Wednesday, August 19, 2009

NYT's Ethics Solon Doesn't Like Golf.

The article, written by the Times' resident ethics columnist, Randy Cohen, is perplexing to me, because I cannot tell if it is intentional self-parody of the liberal culture of the Time's, an exercise in comedy, or if it is, on the other hand, serious. Why would I think the former? Well, for starters, Cohen's career blurb informs us of the following:

"His first television work was writing for "Late Night With David Letterman," for which he won three Emmy Awards. His fourth Emmy was for his work on "TV Nation."

OK, so we see that he's well prepared to write comedy. He's written columns for two professionals who are comedians, one, a professional comedian, and a man who thinks it's funny to make jokes about Republican politicians underage kids 'playing' with famous athletes, while mom scours Manhattan stocking up on 'hoochie' wear, the other, a professional who is unintentionally comic, an alleged everyman from Flint....er...Davison.. Michigan, Michael Moore, noted lover of Cuban Health Care, and all things Republican.

OK. Got it. So, we can see Cohen is well placed to write a witty sophisticated column that will appeal to the average NYT reader. So..

What preparation does he have for writing an ethics column? The blurb continues:

"He received a fifth Emmy as a result of a clerical error, and he kept it. For two years, he wrote and edited News Quiz for Slate, the online magazine."

OK, so he has FIVE Emmy's. Got it. Quite impressive. Not quite sure how that qualifies him as an ethics Solon, but, hey, it's the Times. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt.

The blurb helpfully concludes:

"Currently he writes the The Ethicist for The New York Times Magazine.."

Just in case we couldn't make that inference. Oh, and in case you couldn't tell, the column is a regular feature:

"Each week, in Moral of the Story, he will examine a news story from an ethical perspective."

Well, OK, enough snark about the writer, what about the column itself? What does it have to say? How sound is that ethical analysis?

It seems the IOC (noted for its high level of ethics) has voted to recommend Golf be added as an Olympic Sport (presumably for the summer games..although the thought of tundra golf does have appeal). Meanwhile noted nutbag, and friend of Cuba, Hugo Chavez has cracked down on golf, denouncing it as "bourgeois." (Don't laugh Middle America! First they came for Golf, then Tennis, next it will be Bowling.)

Well, Cohen would like to ethically analyze the culture and institutions that have grown up around Golf, with an eye toward determining whether or not it is in the spirit of the Olympics. At least I think that's what he is on about.

So, with some prefatory caveats he begins:

The golf community, like most others, is neither monolithic nor immutable, but the current customs and values of big-time professional golfers, those most likely to dominate Olympic play, seem remote from the Olympic ideal.

OK, he seems to have knowledge, beforehand, that Olympic Golf, like basketball and hockey will be dominated by professionals. How does he know? Who knows.

Well, granted that assumption, he complains, or rather an Irish columnist he quotes complains, that these professional Golfers, at least the ones from the States, are "ugly Americans." They drive luxury cars, divorce, and speak in cliche's during television interviews.

(Not to get too tu qoque on Cohen's or the Irishman's tukus, but, what automobiles do they drive, pray tell? And are they always founts of smashing eloquence? Is this a moral failing anyway?)

How does any of this, if true, detract from the Olympic ethos? It seems to me, the best case that could be made in that direction is based on the fact that these guys are not amateurs. This doesn't even pop up in the discussion. Perhaps that is not the touchy bit, but rather that they are professionals of a certain sort is really what imperils the ethos. Yeah, that's the ticket. That must be it:

American golfers are even more homogeneous and more conservative than their global colleagues, Selcraig asserts, citing a Sports Illustrated survey of 76 P.G.A. tour players: 91 percent endorsed the confirmation of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.; 88 percent supported the invasion of Iraq; and 0 percent had seen “Brokeback Mountain.” Not science, perhaps, but not unrevealing.

Oh. I see. The fog lifts. These guys are ***shudder*** conservative. That makes them morally suspect, makes them not fit for the Olympic ethos. Gotcha.

So, if George Soros or Michael Moore were professional golfers, and either driving Hugos, or never divorced, or supporters of liberal leaning supreme court justices, and had viewed an appropriately PC movie, then BAM, they would presumably be OK for the Olympic ethos.

Cohen then quotes the Olympic website: It champions peace, fair play, sportsmanship, and wants to create a better world via education of youth through sports, practiced without discrimination. This, of course sets him up for a follow on volley, after that initial overwhelming bit of shock and awe:

He argues that golf is objectionably exclusive, like gated communities, which, of course are only inhabited by conservatives. He cites Augusta National, (aka; the he-man-woman-hater's-club) ruckus that ensued when Tiger Woods did not boycott the Masters in 2002. Cohen doesn't like the fact that Augusta National doesn't have female members, and was racially discriminatory in its past. The club is private, exclusive and memberships are by invitation only.

Now, all this is undoubtedly true, but is it representative of the sport? Is it representative of the individuals that play, and clubs and public courses around the nation? Probably not. Granted, I am no expert on the culture, and don't play one in the blogosphere, but simply by media osmosis I think I have enough data to safely wager that Cohen is being unfair, letting his biases get the better of him.

Just to pick on Tiger, since he seems to be the favorite whipping boy:

Woods does many things of a very admirable nature that he does not trumpet. Just this year he provided free tickets to his tournament for large numbers of inner-city kids, and veterans. Absolutely free through Navy MWR and other venues. He doesn't advertise that he does this, but 'facts is facts' as they say. He has always been a class act off the green or course, whatever the correct term is. He works with kids constantly. And there are other instances of such class individuals in the golf world. There are many instances of open and inclusive clubs as well. There are many public courses, offering free courses to kids that wouldn't be able to afford it. There are numerous school programs, PGA sponsored charity events, and countless similar events sponsored at all levels of the game. Just scour your newspapers. Overall, the institution, the "game" is very socially conscious. The good far outweighs the bad. To concentrate on Augusta to the exclusion of these other very numerous instances is sloppy and fallacious argumentation. The same sort of sloppy critique could be aimed at other Olympic sports. More than one commenter on Cohen's piece suggested Equestrian sports. Certainly, at least the image that comes to mind is aristocratic, which I would assume would associate with "conservative" in Cohen's mind. But, I dare say, that picture would run the risk of being as inaccurate as Cohen's picture of golf.

Now, Cohen makes short work of this line of defense:

Reactionary bastions like Augusta are not the whole story. Golf is also played on public courses — there are 16,000 nationwide — and some pros emerge from that modest terrain. New York City, for example, has 12 municipal courses. (Queens, with four, has the most. Manhattan has none, although I can envision a concrete course that begins with a tee at the Apollo and ends on a green near the stock exchange. It’ll keep pedestrians alert.) Yet golfers appear to be a less diverse group, and a group less interested in diversity, than, say, soccer players or runners. As Ch├ívez put it: “There are sports and there are sports. Do you mean to tell me this is a people’s sport?” He answered his own question: “It is not.”

Leaving the last word to noted populist Hugo Chaves, who I'm sure, does not live in anything like a gated community, and is a true champion of diversity, just as long as you agree with him (Otherwise he'll shut ya down) is curious. And, how exactly does Solon know that runners and soccer players are more "interested" in diversity anyway? By how they look? What they do? He doesn't' deign to offer.

Blazing a new trail of ethical critique, Cohen then goes on to indict the sport for environmental sins. What with the thousand of kilos of chemicals used to maintain courses, and the water that would be better spent on the multitudes of thirsty in adjacent neighborhoods, Big Golf (r) yet again shows moral insensitivity.

I dare say that more than one sport can be so indicted. Nothing unique here. Cohen's argument concludes:

Every big-time sport has its disheartening elements. College basketball, a game I love, is marred by periodic recruiting scandals; academic mischief; the strange behavior of the N.C.A.A., its governing body; and Rick Pitino’s love life. Perhaps the only moments of grace and beauty and virtue in any game occur during actual play, and we should not look too closely at its broader culture and implicit ethics without expecting to be dismayed. But there are genuine differences between the ethos of one sport and another. It is hard to imagine the Duke of Wellington declaring, “The Battle of Waterloo was won in the corporate hospitality tents of the P.G.A. tour.”

Not quite sure what the last reference is getting at, but rest assured, he does think the "ethos" of Golf is sufficiently suspect, as compared to others, to make it advisable to NOT include it as an Olympic sport. I suspect he means there is not nearly enough "social justice" work being done by Golf, as opposed to other sports.

My read is that there probably is much more than he suspects, just as there is in basketball, his chosen foil.

He is right to point out that sports in our culture does harbor scandal, ethical lapses etc.., but the claim that Golf is any more prone to these sorts of things than other sports, is any more "reactionary" (cough cough **"conservative" **cough cough) than other sports, to such a degree as to morally require its exclusion from Olympic events is, to say the least, suspect, if not risible.

A Natural Answer to a Natural Objection to Natural Law Ethics?

An objection to natural-law ethics:

Natural law ethics attempts to derive that a particular way of life, following some basic set of rules, centered around preservation and support of several ‘natural values’ is the life we ought to live, based upon the alleged fact that we as a matter of fact tend to prefer that particular way of life. But, this is a fallacious inference. One cannot infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is,’ without having first assumed the very object of that inference.
But ignoring that gap, and assuming one can infer from ‘is’ to ‘ought,’ one still encounters trouble, if we are to measure the theory against our common beliefs and intuitions.

Human beings are far more rapacious, violent, selfish, conniving, cold, and sadistic than the natural-law theorists generally let on. Yes, we do tend to form families and social groups, seek knowledge and educate, play, create art and so forth, but at the same time we have always killed, fought, bullied, coerced, lied, cheated and stolen, just as consistently. So, if you are to take the universal and natural occurrence of these sorts of things as indication of value, then, it would seem you need to infer that these sorts of things are indicative of a set of natural values, just as basic, and just as normative as are the favored list of values offered by natural law theorists. Yet, these values would seem to be very nasty. So, it would seem either, that we are obliged to act in these ways, and/or that our list of natural values is deeply self contradictory, and therefore useless as a normative tool. One example; looking at human behavior, there would seem to be a natural value centered on preservation of ‘life’ paired with a cancelling value centered around killing and death.

Objection Answered?

How can we reconcile these undeniable facts about human life with the natural law view? We can begin perhaps, by drawing an analogy to the history of science. I draw that analogy, and then consider its implications:

Simplifying the history of science, we can say that it is a difficult multi-generational task to arrive at true pictures of the various parts of the natural world. What is more, at any given time, there are several competing pictures of natural phenomena that are consistent with human observations. In the case of at least some presently established scientific truths, it is safe to say that it would never have been possible to arrive at the correct theory, the correct story, immediately, given the circumstances of human observers at earlier times. Consider for example, the true state of affairs with regard to the sun, moon, and Earth. It is simply not realistic to expect that early humans would have ‘happened’ upon the correct story in their first attempts at picturing this relationship, nor, if by chance they did get so lucky, would they have been able to tell that they were so lucky. No. It took centuries, and the efforts of many people separated by generations, standing upon the shoulders, the works, of earlier folks who had considered the puzzle, before we were in a position to discover the truth, and know that we had. Once the correct picture was finally pieced together, only by utilizing the observations and theoretical predictions of earlier work, we could see that the true picture accounted for the strengths and weaknesses of its prior competitors in ways that explained or accounted for those strengths and weaknesses, and this allowed us to see its truth. The point here is that arriving at scientific truth is hard work, requiring generations.

Something similar can be said concerning normative truths, ethical truths, and political truths. We should not expect that early social groups or early civilizations would have immediately hit upon the set of basic and superstructural rules that best allow human beings to flourish, these rules jumping forth, as it were, from Zeus’ cleft skull full grown, Athena bathed in glorious light for all to see. Nor, should we expect that knowledge of the values that truly allow flourishing would have been fully formed from the get go. No, as early man was prone to mistake Earth as the center of all things, due to his state of knowledge, so too we can expect that ancient man would mistake some putative natural inclinations or the purported inferred values from that objector’s list as those that allow flourishing. And, even if he had a handle on the set of natural values that best allows flourishing, it is likely he would err considering the activities or ways of life that are amongst the set that would best allow for instantiation of these values, that is; flourishing and happiness. We make such mistakes. So did our ancestors.

We should expect that individual civilizations might get some things right, other things wrong, in their mix of rules, finding ways to ensure some natural values on the favored list, while failing to ensure others. To put this in a very clumsy way: It is difficult business to find the right balance of rules that will allow maximization of all the natural values to the greatest extent possible consistent with simultaneously maximally minimizing the losses to every one of those values. (Good God! What a horrible sentence of English)

Yet, as history unfolds, and cultures formulate rules, live by them, interact with other cultures, deal with their various material circumstances, cultures discover and transmit to posterity not only a set of preferred values, much like the one offered by NL theorists, but preferred sets of rules that, at least have family resemblance one to the other. They discover (horrible neologism alert!) “family-resemblant” sets of rules that allow better chances for maximizing human flourishing, while minimizing loss. These discoveries are passed into the future, and used (even if the parent cultures perish or abandon the rules.) Rule sets are modified by posterity, but looking at all the putative ‘natural values’( both the standard set and that of the objector) there are certain values that are never entirely abandoned by the human race once discovered, and which form the basis of moral justifications for punitive and deceptive actions of various sorts. They explain the persistence concomitance of the objector’s set.

In fact, we can see the ‘standard set’ as forming a justification for utilization of violence, deception and other such things due to their status as higher order goods that are sometimes served by those ends. To use Kant’s terminology, those higher order values are ends in themselves, while the others are instrumental. That core set of values never entirely abandoned, and preservation of which, permits exercise of the secondary ‘natural’ values or inclinations have a unique property, Call it ‘verisimilitude 2’ which allows us to discriminate the truly fundamental values from the secondary. This property is to be compared with verisimilitude 1, that is, the truth of scientific explanations or theories:

What is verisimilitude 2? It is this complex property: Wherever in the world it is the case that a significant subset of the fundamental values takes root with strength, this provides conditions that bring about a very obvious flowering of human potential. Economic strength, arts, literature, the intellectual pursuits, political arts, and other things grow and, dare I say, flourish. Humans in surrounding areas evince their strong natural preference for this subset of values by imitating, appropriating, or ‘voting with their feet’ during such periods. They ape the peaking culture or immigrate to areas that are ‘peaking.’ Conversely, those areas of the world, those cultures that do not instantiate a significant set of these values do not have significant imitation or immigration. In addition they tend to be materially deprived, overly violent, repressive, have little in the way of cultural transmission (via literature), when compared to the “peaking” areas, and in other ways, are culturally stunted. In short, they tend to instantiate the secondary values at the expense of the primary, and humans at some level know this, and don’t prefer it.

History calls periods of ascendency in the primary values ‘golden ages’ ‘peaks of civilization’ and occasionally other less complementary terms indicate such periods (‘empire’ comes to mind). These periods of history, and more particularly, their similarities, serve as empirical proof, if you will, of the saliency and primacy of the given set of values that natural law theorists favor, to the seeming exclusion of the others. This in a nutshell is verisimilitude 2.

So, while we do not deny that some activities the objector points out are naturally occurring, we do say that these natural activities do not indicate bedrock natural values, but are forms of behavior, and natural traits that tend to serve these bedrock values, as secondary protective “auxiliaries” to use Plato’s phrase. They are necessary, given that conflict arises, humans sometimes knowingly choose wrong, and resources are finite. So, it is no surprise that they are as constant in human history and psychology as they are. They serve a purpose. But, the proper role of these psychological traits and the parallel activities is as supportive auxiliaries of the fundamental set of values. This is not to say that the auxiliaries cannot usurp position. Cultures do this. Individuals do this.

It may be, and indeed is true that peak periods and peak cultures are quantitatively outnumbered by periods and cultures that are not at peak, but this is no empirical argument for the legitimacy of the usurpation, or the correctness of the numbers. The countervailing evidence of history and considered human preference tells otherwise.