Principles

I am sure you have heard it many times: “It’s a matter of principle.” It’s what we say to justify a course of action that may run counter to the courses others would have us run. Often (very often?) it’s a phrase that thinly disguises the rationalization we make to support a position we take simply because we want to take it.

Consider the following:

You are the coach of a NCAA Division I football team and your conference has decided to postpone the football season because of the Carona Virus out of a concern for the players’ health. You are a coach and you make a living coaching collegiate (semi-professional) football players — many of whom want to make the pros at some point. So you tell the press that you have met with the president of the university and you and your players feel “it is a matter of principle” that your team be allowed to play the games. What you really mean is that you and your players want to play the games. But you say it is a matter of principle because it sounds more impressive. Or something.

A principle is a moral precept that we evoke to help us support difficult decisions that we are called upon to make from time to time. For example, the principle may be something like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “harming another living being is wrong.”  These can be said to be out duties, morally speaking. Usually, but not always, the word “wrong” or “right” appears in the principle somewhere. If, for example, I insist that I tell the secret police that the supposed criminal is hiding in my closet because “it is wrong to lie” I am evoking a moral precept. In this case it may conflict with another precept, “it is wrong to harm another person” — given that we know the secret police will not treat the supposed criminal kindly.  But there is a principle (often more than one) involved. In fact, conflicting principles are what make ethics such a confounding arena of thought.

In the case of the football team there is no moral precept whatever. Unless we maintain that is is wrong to deny the players an opportunity to play football — which is doubtful since they are presumably students at a university where education is what matters most (right!).  Thus when the coach says it is a matter or principle that the players be allowed to play he is fabricating things. What he means, of course, is that he and his players want to play and they are being denied that opportunity by the conference they play in.

Rationalization is commonplace. We conjure up a bogus argument — or a “moral precept” which we may even make up — and use that to shore up a weak argument to persuade others that what we want to do is the right thing to do.

But, as George Eliot has reminded us, duties are not chosen. They choose us. And the right thing to do is almost always a matter of duty and as such frequently (always?) conflicts with what we want to do — unless we are saints. So, in this case, the supposed moral precept that it is wrong to deny football players the opportunity to play the game they love is a weak attempt to persuade others (and ourselves, perhaps?) that what we want to do is the right thing to do. It is our duty.

Fiddlesticks! It is simply what we want to do and that’s the end to it. It is certainly not a matter or principle.

Scrambling

The Big Ten  recently announced that their athletic teams would play against only conference opponents this Fall. This follows on the heels of the Ive Leagues that announced that they were cancelling all Fall sports because of the Carona Virus. Given the fact that the Pac 12 has admitted the possibility that they will follow the lead of the Big 10, there is a distinct chance that other conferences will follow suit;  it is also possible that there will be no Fall sports on any college campus this year because of the virus.

I ask: so what?

The answer to my snide question is that there is BIG money involved. Football provides the funding for all other sports on many large college campuses and the prospect of no football has sent a number of athletic directors into spasms. In fact, a number of colleges have already eliminated “non-revenue” sports such as swimming, tennis, and golf to save money. As a former tennis coach this pisses me off just a bit. But again, I ask: so what?

Suppose that the colleges have to drop sports this Fall and even in the long term — if not forever. This would mean that the reason to attend college can no longer be linked to the success of the sports teams. It  might even mean that the colleges and universities might have to restructure their priorities and make academics the mainstay of the students’ experience and students find other means of entertainment. Heaven forbid!

When Robert Hutchins became president of the University of Chicago many years ago the first thing he did was to eliminate the athletic programs. This caused no end of consternation among the alumni and boosters, but he weathered the storm and the University became a beacon in the bleak landscape of universities that fell to the temptation to make athletics their main raison to exist. The University of Chicago remains one of the few universities in this country to not have intercollegiate sports and yet it survives. Not only that, but it has maintained a brilliant academic reputation until this day. And this despite the fact that it is located in South Chicago which many regard as a dangerous place to live.

In a word, the Carona Virus is making us all take a deep breath and reorder our priorities. Why should the colleges and universities not do so as well? And in doing so, while we realize that college athletics can provide a large source of income for many — but by no means all — universities, the students may be the ones who benefit from dropping intercollegiate sports in the long run. After all, college is supposed to be a place where the young begin to emerge as mature adults whose world is wider and deeper.  And while they must find other means of entertainment while on campus, they may just end up spending more time in the library — which makes more sense. The question of what place, if any, sports are to take in the college curriculum is a thorny one at best. And it is one many refuse to even consider.

I am a retired academic who has always thought that academics are what college is all about. And while I did coach championship tennis teams and thought the experience rewarding for all involved, I managed to keep my perspective and always regarded the athletic end of things as icing on the cake — never the heart and soul of why those young people were enrolled in college.

It would not pain me at all to see intercollegiate athletics fall by the wayside, even though it would mean my finding something else to do on Saturday during the Fall (I do love to watch college football despite my slightly twisted perspective!). In the end we may just find out what really matters. Not only on college campuses, but in the world in general. I really think we are already beginning to find out!

Purblind

Our enlightened president recently noted that if we had fewer carona virus tests there would be fewer cases. Now we know (he has told us) he is the smartest man on the planet, but this is close to the stupidity he evidenced when he recommended that we drink Clorox.

The notion that if we don’t test there will be fewer cases rests on the absurd assumption that if we don’t see it then it isn’t there. I honestly think this man actually believes this. He is nothing if not sincere.

But this is delusional. There are facts and there are realities and no amount of strong belief can change those things. I cannot fly unassisted and I will not live forever. I don’t want to believe these things, but that doesn’t alter the facts.

I don’t want to join the parade of president-haters. It’s too exhausting and not very productive. Life is too short and attention to what the man is doing on a daily basis is certain to shorten my life which is already approaching its end. But I do believe that as a trained philosopher I have a responsibility to point out that what we want to be the case is rarely, if ever, what is the case. It’s an epistemological truth: facts exist independent of thought. And truth is a correspondence between what we believe and what is the case, independent of us. As much as I want the virus to be over I still realize that it is still killing people and as an old fart with a disease I am smack in the middle of the target demographic (as they say).

This is why I get so worked up when I see the delusional people going about their business as though the virus is over. Business demands that sports return as soon as possible, so the various billionaires who own the professional sports teams fall all over themselves trying to make it happen — as do college presidents. The colleges are even considering going ahead with collegiate football even if there are no students in the stands. Billions of dollars are at stake. There is even talk about holding the motorcycle rallies in Sturgis, South Dakota again this Summer because it is a celebratory year. So thousands of folks from around the country will gather there for a few days of fun and fames and then leave and take away with them hundreds of cases of the virus they can spread back home.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, as Strother Martin once said. There are a great many people out there who simply refuse to believe what they are told — even by experts with no axe to grind. So we open things up and express our surprise that folks are getting sick again. The numbers rise and we ignore the facts because we don’t want to believe them.

I have said it before, many times, and I will say it again. America is living in the Age of Entitlement when children are told they are terrific even when their work simply doesn’t measure up and all are supposed to succeed even though this empties the word of all meaning: when all succeed, none succeed. Thus do we refuse to recognize true excellence when it stands before us. Since they were very young the children of this country have been told they can walk on water by their parents and teachers. They grow up and, being unused to anyone saying “no,” they don’t hear the word — or see the writing on the wall. They cannot walk on water. Sorry about that.

Whether we like it or not, this virus has not gone away. It still sickens and kills and we need to remind ourselves that what we want to be the case may not be the case at all. In a word: for the first time in our lives, we may have to do something don’t want to do.

And we are demonstrating that we can’t handle that message very well. This does not bode well.