David Brooks on Linsanity and the difference between the morality of religion and sports

Posted by Wayne

David Brooks, the New York Times‘s supposedly conservative columnist, regularly looks to sports as a way of making sense of our political and popular culture. This week he used the Jeremy Lin phenomenon as a pretext for some reflections on the gap between the ethos of sport and the ethos of religion (because Lin, like Tim Tebow, is a devote Christian). For Brooks the gap is a chasm that can probably not be fully or safely bridged.

The discussion is relevant for this blog because Brooks claims that the “sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.” Our ethical thinking in certain adversarial contexts or institutions will — and ought to — differ from the way we think ethically in other parts of our lives, even if we are deeply religious.

The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.

The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.

He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.

His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.

This is what we go to sporting events to see

Brooks identifies this ethos with “modern sports,” but take away the inclusion of female athletes and ESPN, and the description of the virtues, goals, motivations, and glories of the athletic hero (or warrior) would not have looked out of place in Ancient Greece or Rome.

Of course, it is easy to see why these qualities are troubling for adherents of many traditional and religious moral traditions in the West and East. A “moral hero” in these traditions would not be described in any of the ways I have emphasized in bold font in long quotation from Brooks. (Although he or she would, presumably, be just as courageous as the sporting hero, even if this was not his or her primary virtue.) Brooks himself goes on to paint a similar broad-brush portrait of the religious life, and explains why he thinks the sporting and religious characters can never be fully reconciled. Following the Jewish theologian Joseph Soloveitchik, Brooks believes

that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Note that Brooks is focusing almost entirely on one component of a moral or ethical perspective — the part that concerns virtues or characters traits. But we also care about what rights, freedoms, and duties people have; and with the how to design just institutions (which will, in turn, assign various rights and duties to individuals occupying particular roles). So we might also ask whether the rights and duties of “players” in deliberately adversarial institutions will necessarily conflict with the dictates of a religious follower’s conscience.

Here too the answer seems to be Yes, but for very different reasons than the ones Brooks has highlighted. The best summary I know of for this case comes from Joseph Heath‘s important paper in the Journal of Business Ethics, “An Adversarial Ethics for Business: or When Sun-Tzu Met the Stakeholder” (2006). Here is how Heath sums up an argument explained over several pages:

Much of everyday morality has as its goal the prevention of a collective action problem. It is possible to secure certain advantages by lying, but if everyone did it, no one would believe what anyone said, and everyone would be worse off… This is why the… Golden Rule capture[s] much of the spirit of everyday morality. But because the central mechanism in a competition is an unresolved collective action problem, there are bound to be numerous prima facie conflicts between competitive imperatives and those imposed by everyday morality. This is reflected in the fact that a naïve or mechanical application of the Golden Rule in a competitive situation is likely to generate the wrong results. Before kicking the winning field goal, we do not want football players to be thinking, “How would I like it if the other team did that to me?” Similarly, before lowering prices, we do not want the gas-station owners to be thinking “How would I like it if the station across the street did that to me?”

The bolded phrase is the key to understanding the reason we actively encourage a different kind of ethical thinking or ethos in what we are calling deliberately adversarial institutions (like sports, markets, and democratic politics). These institutions regulate a competition in order to create benefits for “non players” outside the competition — what economists call “positive externalities.” So in all of these institutions we deliberately prevent the competitors from cooperating in ways that will be to their advantage but not to the advantage of outsiders.

Traditional morality is about cooperating and mutual assistance: adversarial ethics is about how to generate social benefits by preventing certain forms of cooperation; but also about how to make sure that the players use only appropriate tactics in their attempt to succeed. Heath’s article is as good a place as any to see the outlines of, and tensions between, these two features of adversarial ethics. But you should also find these tensions in almost every case study we highlight on this blog.

Incidentally, Heath’s article could be of some service to pious, but ferociously competitive athletes like Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin. They can play hard to beat their opponents, but show self-restraint in doing so by embracing the “spirit of the rules” and by treating their opponents with respect. And of course, they can and should be as cooperative and humble as possible with their own team mates. Within the team itself, there is still no “I” in Golden Rule.

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One response to “David Brooks on Linsanity and the difference between the morality of religion and sports

  1. Pingback: Shameless “Linsanity” link « This Sporting Life

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