within the rules. Those who set rules hope to reflect a universal ideal of fairness. But rules can only ever be based upon a culturally specific consensus about what constitutes fair play. Use of steroids among Olympic athletes, for example, was not banned until 1975. Clearly, it did not become any more or less morally wrong to take steroids overnight; what changed was a developing scientific consensus that steroids give the user an unfair advantage.

It is no accident that politicians often reach for such idioms as "playing by the rules" and "a level playing field" when describing society and its members. Crudely put, society does resemble one big game: citizens vying for success (though using different measures to judge that success), with the legal system providing a set of rules for these "contestants" to abide by.

If society is a game, it is one that offers some of its players a headstart even before the opening salvo has been fired. That certain children are afforded greater social and economic security by an accident of birth - for example, the class or ethnic group into which they are born - is widely recognised as an unfair advantage. Nonetheless, it is an advantage protected by the law. Laws, like rules in sport, tend to reflect a common consensus around ideals of justice. In the instance of late-20th-century Britain, the post-Thatcherite consensus against the redistribution of wealth enshrines disadvantage within the acceptable bounds of the law.

This is a left-wing perspective, but the idea of unfair advantage also has currency within right-wing circles. However, the right-wing critique, focused on the justice system, takes aim at the liberal consensus that has produced human rights legislation. This legislation, it is commonly claimed, allows criminals to "cheat justice" by supposedly protecting the rights of suspects above those of victims, and hence makes unfair judicial decisions inevitable.

But while athletes choose to take part in an event and abide by its rules, we cannot choose what society we are born into, nor is there an equivalent opt-out system from society (short of emigration). The social contract depends on citizens respecting the rules of society in exchange for a basic level of social protection. So it seems to me that my mother was right after all: life, whichever way you look at it, isn't fair.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran