politics : culture : economics

Playing by the rules: as in football, so in life?

In Political theory on July 10, 2010 at 4:38 pm

The 2010 World Cup, which concludes tomorrow, has had more than its fair share of controversy over players’ commitment to upholding the rules of the game. We had Thierry Henry’s handball in the last of the pre-tournament qualifying matches, Frank Lampard’s goal-that-should-have-been against Germany and Luis Suarez’s save-that-shouldn’t-have-been against Ghana. Should we be concerned by all these broken rules? According to philosopher Peter Singer, the answer is yes. Sport’s increasingly ‘win at all costs’ ethos can’t be at the expense of normal ethical standards. Here’s what Singer had to say about the response of the German goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, to Lampard’s goal:

After the match, Neuer gave this account of his actions: “I tried not to react to the referee and just concentrate on what was happening. I realised it was over the line and I think the way I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not over.”

To put it bluntly: Neuer cheated, and then boasted about it. By any normal ethical standards, what Neuer did was wrong. … We should not make excuses for intentional cheating in sports. In one important way, it is much worse than cheating in one’s private life. When what you do will be seen by millions, revisited on endless video replays, and dissected on television sports programs, it is especially important to do what is right. (Click here to read the rest of Singer’s article.)

I think it is difficult to disagree with Singer on this point. There may be various arguments that one could deploy in defence of the trio named above, but it would be a stretch to describe any of these defences as being moral in character. Moral conduct on a sports field requires conformity to the rules of the game. Is it all that’s required—is obeying the rules a sufficient as well as a necessary condition of moral behaviour? In sport, the answer is probably ‘yes’. But let’s broaden the discussion out and consider what political philosophers have to say about the wider rules and institutions that make up society. Because here there’s a dispute over whether obeying the rules of the game goes far enough.

If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?

Discussion of questions like this has been dominated by the work of John Rawls since his publication, in 1971, of A Theory of Justice. To simplify greatly, Rawls’s book sets out the principles that should underpin the basic structure of society to protect the interests of individuals, including, notably, the worst off. According to Rawls (again, this is a simplification) once the institutions of society have been established on a just basis then the work of justice is done. A bit like in competitive sports, as long as individuals obey the rules of the game they are free to make whatever choices they wish.

There are dissenters from this understanding of social justice. I want to outline the views of one of them very briefly here, not so much because I think he is right as because I think it’s useful every now and then to challenge what may seem like common-sense assumptions. The philosopher in question is G A Cohen and his densely argued case is presented in a deliciously titled book: If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? (You can also find the same argument online in one of Cohen’s journal articles: “Where the Action Is”.)

Cohen rejects Rawls’s outline of society’s basic structure as comprising only its formally coercive institutions. There are other institutions that should be included, he argues, on the basis that (i) they are informally coercive, and (ii) they play no less a central role in distributing resources within society. A key example, he says, is the family. The family can’t be excluded from society’s basic structure, he writes, because it “governs the very groundwork of our existence” and “is fateful for the benefits and burdens that redound to different people, and, in particular, to people of different sexes.”

His argument is that families are informally coercive in a way that is built up through patterns of conformity that rest on choices rather than formal rules. To illustrate, he considers the common situation in which most of a married couple’s domestic tasks are handled by the wife, even if both spouses work outside the house. There is no rule imposing this greater domestic burden on the wife, but it adversely affects her interests and is typically bolstered by social expectations that are no less coercive for being socially constructed. He writes:

“[S]uch expectations need not be supported by the law for them to possess informal coercive force: sexist family structure is consistent with sex-neutral family law.”

So, if our understanding of justice is that it requires protecting the interests of individuals by shaping the coercive institutions that profoundly affect their life-chances, then it can’t just focus on formal rules and institutions. Considerations of justice need also to look at individual choices and behaviours because these too are constitutive of similar forces. Or to put it another way, for Cohen it’s not enough to obey the formal rules of the game, because in society—unlike in a World Cup match—the formal rules don’t capture all that’s significant about the structure of the game.

A more fractional sort of fraction

Cohen goes on to develop his point about justice including individual choices as well as institutional rules with reference to economic life more generally. He turns to the question outlined in the title of his book and asks whether it can be just for a rich egalitarian not to go beyond what is legally required in terms of giving away money to increase equality. He writes:

“Most people find the posture of rich folk who profess a belief in equality peculiar, and my anti-Rawlsian conception of the just society might be thought to make it look more peculiar still. And their posture includes my own posture, since I am myself a relatively high earner, and, as you will not be surprised to learn, I give away only a fraction of the money that I earn. (By which I don’t mean that I give away something like, for example, three quarters of it; I mean a different, more fractional, sort of fraction.)”

Cohen’s aim isn’t to solve the parodox of rich egalitarians but to make a preliminary sketch of the moral considerations affecting what he claims is a question that hasn’t really been addressed at length before. For that reason, there’s no simple conclusion to summarise here, and there isn’t the space in this blog post to follow the various and complex threads of the argument that he develops. Those of you interested will find it set out in chapter 10 of his book. For now I’ll conclude by noting that one philosopher who has put his money where his mouth is in relation to distributing his personal income is Peter Singer, whom I quoted at the outset in relation to the World Cup.

Singer gives away around a quarter of his income. However, he says that much good can be done with much smaller donations, and there’s a calculator on his website that will suggest the appropriate proportion to donate for any level of income entered (typically 1 per cent on incomes up to $100,000). His argument is that we are under an individual moral duty to prevent deaths that we know to be preventable. He uses the familiar example of the moral obligation to rescue a drowning child from a shallow pool—the force of this obligation isn’t lessened by the trivial fact that we might get wet.

In a similar vein, Singer argues that the obligation on those of us who are financially comfortable to try to prevent deaths caused by poverty-related diseases isn’t lessened by the trivial fact that a few luxuries may need to be sacrificed. (He says the reality of world poverty is that you are financially comfortable if in the last week you have spent more on something to drink than the cost—if anything—of drinking water.) If people are dying and if, as individuals, we have the resources to prevent those deaths, then prevent them we must. This is a position he first set out in the seminal article Famine, Affluence and Morality almost 40 years ago. It’s worth a read.

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