Systems approach

It is the time of year when professional football players hold out for more money. Players and their agents sit across tables from owners. Offers meet counteroffers until a compromise is reached somewhere in between. It is a microcosm of a system that is rooted deeply in our culture; the adversarial system.

The primary presumption of the adversarial system is that a fair outcome is reached by opposed sides vigilantly contend on issues at which they are at odd. The outcome of such organized and refereed contention is to be accepted as the best possible outcome. The adversarial system is the basis for contract negotiations, our justice system, and much of the work of the academy.

But ought it be the basis for all our public and social interactions? One of the benefits of the adversarial system is that it works whether or not one’s opponent has compromise or fairness of outcome in mind. In fact, this system assumes opposing sides in a dispute may even be willing to withhold relevant information or even cheat in an attempt to gain an advantage. In other words, the adversarial system is set up for interaction that cannot be based on trust.

Since the adversarial system is designed to overcome or at least provide for mistrust, it should not be the primary model used in some settings. It certainly does not belong in family relations or in the church.

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