Baseball and Ethics: Being the Best

187px-mike_trout_2018This is the fourth inning in my Baseball and Ethics series. Previous innings are available at the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Who’s the GOAT? Who is the greatest of all time in baseball? At this point, you might as well call out to the stadium popcorn hawker, fork over $7 (don’t forget to tip), and watch the fireworks as people fight over who is the best player. This fight might even be better than that time Nolan Ryan pummeled Robin Ventura.

Surely the question of defining who is the baseball GOAT is worthy of consideration. Some of the names that must be included are Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams. From a more contemporary perspective, names such as Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and Barry Bonds* enter the conversation. To throw in some pitchers, we need to think about Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez.

Why do people like to argue over who is the greatest of all time? First, baseball admittedly has some down time, and we need something to do while watching a game. This is why every square inch of the stadium video screens is covered in statistical information. I never knew how much useless baseball trivia I could store in my brain until I started attending live MLB games regularly. I even used that useless trivia to be the only 2-time winner of the Rangers’ ToppsQ Trivia stadium game last season, including winning the inaugural contest.

Second, people argue over the baseball GOAT because people like to argue. It’s a simple fact. We need something to argue about and we will find almost anything that fits the bill. If you don’t believe me, just look to our elected officials in Washington.

Third, people argue over the greatest because we aren’t entirely certain what makes someone the greatest. Baseball—both past and present—is full of spectacular athletes who have excelled at levels far beyond normal human limits. I laugh when I hear people say they could play the game better than a certain player on the field. The reality is that if they actually could, they would be on the field. Even guys like Bartolo Colon, who looked like he should have been eating his own bucket of popcorn in the stands, are able to perform on the field in ways that the average human cannot.

So that leaves us with the question of what qualities make a player the greatest. Honestly, we can’t really quantify them even though some guy in a sabermetrics lab with sets of data like ERA, WHIP, WAR, BA, OBP, OPS will tell us that he can. At the end of the day, the greatest players simply embody greatness. They are the best.

Looking at the GOAT question from an ethics perspective, we are led to consider virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is a theory that focuses on what it means to be good rather than to do good. Certainly a person who is good will do good, but that is not the focus of this theory. Virtue ethics points us to character traits that embody goodness. As Steve Wilkens writes, “Character ethicists are more concerned with virtue than with virtues. The Greek term areté, usually translated as ‘virtue,’ means something like ‘excellence.’ While we may be able to isolate particular areas of intellectual and moral excellence in a person, the ideal is that they reside in individuals as a package.”[1]

183px-sanzio_01_plato_aristotleDebates about the GOAT don’t just happen in sports; we have a similar debate in ethics. When it comes to virtue ethics, there are significant players who battle for the title of greatest virtue ethicist. The two titans are Plato and Aristotle. While we might consider the GOAT in sports to be a once-in-a-generation player, Plato and Aristotle were alive at the same time. Admittedly, Aristotle was Plato’s student, but in the realm of virtue ethics, it is likely that the student surpassed the teacher.

Plato identified four cardinal virtues—temperance, courage, prudence, and justice. Aristotle defined a way to identify these virtues in contrast to their corresponding vices. We call Aristotle’s approach the Golden Mean. In essence, Aristotle taught that the virtue was found in the middle ground between two extremes, which are vices. For example, courage is the virtue between cowardice and foolhardiness. For Plato and Aristotle, the best person is the one who embodies these virtues. We can call him the ultimate 4-tool player.

This Golden Mean set the stage for other later thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, to build on this system. In fact, borrowing from the work of Aristotle and Augustine, Aquinas developed a 7-tool virtue player. In addition to the four cardinal virtues, Aquinas identified the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. In keeping with Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 13, the greatest of these is love.

Back to baseball, virtue ethics is probably best illustrated by the rare 5-tool player—speed, power, hitting for average, fielding, and arm strength. There are few players in the history of the game that can be called 5-tool players. In fact, even the best players may be downgraded in one category to question whether or not they truly fit. In my lifetime, the two players who perhaps most clearly reflect these tools are Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Trout.

Griffey had it all. He was elite at the plate and in the outfield. He was a 13-time All-Star in his 22-year career. He won 10 Gold Gloves and 7 Silver Sluggers. He has a career 83.8 WAR (Wins Above Replacement).[2] No one who watched “The Kid” play doubted he was the best all-around player of his day.

Trout is the contemporary version of Griffey. He is also a centerfielder with elite speed and fielding ability. He is one of the most feared batters today. If there is a knock against Trout, it is his arm strength, but opposing teams still don’t test him often. Trout has a career WAR of 66.1, but he is still adding to that number. Currently in his eighth full season, Trout has amassed 7 All-Star appearances, Rookie of the Year (2012), 6 Silver Sluggers, and has finished first or second in league MVP voting six times.[3]

Griffey and Trout are just good. The stats demonstrate the fact that they can do it all. But watching them play brings further understanding to just how good they actually are. It’s like virtue ethics. We can talk about what it means to be good, but when we see it in person, we know what it looks like.

An asterisk was added to Barry Bonds’* name when listed among the all-time greats because his name should always have an asterisk.

Image credits to Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), 130-131.

[2] https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/griffke02.shtml.

[3] https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/troutmi01.shtml.

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

No Independence Day for the Unborn

300px-supreme_court_front_dusk*My recent post at Theological Matters addresses this week’s Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The full post is available here.

This weekend I plan to attend a patriotic concert with fireworks, food and friends. It has become an annual tradition for my wife and me that we would not miss for anything. We will sing along to the national anthem and probably tear up as they honor military veterans. In fact, one of our friends who organizes a group of us to attend each year will have just returned from a war zone on a brief leave from his military duties. It should be a great evening full of emotions and patriotic pride.

Unfortunately, there is another cause for tears heading into Independence Day. These are not tears of joy, but tears of sorrow. As was the case last year, the week before Independence Day celebrations, the Supreme Court issued a decision that will alter the course of our great nation. This time the decision struck down abortion regulations in Texas and has made it almost impossible for states to enact commonsense medical regulations on the abortion industry.

In the days ahead, we must not lose hope. Independence Day gives us a good reminder of what we should work to attain for the unborn. Let us give them an opportunity to celebrate their own independence rather than having their lives snuffed out in their mothers’ wombs.

Read the rest of the article on Theological Matters.

Interview with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Back in November I had the privilege of sitting down with Scott Corbin from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) for an interview. The interview is now available as part of the CBMW podcast series.

Over the course of about 20 minutes, we covered topics ranging from why I chose to study and teach ethics, the nature of marriage, the place of friendship, and the work of the church.If you endure to the end, you can even here a quick synopsis of the paper I presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (aka, my nerd convention) about third-party gamete donation in assisted reproductive technology. Is the use of donor sperm and/or eggs adultery? Listen to find out what I concluded.

You can listen to the interview at the CBMW website or download it here.

Conversation with Evangelicals for Marriage Equality

On September 14, I extended an invitation to Evangelicals for Marriage Equality to have a dialogue on the nature of marriage and whether evangelicals should support same-sex marriage. After a number of emails behind the scenes, I am pleased to announce that Michael Saltsman, one of the co-founders of EME, will be joining my Bible & Moral Issues class tomorrow (October 15) on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In addition to being one of the co-founders of EME, Mr. Saltsman is research director at the Employment Policies Institute in Washington, D.C. He has published a number of articles on minimum wage and employment policies. His articles have appeared in prestigious publications, such as the Wall Street Journal.

Some may wonder why I would allow someone with whom I disagree substantially on a significant issue to have an hour or so of my precious class time. In some respects, I have already answered this question in a previous post regarding my selection of books for one of my classes. I chose a text that espouses positions that I fundamentally oppose on a particular ethical issue. This is a very similar exercise. In that post, I noted:

For most of my academic career, I have heard Dr. Paige Patterson (president of my seminary) say that students need to know the arguments of the best thinkers who disagree with our positions.

Before inviting EME, I approached Dr. Patterson seeking his permission to extend the invitation. He told me it was my class and that he trusted me. In essence, I am doing what he taught me to do. This time it just happens to be live and in-person rather than in book form.

Am I afraid that my students will be swayed to support same-sex marriage? Not really. Could it happen? Anything is possible. Do they need to hear what EME has to say? Certainly. If some of my students are convinced to support same-sex marriage as a result of this conversation, then I have done a poor job of making my case this semester (granted, I still have about 7 more weeks left this semester to change any of their minds). It’s humbling to invite someone into my classroom whose goal is to convince my students that I am wrong. But it is a healthy exercise for both student and professor.

I am looking forward to a healthy discussion regarding our differences of opinion related to marriage. I have also invited all of my students from other classes to join us tomorrow morning. If you happen to be around the SWBTS campus at 8:30 in the morning, you are welcome to join us in Truett Conference Room.

What’s In a Name?: Evangelicals and Marriage

bible-cover-pageThis post is the second installment of a multi-part series reflecting on my recent radio discussion with Brandan Robertson, spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. The audio of that radio “debate” can be found here. The first post can be found here.

In Shakespeare’s classic play, Romeo and Juliet, the “star-cross’d lovers” are destined for a life apart from each other because of a long-standing feud between their families. In act 2, scene 2, Juliet proclaims these famous words to Romeo:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Is Juliet really right? Just by changing his name, can Romeo escape the wrath of the Capulet family for loving Juliet? Would they not still know exactly who he is?

As part of my ongoing interaction with Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME), I have become intrigued with their use of the term “Evangelicals” in their name. What makes an evangelical?

The term “evangelical” is admittedly hard to define. Many have taken up the task, and some have reached disparate conclusions. However, there are some common elements that seem to mark the use of the term evangelicalism.

First, evangelicals typically stress the authority of the Bible. They believe that it is the inspired Word of God and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). The first half of the doctrinal statement of the Evangelical Theological Society reflects this emphasis as it states, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.”

Second, evangelicals stress the atoning work of Christ in personal salvation. The term itself derives from the Greek word εὐανγγέλιον (evanggelion), which means “gospel” or “good news.” It should come as no surprise that a people who claim to be gospel-focused exhibit a concern for personal salvation.

Third, evangelicals tend to stress preaching and proclamation of the Word. This goes hand-in-hand with being gospel-focused people. Part of this preaching would involve calling people to live in accordance with the Scriptures.

In light of these basic characteristics of evangelicals, I find it difficult to reconcile the use of the term “evangelical” for a group of people who are promoting a lifestyle inconsistent with Scripture.

I have written in a number of places about the immorality of homosexuality, but I do not want to focus on that particular activity here. Instead, I want to focus on Jesus’ definition of marriage compared to the statement of belief from Evangelicals for Marriage Equality (EME).

The EME statement concludes, “You can be a faithful evangelical Christian and at the same time support civil marriage equality for same-sex couples.” They specifically avoid making a theological case for same-sex marriage and intentionally choose civil marriage as their battleground.

As we saw above, however, evangelicals stress the authority of God’s Word. If we go to Scripture, we find a very clear statement from Jesus on the nature of marriage. He says, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt 19:4–6). If Jesus declared that marriage is between male and female, just as God designed it from the beginning, I find it difficult to imagine how self-proclaimed evangelicals could promote something that Jesus expressly excluded from marriage.

The reason for EME’s promotion of same-sex marriage, in my opinion, comes not from their desire to adhere to the authority of God’s Word, but instead from a hermeneutical commitment to elevate experience over Scripture. In most of my conversations with Christian proponents of same-sex marriage, they make an appeal to the personal experience of a friend who was (or could be) hurt by the church’s opposition to his desire for same-sex marriage. While I do not doubt the other person’s experience, I do question the wisdom of allowing our experience to subvert the authority of the text. If we elevate experience over Scripture, then there is no limit to what behavior we can justify.

In addition, Brandan Robertson and others have appealed to a standard of love as the reason that evangelicals should support same-sex marriage. They believe that showing love will win over those who would not otherwise want anything to do with the church. However, I am drawn back to the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13. In the midst of his extended treatise on love, Paul declares, “[Love] does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). Since Jesus stated that marriage is between one man and one woman for a lifetime, then we know that to be truth, and in that we rejoice. Any departure from the pattern made clear in Jesus’ words is a departure from the truth resulting in unrighteousness. In this we cannot rejoice. So EME is left with a choice. They can either rejoice in the truth of what Jesus has said about marriage or rejoice in unrighteousness. To rejoice in unrighteousness, however, is not to express love in a biblical sense.

In many respects, this conversation about a name comes down to the authority of Scripture. If that is truly a mark of evangelicals, then we must abide by what Scripture says. EME cannot consistently use the term evangelical and also promote something that Scripture forbids. To do so is internally inconsistent, unless of course they mean something entirely different by “evangelical,” a term not defined in their statement of beliefs.

Perhaps Malcolm Yarnell has already provided us some insight into their use of the term. In his book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, Yarnell traces the changes to the word “evangelical” and concludes that “the term has lost the substantive meaning it once possessed” (xvi). In fact, he cites Darryl Hart’s opinion that “‘evangelicalism’ is little more than a marketing construct demanding a minimalist understanding of the Christian faith” (xvi).

If that is how EME uses the term “evangelical,” then it is no different than their use of “marriage” that I discussed in the previous post. Thus, it is a term with no meaning. It is a name with no substance. It does not describe who they really are.

I, on the other hand, am happy to claim the characteristics of evangelicalism, not the least of which is to stand on the authority of God’s Word.

_________________________

For further discussion of the term evangelical, see Malcom B. Yarnell III, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), xiv–xvi; and James Leo Garrett, Jr., “Who Are the Evangelicals?” in Are Southern Baptists “Evangelicals”? eds. James Leo Garrett, Jr., E. Glenn Hinson, and James E. Tull (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1983), 33–63.