Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine in late February 2022, there has been talk of the Russian leadership bluffing (1). This is a practice that is often associated with poker. In this game, bluffing is a deceptive manoeuvre that aims at deceiving “an opponent by a bold bet on an inferior hand was bluffed out of a winning hand” (2). If a player can know that the other is bluffing without being offended, it is because this tactic is part of the rules of the game. This observation inspired the economist Albert Carr who, in a famous article published in 1968, used the concept of the “rules of the game” to defend an analogy between poker and business life (3). He concluded that bluffing is morally permissible. Other arguments recognising the moral legitimacy of bluffing refer rather to the concept of role. After some considerations on bluffing in the context of the war in Ukraine, we discuss this by situating the debate within business ethics.



Bluffing in the context of the war in Ukraine

One of the characteristics of bluffing – which is shared by many other attitudes – is that it can be attributed almost spontaneously to the actions of others, while being subject to rational justifications. In the case of the Russian leadership’s alleged bluff about using nuclear weapons or the risk of a third world war, these justifications include

– a gamble on the “weakness of the West;”

– a desire to “create a climate of fear, to impress;”

– a contradiction (“How could [the Russian president] use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine without completely discrediting himself in his claim that he is bringing together Russians and Ukrainians, peoples who are supposed to be historically linked?”);

– and disproportionality (“Even Russians who want Russian domination of Ukraine are not prepared to risk a nuclear conflict for that”) (4).

But there are also rational objections based on the assumption that “none of us can take lightly the threat posed by the potential use of tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons” (5).

A distinction can be made between these two types of attitudes by using the concept of game. For supporters of bluff, the Russian statements are part of a game, the rules of which are not known with certainty, but which can be conceived by invoking the experiences of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. For those who doubt that the Russian statements are a bluff, the analogy with a game is irrelevant, not because it cannot be used metaphorically (after all, all human activity can be described as “game,” “comedy” or “theatre”), but primarily because the matter is serious and the rules of the so-called game are not known.

This last point – ignorance of the rules of the game, which, incidentally, suggests that one is not playing – calls for comment. Like other competitive games, poker is reassuring because the players know the rules of the game, they agree to abide by them, and the game has the character of entertainment. In the case we are considering, these conditions may not be met. Jesus of Nazareth said of Satan: “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (6). If one participant in a human interaction is such a liar, the others should not seek to play with him, for they would inevitably be caught up in this participant’s game.

It is worth considering, however, one aspect of the bluff that seems to characterise the Russian statements: the emotions they evoked. As we have seen, these statements “impressed” the West. An “impression” here is “the effect that an external cause produces in one’s mind,” and this effect includes emotions – “to impress” means “to move, to affect the mind with a strong impression” (7). Fear would be one of the emotions produced by the statements of the Russian leaders, alongside amazement and indignation. It can be assumed that they are all the more intense, lasting and disturbing because the situation that produces them does not seem to be governed by “rules of the game.”



The argument of the analogy between poker and business life (8)

Without rules of the game, bluffing seems meaningless. This is what Albert Carr underlines at the beginning of his article by quoting the words of a British statesman:

“Falsehood ceases to be falsehood when it is understood on all sides that the truth is not expected to be spoken” (9).

He said of poker that “no one expects poker to be played on the ethical principles preached in churches.” As for business life, there are practices, such as negotiation, in which bluffing has become a rite, an almost codified practice. The practitioners involved make “profitable use” of bluffing to seize opportunities that would otherwise be lost.

Carr goes further into the analogy between poker and business life. He observes that poker is governed by ethical rules that differ in part (not least because of the bluff) from those of ordinary morality:

“The game calls for distrust of the other fellow. It ignores the claim of friendship. Cunning deception and concealment of one’s strength and intentions, not kindness and openheartedness, are vital in poker.”

The same is true in the business world. The Golden Rule, for example – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” in its positive version – is not relevant there. It is replaced by a cold, self-serving version: “Do unto others as [we] hope others will not do unto [us].”

If business participants are to have a “game player’s attitude” – which, as in poker, is a condition of success , they must, according to Carr, “feel that [their] bluffs are ethically justified.” This justification comes from the fact that their practices – including bluffing – have “the impersonal character of a game.” Just as poker is defined by its rules, so business practices are governed by rules. It is these rules that provide the ethical justification for both practices.

Carr concludes by stating that

“if a man plans to take a seat in the business game, he owes it to himself to master the principles by which the game is played, including its special ethical outlook. He can then hardly fail to recognize that an occasional bluff may well be justified in terms of the game’s ethics and warranted in terms of economic necessity.”



A critique based on constitutive rules

While Carr’s article may have been described as lacking in rigour (10), the insights that underpin his argument are worthy of examination, in particular:

– business participants represent some of their practices, such as selling and negotiating, as they would a game;

– bluffing is justified by the ethics of the game – a significant insight since it is commonly accepted that moral ideals and principles justify actions;

– the “game” of business has an impersonal character that avoids placing its actions under the regime of ordinary morality and suggests a fallacy: because business relationships are not personal relationships, they are governed by rules like competitive games;

– the participants tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, consent to play this game.

It is understandable that an immediate objection to Carr’s argument should be targeted at the analogy between business and games. Daryl Koehn has interestingly proposed nine distinctions between these two activities that make this analogy illegitimate (11). It is worth considering one of them.

Koehn argues that the rules of a competitive game are not regulative, but constitutive. The difference between regulative and constitutive rules is as follows: “The former governs a human activity that existed before and independently of them, whereas the latter identifies and regulates the human activity in question” (12).

If the rules of poker are constitutive, it is because they define the game. The offside rule in football and the obligation to pass the ball backwards in rugby are also constitutive rules in the sense that, if they did not exist, these games would not have the same nature – or would not exist (13).

For Koehn, however, the rules of business life are not constitutive. Her argument is based on the difference between a rule and a convention (the rule being conceived here as a prescription with a general and imperative character, whereas the convention emerges from an agreement between persons):

“While business practice does recognize some conventions, it is far from being constituted by a set of rules.” (14)

To illustrate her point, she uses the example of the signs on the floor of the stock exchange that allow traders to communicate. These signs were not imposed by an authority, but emerged from interactions between traders. This implies that, although traders must respect them, they do not have the binding force of a rule (15). Koehn concludes that “business practice is not […] constituted by a set of rules; and it is of little help to suggest, as Carr does, that the businesspeople, like poker players, can do whatever it takes to win as long as they stay within the rules, given that business lacks the rules poker has.”

Koehn’s argument raises a practical objection, however. If a rugby player is asked why they pass the ball backwards to a partner, they would (or will) reply (with a surprised look): “Because it’s the game!” And if a salesperson is asked why they do not give their customer all the information that would enable them to make an informed choice, they would (or will) answer: “Because it’s the business game!” For Koehn, such an answer is not legitimate, because “not giving all the information to a client” is not a constitutive rule. But the usages or “conventions” that govern the relationship between salespeople and their customers may have the same practical robustness as a constitutive rule. For example, our salesperson might add: “If I were to give an exhaustive communication of the information in my possession about the product this customer is considering buying, my job would no longer make sense: I would no longer even be a salesperson.”



Justification by role morality

This reference to role introduces another argument in favour of the idea that bluffing in business is morally permitted. It is based on the theory of role morality, which argues that it is morally permissible, even obligatory, to deviate from the moral rules of ordinary life when occupying certain roles. Philosopher Kevin Gibson emphasises its importance:

“The notion of role morality suggests individuals may adopt a different morality depending on the roles they undertake. […] Investigating role morality is important, since the mentality of role morality may allow agents to believe they can abdicate moral responsibility when acting in a role.” (16)

Philosopher Fritz Allhoff builds on this theory by proposing the following argument:

a) the theses on role morality are valid;

b) some of the roles occupied by participants in business life allow bluffing, or even make it obligatory;

c) therefore bluffing is (partly) morally permissible in business life. (17)

The typical role that allows bluffing is that of a negotiator. Allhoff goes so far as to say that, “without bluffing, the idea of negotiations itself almost (though not quite) becomes incoherent” – incoherent, because the absence of bluffing does not allow negotiators any room for manoeuvre in reaching an agreement; not quite, because in practice they end up reaching an “arbitrary” agreement. But other roles do not allow the holder to bluff, such as those in which a person acts as a fiduciary.

Allhoff’s argument assumes that the theses of the role morality theory are valid. If this is not thought to be the case – by arguing, for example, that any role-holder, whatever that role may be, must abide by the principles of ordinary morality – then we are back to where we started.

There is, however, a suggestive point in Allhoff’s argument. He observes that bluffing is an amusing practice in itself:

“People play these games [here poker and the board game Risk] for fun, and bluffing makes the games much more fun.”

Fun explains, for Allhoff, the desire to bluff and, more importantly, the consent to do so.



Conclusion: the pleasure of bluffing

To conclude, it is worth going back to the etymology of the word “bluff.”

“In business and politics,” writes the Dictionnaire historique de la langue française Le Robert, “[bluffing] is more generally said of an attitude that makes the opponent believe that one is determined, powerful, dangerous.” This concept contains the idea of exaggeration – it designates “exaggerated threats” – which is found in the English expression To call s.o.’s bluff, which means, in poker, “to invite the opponent to put their cards on the table” – or to challenge them to do so – and, in colloquial language, “to take up a challenge” (18).

Challenging and taking up a challenge are playful processes that are not limited to the sphere of the game. They are stimulating, rewarding and exciting, not only in themselves, but also because they provide an escape from ordinary routines. A moral justification for bluffing in business cannot be derived from this, but a practical justification can clearly be derived.

Alain Anquetil

(1) See “Guerre en Ukraine. La menace nucléaire de Poutine : ‘Du bluff’, selon François Hollande,” Ouest France, 28 February 2022, O. Oliker, “Putin’s nuclear bluff. How the West can make sure Russia’s threats stay hollow,” Foreign Affairs, 11 March 2022, and “The West has successfully called Vladimir Putin’s bluff,” The Daily Telegraph, 27 April 2022.

(2) Source: Merriam-Webster.

(3) A. Z. Carr, “Is bluffing ethical?” Harvard Business Review, 46(1), 1968, pp. 143-153.

(4) Respectivement “John Herbst : ‘Si nous armons l’Ukraine jusqu’aux dents, une défaite de Poutine est probable’,” L’Express, 28 April 2022, “Guerre en Ukraine. La menace nucléaire de Poutine : ‘Du bluff’, selon François Hollande,” Ouest France, 28 February 2022, “Niall Ferguson : ‘Poutine bluffe sur le nucléaire, nous n’aurions pas dû reculer’,” L’Express, 12 March 2022, and “John Herbst…,” op. cit.

(5) “La CIA prévient du risque nucléaire posé par un Poutine confronté à des revers,” Ouest France, 15 April 2022. See also this comment by Olga Oliker: “Whenever the leader of a nuclear-armed state signals a readiness to use nuclear weapons, it is worth taking seriously” (op. cit.).

(6) The Holy Bible, New International Version (NIV), Zondervan, 2011.

(7) Respectively Dictionnaire historique de la langue française Le Robert, 4th edition, 2010, and Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 9th edition.

(8) I discuss Carr’s argument and some of the objections to it in A. Anquetil, Qu’est-ce que l’éthique des affaires ? Paris, Vrin, Chemins Philosophiques, 2008.

(9) “Is bluffing ethical?”, op. cit. All the following quotes are from this article.

(10) See for example Fritz Allhoff, “Business bluffing reconsidered,” Journal of Business Ethics, 45, 2003, pp. 283-284.

(11) D. Koehn, “Business and game-playing: The false analogy,” Journal of Business Ethics, 16(12/13), 1997, pp. 237-242. See also P. Heckman, “Business and games,” Journal of Business Ethics, 11, 1992, pp. 933-938.

(12) Qu’est-ce que l’éthique des affaires?op. cit. The distinction was proposed by John Searle in “How to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’,” The Philosophical Review, 73(1), 1964, pp. 43-58.

(13) In rugby, the law of offside (identical to that of football) and “the requirement to pass backwards before advancing forwards with the ball in hand are common features of the game of rugby.” (R. Fassolette, “L’ovale en divergence. La dichotomie XV-XIII, les frères jumeaux du rugby,” Staps, 78(4), 2007, pp. 27-48).

(14) Koehn does not strictly define the terms “rule” and “convention.”

(15) Jean-Daniel Reynaud and Nathalie Richebé note that conventions “arise from the very constraints of coordination.” They conclude that a convention “is a norm that arises from the very fact of belonging to a community or rather from the will to participate in a collective action.” (“Règles, conventions et valeurs. Plaidoyer pour la normativité ordinaire,” Revue française de sociologie, 48(1), 2007, pp. 3- 36.)

(16) K. Gibson, “Contrasting role morality and professional morality: Implications for practice,” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 20(1), 2003, pp. 17-29. See also my post “Is it possible to separate people from their roles?” 24 November 2019.

(17) “Business bluffing reconsidered,” op. cit.

(18) Harrap’s Standard French and English Dictionary, J. E. Mansion (ed.), Vol. 2, Bordas Paris & Harrap London, 1977.

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