Baseball and Ethics: The Rule Follower

320px-trevor_bauer_283414824615329This is the second installment in my Baseball and Ethics series. Part 1 is available here.

The baseball season will likely present us with countless controversies about blown calls, rule changes, cheating, and performance-enhancing drugs. But before we jump into the coming controversies of the new season that starts this week, I want to revisit a couple past controversies and apply them to the theory of ethics called deontological ethics.

Rules are at the heart of America’s pastime. There are many times over the course of a season that I see a play happen and wonder which rule applies. Some of the most misunderstood baseball rules include the infield fly, interference by a runner or batter, obstruction, and the balk. I even wonder sometimes whether umpires fully understand the rules.

One of the strangest plays where almost no one on the field understood the applicable rule came in Game 5 of the 2015 American League Divisional Series between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays. Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin hit the hand of the Rangers’ batter Shin Soo Choo as he was throwing the ball back to the pitcher. The ball rolled down the third base line while baserunner Rougned Odor raced home to score. It took nearly 12 minutes to sort out the rule with the umpires, both managers, a video review, and an official protest by the Blue Jays. The rule that applied in this situation is 6.03(a)(3).[1] Watch the video.

 

 

When we talk about rules and ethical theory, the perennial champion is deontological ethics. This theory might as well be the Yankees, and its most famous proponent—Immanuel Kant—is Babe Ruth. Kant’s deontological system of ethics speaks to rule-followers everywhere. Rules, duties, and obligations are virtually synonymous with this theory just like bubble gum and sunflower seeds are with baseball.

Kant’s system centers around what he calls the categorical imperative. A categorical imperative is a command that has no exceptions. It is absolute in its application.[2] While there are three main variations of the imperative, I want to focus on the first. Kant describes the first version of the categorical imperative this way:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

192px-immanuel_kant_28portrait29
Immanuel Kant

This is what Kant means. The only rules that should be implemented are those that we would want to be universal. For example, you may want a rule that allows you to lie when the circumstances would benefit you. But in order to implement that rule, you must make it universal as well, giving everyone else the right to lie to benefit themselves. Thus, chaos could ensue and many people could be harmed by the rule. Therefore, such a rule is not in keeping with the categorical imperative. By contrast, making a rule that requires truth-telling would fit the categorical imperative. While there may be times that telling the truth is difficult, it maintains order in society as a universal rule. From a baseball perspective, the categorical imperative is like the basic rules of baseball that extend from Little League to Major League. They are the essence of the game.

When taken to its logical end, Kantian deontology would not have a long list of universal rules, but those that exist would be absolute duties. Everyone is bound by those duties in deontology, and to violate a duty would damage the stability of society. Think of it as having nine players in the field, running the bases in a counter-clockwise direction, and needing three outs to move to the next half of the inning.

How exactly does deontology connect with baseball? Besides the fact that baseball has tons of rules that function as a list of duties that must be performed, I think a recent controversy best illustrates the categorical imperative. In May of last season, Trevor Bauer, a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, made headlines by accusing several pitchers for the Houston Astros of using a foreign substance to increase the spin rate of their pitches.

 

Before getting lost in the right field corner on this one, I need to make a couple things clear. First, I carry a great disdain for the dis-Astros. I’m a Texas Rangers fan, so I am inclined to believe everything that Bauer says and more about the team from south Texas. Second, spin rate is a complicated subject. But to put it simply, the higher the spin rate on a pitch, the more movement it will have, and the harder it is to hit. Basically, Bauer was accusing the Astros pitchers of using pine tar to create higher spin rates and improve their pitching performance. Part of this controversy also stems from the fact that Bauer was prohibited from using a non-sticky medical grade glue to cover the stitches on his finger in a playoff game the year before. Bauer wanted the MLB to enforce a consistent universal rule.

And here we have the connection to Kantian deontology. Bauer (who has a pretty cool Twitter handle by the way—@BauerOutage) was making a case for a categorical imperative. He wanted a maxim that would be universally applied across the game. The Indians pitcher might not be baseball’s next great philosopher and ethicist, but he was certainly invoking the ideas of Hall of Famer Immanuel Kant to make his point.

*Image credits to Wikimedia Commons.

[1] http://mlb.mlb.com/documents/0/8/0/268272080/2018_Official_Baseball_Rules.pdf.

[2] Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), 117.

Baseball and Ethics: The Utilitarian Player

247px-ben_zobrist_in_2017_28cropped29

The most wonderful time of the year is almost upon us. No, it’s not Christmas. The Major League Baseball season starts in less than two weeks. For the next six months I will spend most of my evenings watching all or part of a baseball game. It’s the national pastime. It is what life is supposed to be like.

This spring I want to engage in something a little different. Over dinner last night a friend inspired me to think about my academic discipline of ethics in terms of baseball players and ideas. I teach ethics for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I am specifically teaching a seminar right now that deals with ethical theory. I am always looking for a new way to illustrate these theories so students can better understand them. This time around, I’ll try it with baseball. So here is the beginning of my series on Baseball and Ethics.

jeremy_bentham_by_henry_william_pickersgill_detail
Jeremy Bentham

Utilitarianism is perhaps the most commonly employed ethical system around us. You could call it the ultimate utility player. Here is utilitarianism in a nutshell (roasted peanuts, of course, since we’re going with a baseball theme). Utilitarianism bases the morality of an action or set of actions on the principle of utility—the greatest good for the greatest number. Jeremy Bentham, the starting pitcher of utilitarianism, states, “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.”[1] Bentham goes on to offer further definition of utility as “that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness.”[2] After Bentham pitched a number of exceptional innings for his ethical theory, John Stuart Mill came into the game in relief of the starter and posted good numbers with his classic pitch, Utilitarianism, first published between 1861 and 1863.

In essence, utilitarianism requires that the person making a moral choice participate in a form of calculus to determine the results of any action and then quantify the consequences on a scale of utility. The action that produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people is the most moral choice. Think of this moral math equation as a form of moral sabermetrics.[3] Once we know how one choice stacks up statistically against the other, we can make an informed decision and anticipate a certain set of results.

So how does utilitarianism connect to baseball? I like to think of utilitarianism as the ultimate utility player. This is the player that can maximize good for the greatest number on the field. He may not be a slugger or a Gold Glove winner, but he makes things happen for the team, and every team wants a guy just like him. Let me give a couple of examples. Ben Zobrist is currently just that guy. He’s listed as the top second baseman for the Cubs right now, but he’s played second base, short stop, and various outfield positions. He’s won two World Series championships (2015 with the Royals and 2016 with the Cubs), and he won the World Series MVP in 2016. He’s even a switch hitter. You just figure something good is going to happen when Zobrist is in the game.

800px-joseoquendocards2013Another example from my childhood is José Oquendo. He played most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1988, he played all nine positions on the field.[4] Oquendo played 12 seasons in the majors and then went on to serve as a coach in the Cardinals system for another 21 years. Despite his lifetime .256 batting average, he continued to play for the Cardinals. You don’t stay in the big leagues for 12 years if you can’t play. His versatility and ability to make good things happen earned him the nickname “Secret Weapon” from his manager Whitey Herzog.

Great utility players like Zobrist and Oquendo stay in demand because they bring good results for the team. They are not usually superstars, and they don’t play to pad their personal stats. They generate the greatest good for the entire team. They are the ultimate utilitarians.

*Image credits to Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia.

[1] Jeremy Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation, in The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill, ed. John Troyer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), 9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://sabr.org/sabermetrics

[4] https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Jos%C3%A9_Oquendo

Born Alive but Still at Risk

One of the big new stories coming out of Congress this week was the failure of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to receive the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to come up for a final vote. The bill was intended to protect infants who survived abortions. Medical professionals would have been required to “exercise the same degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to preserve the life and health of the child as a reasonably diligent and conscientious health care practitioner would render to any other child born alive at the same gestational age.” In addition, the bill would “ensure that the child born alive is immediately transported and admitted to a hospital.”[1]

The failure of this bill comes on the heels of high-profile legislation in New York that legalizes abortion for the entirety of a pregnancy. As we can see from these situations, the lines regarding abortion are growing starker. On one side, there are people who continue to work for further limits on abortion and even to ban it entirely. On the other side, there are people who are working to expand access to abortion up to the point of birth or beyond.

What the failure of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and the passage of New York’s Reproductive Health Act tell us is that those who support abortion are moving closer to what was once considered an extreme position. This position is one of supporting abortion at any moment up to birth and perhaps even after birth.

The progression of this view can easily be seen in the work of Peter Singer. Dr. Singer is the longtime professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His writings on issues of life espouse infanticide and abortion. However, he also offers great insight into the debate regarding the right to life. Here is how he casts the argument over the search for a point at which new human life achieves personhood and thus has a right to life:

The central argument against abortion, put as a formal argument, would go something like this:

First premise: It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.
Second premise: A human fetus is an innocent human being.
Conclusion: Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.

The usual liberal response is to deny the second premise of this argument. So it is on whether the fetus is a human being that the issue is joined, and the dispute about abortion is often taken to be a dispute about when a human life begins.

On this issue the conservative position is difficult to shake. The conservative points to the continuum between the fertilized egg and child and challenges the liberal to point to any stage in this gradual process that marks a morally significant dividing line. Unless there is such a line, the conservative says, we must either upgrade the status of the earliest embryo to that of the child, or downgrade the status of the child to that of the embryo; but no one wants to allow children to be dispatched on the request of their parents, and so the only tenable position is to grant the fetus the protection we now grant the child.[2]

Singer notes the difficulty in determining “a morally significant dividing line” between conception and birth. He then suggests that if one cannot be found, then the embryo must be upgraded to the status of the newborn child or the newborn child must be downgraded to the status of the embryo.

This is the main sticking point in the discussion today about abortion. At what point must abortion be outlawed. For a couple of decades, the idea was that abortion would just not be allowed in the final trimester of the pregnancy. In recent years, those restrictions have been backed up closer to the point of viability. Abortion proponents have reacted against these restrictions by pushing for relaxing the restrictions to the point of birth. Some have even proposed that an abortion could be completed after a baby is born. This position may seem extreme, but it is the logical conclusion of Singer’s argument. Singer writes, “It seems peculiar to hold that we may not kill the premature infant but may kill the more developed fetus. The location of a being—inside or outside the womb—should not make that much difference to the wrongness of killing it.”[3]

Since the location of the infant—“inside or outside the womb”—does not make a difference to Singer, then where does he ultimately draw the line? He goes on to write, “In attempting to reach a considered ethical judgment about this matter, we should put aside feelings based on the small, helpless and—sometimes—cute appearance of human infants. . . . If we can put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby, we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants.”[4] Singer ultimately suggests that infanticide should be legalized for the first month after birth even though he admits that the month-old infant still does not have the rational capacity to be threatened by this policy.

There was a time when Singer’s views were considered extreme, but that time has passed. Those who support abortion are finding Singer’s logic sound and are willing to accept his position. In the past they might have found his logic sound, but they were swayed by the “emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects” of the argument.

Just when we thought the battle over abortion was turning in the direction of life, we find a new extreme position entering mainstream thought. Therefore, we must redouble our efforts to protect the most helpless and vulnerable members of our society.

[1] https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/311/text.

[2] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 125-26.

[3] Ibid., 126.

[4] Ibid., 152.

Guest Post: Psalm 143: Just Don’t Be Silent

This is a guest post from my wife, Melanie. She originally wrote this post for Biblical Woman, the blog site for the Women’s Programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The post originally appeared here.

What do you do when faced with a frustrating situation? Have you ever tried to make your point and people just won’t listen? Have you ever expected something to happen, only to be disappointed once again? Been relentlessly targeted as a scapegoat or overlooked for someone else? For better or for worse, I usually go silent amidst a time of frustration. Usually this works to my benefit, stepping away from the situation, gathering my thoughts, and only responding if necessary and in an appropriate way. Honestly, I usually come up with the perfect way to respond way after the opportunity has passed.

However, there is one relationship where silence does not work to solve anything. That is in my relationship with my Lord. If the Lord convicts me of an area of sin in my life or if I am not understanding what the Lord is doing in a situation, or if I grow weary in the waiting, the emotions of anger and frustration well up within me. “Fine. I’ll just step away,” my heart says, cowering from the uncomfortable nudging of the Lord through His Holy Spirit. Away is the exact opposite direction I need to be going. When the Lord nudges me or stretches me or upsets my comfortable sin, I must realize His workings and then run fully TOWARD him. This is where we find David in Psalm 143.

This Psalm begins with three requests made by David to the Lord. The first request David makes is, “Lord, hear my prayer”.  If David teaches us anything through his life and through his writings, it is to call out to the Lord. Make your requests! No matter how big or small the topic, trivial or life changing. So very often I find myself worrying sick over something before I realize that I have not even talked to the Lord about it. Yes, He knows my heart, but how much more does He want to hear from me? There is no time day or night, mid-day or midnight that is off limits to talk with God. God promises throughout scripture that he will hear us. Take Him at His word.  Be like David and make your requests known to Him who controls and creates everything.

Secondly, David asks, “in your faithfulness, listen to my plea.” He directly relates God listening with God’s faithfulness. The Lord hears and, in turn, listens to us, not because of how great we are or how important our words are, but because of Who He is. He is faithful to His people. When we talk with the Lord, He reminds us of that faithfulness and usually that reminding encourages us to trust him more. The process goes like this…the more we stir up our own thoughts and allow our words to fester in our mind, the more we rely on our own understanding of the situations around us. However, when we make our prayers known to the Lord and seek His face, we acknowledge our need for Him. And when we call to Him, we experience his faithfulness in listening to us. When we understand that faithfulness, it spurs us on to trust him more.

Lastly, David says, “in your righteousness, answer me.” This is the third request made by David as he begins this Psalm. When we cry out to God, we can be sure that he not only will hear and listen, but He will answer. However, sometimes the problem lies in how he answers. We want God to answer immediately or along the lines of our understanding. We cannot see in the moment how limited that expectation is. Just like God listens out of his faithfulness, he answers out of his righteousness. Deuteronomy 32:4 says, “He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, A God of truth and without injustice; Righteous and upright is He.”  As we wait for his answers, we humble ourselves, lay down our desire for control, and trust His righteousness.

David continues in the rest of the Psalm to describe his struggles and the hard situations that encompass him. He lays it all out before God. He ends the Psalm with the declaration of “I am your servant”.

At the end of the day, every believer lands at that same admission. We are His servant. He listens, loves, and cares for us in His gracious mercy because of who He is, and we should trust and rely on Him because of who we are.

Do We Always Have the Right to Control Our Own Bodies?

Over the last couple of weeks, the abortion debate has come to the forefront of cultural issues in ways that few could have anticipated. On January 22, the forty-sixth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law New York’s Reproductive Health Act. This bill guarantees access to abortion through the third trimester. In celebration of this action, Gov. Cuomo ordered that the tower on One World Trade Center to be lit up in pink. In the days that followed, Virginia Delegate Kathy Tran introduced a bill in the Virginia General Assembly to relax abortion restrictions in the third trimester. Embattled governor Ralph Northam endorsed the bill, but it failed to pass in the Assembly. Other similar legislation is being worked on in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

What has been most interesting in this current cultural debate is the honesty with which supporters of abortion have spoken about these bills. In the years immediately following the Roe decision, the typical response of abortion supporters was that they wanted abortion to be safe, legal, and rare. They seldom spoke of the realities of abortion and never dared to mention how much access they wanted. Today, proponents of these legislative measures are being very honest about aborting children up to the point of birth. Gov. Northam has even been accused of defending infanticide due to comments he made in an interview that suggested a doctor could refuse care to a newborn and allow the child to die.[1]

The arguments being made by abortion proponents primarily deal with radical autonomy and self-ownership. They make the case that a woman should have absolute rights over her own body without any concern for the child growing in her womb. In a press release following his signing of the Reproductive Health Act, Gov. Cuomo stated, “Today we are taking a giant step forward in the hard-fought battle to ensure a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her own personal health, including the ability to access an abortion. With the signing of this bill, we are sending a clear message that whatever happens in Washington, women in New York will always have the fundamental right to control their own body.”[2]

Most of these abortion proponents would probably argue that a right to control one’s own body is enshrined in the founding documents of the United States. This is generally understood to be drawn from the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Bill of Rights according to Griswold v. Connecticut and out of the 14th Amendment’s restriction on the state from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Applied to the abortion issue, these ideas regarding the right to privacy form the foundation of the Roe v. Wade decision that opened the door for abortion on demand.

184px-locke-john-loc
John Locke

Even though most abortion-rights proponents do not make the explicit connection, the right of self-ownership is typically attributed to the work of John Locke in The Second Treatise of Government.[3] Locke writes, “Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself” (V. 27). There is no doubt that John Locke’s work was very influential upon the Founders of the United States, and language from the Second Treatise appears directly in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However, are we correct in inferring a right to self-ownership of our bodies from Locke?

Locke’s premise of self-ownership is based on the idea that an individual in the state of nature has liberty to do what he wishes with his own property and possessions without depending upon the will of another man. It is in the state of nature that we find inherent rights to life, liberty, and property. It is at the intersection of the rights of liberty and property that we find those who make the claim for absolute liberty in self-ownership.

How does this apply to the abortion debate? Abortion proponents generally adopt an understanding of absolute liberty in self-ownership that would allow them to do anything they want with their own bodies. Therefore, the choice to end a pregnancy on the basis of self-ownership is the natural consequence of this absolute liberty. No person or governing authority has the right to limit this freedom. As a result, the woman can choose to have an abortion without consulting the father, the government, or the unborn child.

With Locke’s words that “everyone has property in his own person” ringing in the background, abortion-rights advocates declare that neither the government nor the citizenry can tell any woman what she can or cannot do with her body. They call for absolute liberty regarding the body based on self-ownership.

Considering Locke’s influence on our most important founding documents, it may seem that there is a solid case to be made that the Founders implied self-ownership in the language of the Constitution. However, there is a glaring problem regarding its application to abortion—Locke himself did not view self-ownership as an absolute right. Locke explains in the Second Treatise:

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence, though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone. And reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. (II. 6)

According to Locke, then, self-ownership is a limited right. One cannot destroy himself or another creature in his possession without a nobler use than mere preservation. Aborting the life of an unborn child for the sake of convenience or because the child is unwanted does not meet Locke’s test of a nobler cause.

Locke further clarifies, “For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker, all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order and about his business, they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure” (II. 6). Right here Locke denies absolute self-ownership and actually places the true right of ownership in the hands of God. It is the Creator who has absolute control over the body, and we are stewards of our own bodies.

If the limitation of self-ownership by Locke were not enough, he makes another argument that would deny an absolute right of self-ownership as justification for abortion. Later in the Second Treatise, Locke addresses the question of parental authority and the duty that parents owe to their own children. He writes, “The power, then, that parents have over their children arises from that duty which is incumbent on them to take care of their offspring during the imperfect state of childhood” (VI. 58).

Notice that while parents have authority and power over their children, it arises from the duty and obligation they have for their children’s care. This arises during what he calls the “imperfect state of childhood.” As evidenced from other discussions regarding the authority of parents, Locke considers this imperfect state to be the time during which a child has not developed the full rational capacity to make his own choices.

Interestingly, many abortion proponents make the case that the reason why a child in the womb can be aborted is that he has not developed the rational capacity to be a person. Since they believe personhood is achieved, then they declare that the child in the womb has no right to life. His life can be terminated without consequence.

However, Locke seems to disagree. He believes it is incumbent upon the parent to fulfill her duty toward the “imperfect” child, which would include protection of that child’s life. At this point, we have a clash of rights. The mother wants to exert her right of self-ownership, but the unborn child has a right to life. Since the right of self-ownership is not absolute, the child’s right to life trumps self-ownership. In Locke’s view, parental obligation requires that we protect the rights of the child, the chief of which is the right to life.

Therefore, invoking Lockean self-ownership is not consistent with abortion. If the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Constitution speak of a right to privacy and self-ownership, they most assuredly speak in Lockean terms. His influence on the Founders is undeniable. If Locke’s ideas are the ones speaking about self-ownership, then we need to consider his thoughts in their context. As we have seen, Locke’s understanding of self-ownership is not absolute, and he places an incumbent duty on parents to protect the rights of their children. Taken together, these ideas nullify a right to abortion based on a supposed right to privacy and self-ownership.[4]

[1] Alexandra DeSanctis, “Democrats Overplay Their Hand on Abortion,” The Atlantic, February 4, 2019.

[2] “Governor Cuomo Signs Legislation Protecting Women’s Reproductive Rights,” January 22, 2019, https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-signs-legislation-protecting-womens-reproductive-rights.

[3] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, in Political Writings, ed. David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003).

[4] This article is an update to “Abortion and Self-Ownership” that I wrote for the ERLC and was published in Canon & Culture. The original version is now available on the ERLC resources page at https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/abortion-and-self-ownership.