Baseball and Three Theories of Ethics

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake performing at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake performing at the Super Bowl halftime show

Watching the Super Bowl and hearing all of the impassioned debating about the wisdom of two-point-conversion attempts and whether or not the punt is overused reminded me of a parable my mythical friend Ishmael Gradsdovic likes to tell.

After high school, Ishmael and three of his friends went to the local community college for a spell. Those three friends, having been enraptured by the World Series (the “Bay Bridge” or “Earthquake” series in which the Oakland Athletics hung the San Francisco Giants out to dry), decided that they wanted to be on the college’s baseball squad the following season. (Ishmael himself, never one for the mainstream, was more into fencing than baseball.)

Now none of these friends had played any organized ball since little league, so they had a little catching up to do if they wanted to make the team. In the best “three little pigs” fashion, each had a different approach.

Mannie figured the best way to learn would be to consult the experts. He found books about baseball written by some of the wisest and most experienced practitioners of the sport. Walter Alston, Branch Rickey, Earl Weaver, Leo Durocher, Whitey Herzog, Casey Stengel — he absorbed their maxims as though they were the words of the Buddha addressing his assembled monks. (And often the advice made for difficult meditation indeed, for instance Stengel’s observation that “good pitching will always stop good hitting and vice-versa.”)

Jerry, on the other hand, suspected that there were flaws in the established wisdom and that even the experts were probably relying on folklore and hunches that wouldn’t stand up under scientific scrutiny. So he looked into statistics. Baseball is probably the most obsessively statistically-analyzed game in the history of the world, so Jerry quickly found himself buried in statistical abstracts and databases. He spent his free time running computer simulations of various batting lineup orders and strategic choices. He came to believe some heterodox but statistically defensible conclusions, for instance that it’s a poor idea to put your worst batter in the #9 position, that the sacrifice fly is overused, and that base stealing should be attempted less often.

Ari didn’t much go in for this theory stuff. He was more interested in playing ball. So once he learned the rules of the game at the college level and how they differed from what he’d learned of the game in little league, he put the reading materials away. Any chance he got, he’d join in pick-up games and softball leagues and even hitting fly balls for kids to shag.

Jerry and Mannie didn’t agree on everything, but they did think Ari was foolish not to spend more time brushing up on the finer points of the game. “You’re going to miscalibrate your instincts playing all this sand lot stuff,” Mannie told him. “The game is played much more intensely in competitive college ball than at some weekend keg game.”

Jerry agreed: “You’re only going to learn the most rudimentary skills playing this way. Then what will happen when you’re in a real game and some situation comes along that you’ve never encountered or even thought about before? Anyone can learn the 90% of playing baseball, but it’s that last subtle 10% that distinguishes the all-stars from the also-rans.”

But still they’d come to his games, and even throw on the gloves from time to time and participate. But mostly they liked to argue. Mannie would cite precedent and Jerry would throw back percentages to the third decimal place. Ari would listen, ask questions, occasionally “p’shaw,” and sometimes try out their ideas on the field.

Well, to make a long story less long, it eventually came time for tryouts. The coach was impressed with Mannie’s knowledge of baseball history and strategy and with Jerry’s complex understanding of the interplay of the many variables that make up a game. In their first mock-up game, he had Mannie start in left field, Jerry in center field, and Ari in right.

But Mannie didn’t play as well as he’d hoped. He started the game with the confidence that comes from having the hall of fame sitting on your shoulders and whispering into your ear. But although he knew just how to set down a bunt, somehow he couldn’t get the bat and ball to cooperate. And though he knew exactly how to shift in left field to compensate for the strengths of opposing batters and the number of outs and men on base, he wasn’t so good at judging how to field a ball coming at him on a trick bounce. He was playing right, but not playing too well.

And Jerry found that his statistics weren’t all that helpful on the field. He could tell you with great accuracy and precision what it is that he ought to do in any situation either at the plate or in the field, but when he threw the ball to the correct base, the accuracy and precision of the throw was wanting.

Ari had struggles of his own. His fielding and throwing was better, his batting more successful, but his friends were right that this game was different from what he’d been playing before. He usually found that his instincts scaled pretty well from what he’d learned in the weekend leagues to how he needed to play now. But one of his rifle-shot throws from right field, accurate as it was, came in too late to catch a runner who’d taken a good lead, and he realized that Mannie and Jerry would have correctly told him to hit the cut-off man.

But when the team’s final roster was announced, Ari was on it and Mannie and Jerry weren’t. The coach explained that while Mannie and Jerry knew how the game oughta be played, Ari knew how to play. “You’ve still got plenty to learn, but it’s gonna be refinements to the mechanism. Those other guys, we’d have to start from the ground up.”

Well, what does this have to do with the weather on Mars?

It’s meant to be a sunday school style promotion of virtue ethics (which I mentioned ) and also a way for me to excuse myself in rambling on a bit more about my theory that the way to build your own ethical fortifications is to start one brick at a time rather than trying to design instant castles on paper.

The best way to become virtuous is to practice virtue — informed perhaps by ethical theories but never expecting that you will be able to apply these theories algorithmically as a substitute for conscientious (and fuzzy) judgment.

Being virtuous in ordinary, day-to-day situations is a way to prepare for being virtuous when confronted with difficult, unanticipated and critical situations. If you get in the habit of making good, worthy choices this will strengthen your will in difficult times like no theory can.

How do you know which choices are good and worthy of the virtuous life? Well, I think it can help to be informed by ethical philosophy, and I think there’s probably plenty to be absorbed from folklore, literature, religion, and the like. But these aren’t to be used purely intellectually, or taken on faith, but should be understood as things that have informed and nurtured a larger ethical “sixth sense” — one that almost certainly needs continuing nurturing.

One way this ethical sense reveals itself is through the sensation of guilt. Sometimes guilt is just part of the processing of mistakes and unintended consequences, and should be attended to just because the way you learn is through making mistakes, noticing them and trying not to repeat them.

Guilt also is often evidence of a disconnect between the morals you have or think you should have and those that actually guide your actions. Such cases are opportunities to examine this disconnect. If your actual motives do not match some moral theory you’d like to think you hold, one or the other needs to change. Choose carefully, and then silently, wordlessly, but honestly retell the story of who you are and what you believe.

Which is to say that the intellectualized, verbalized, symbolic summary of your ethical beliefs is never going to quite capture them in their full natures. But also that these ethics need to be a balanced combination of prescriptive moral guidance and descriptive psychological insight. If you respond to the question “what are my ethical values” with a prescriptive moral code — that’s evidence that you aren’t paying close enough attention to what your ethical values really are but instead are expressing a wish about what those ethical values should be or a declaration of what you’d like other people to think those values are.

The trick is to continually adjust your conscious understanding of your ethics in the light of observation, understanding and experience until you no longer feel guilt — not because you have learned to ignore it, deny it or suppress it (on the contrary, you treasure it as valuable feedback) — but because this disconnect has vanished: the ethical standard you hold yourself to has become more human and more attuned to the real world, and at the same time you have become the sort of person that you can be proud of, and so you and your ethics have met across the chasm of this disconnect, and the source of much of your guilt has dried up.

In reality this goal may never fully be met. Chances are the best we can hope for is to be on an asymptotic trajectory toward being our own hero. Still — this isn’t such a bad fate, is it?