Morality and Basketball

By Sean Carroll | August 24, 2012 3:11 pm

Zach Weinersmith (of) put up a blog post about the subjective nature of morality, which I tweeted approvingly. But afterward I realized that, while our substantive views are pretty much in agreement, I sometimes use a very similar-sounding analogy as the one he invoked, but in the precisely opposite sense!

Zach’s analogy is the following: “objective” morality is to subjective morality as the rules of basketball are to the rules of Pankration, an ancient Greek free-for-all fighting competition. That is, in basketball, we have rules that are handed down from on high (the NBA or some other governing body), just as we do with objective morality (God or the nature of the universe or some such thing). In Pankration, while there are no formal rules, there are patterns that evolve due to the nature of the game; i.e., go for the fingers and other easily-damaged parts of the body. These kinds of rules are different, of course, but they do come into being over time.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but I like to use the basketball analogy to make a different point. I don’t believe in objective morality; the universe just is, and there’s nothing “out there” that judges human behaviors to be good or bad. These categories of good and bad are things we human beings invent. And in that sense, in my version of the analogy, the rules of morality are exactly like the rules of basketball! The difference is that I’m not analogizing the NBA to God or the universe, I’m analogizing the NBA to a collection of human beings that make up rules (which is a pretty exact analogy, really).

The point is this: the rules of basketball were not handed down by God, nor are they inherent in the structure of the universe. They were invented by James Naismith and others, and fine-tuned over time. We could invent different rules, and we wouldn’t be making a “mistake” in the sense we’re making a mistake if we think the universe was created 6,000 years ago. We’d just be choosing to play a different game.

The crucial part, however, is that the rules of basketball are not arbitrary, either. They are subjective in the sense that we can make them be whatever we want, but they are non-arbitrary in the sense that some rules “work better” than others. That’s pretty obvious when you hear basketball fans arguing about the proper distance for the three-point line, or the niceties of hand-checking or goaltending, or when a crossover dribble is ruled to be traveling. People don’t merely shrug their shoulders and say “eh, it doesn’t matter, the rules are whatever, as long as they are fairly enforced.” The rules do matter, even though the choice of what they are is ultimately in our hands.

That’s because we have a goal when we invent the rules of basketball: to create the most fair and entertaining game. The distance to the three-point line is very finely calibrated so that it’s far enough away to be a challenge for NBA-level talent, but close enough that it’s a valuable shot to take under the right circumstances. “Subjective” (or “invented”) doesn’t mean “arbitrary.”

Likewise for morality. The rules of morality are ultimately human constructs. But they’re not arbitrary constructs: we invent them to serve certain purposes. People are not blank slates; they have desires, preferences, aspirations. We mostly want to be nice to each other, be happy, live fairly, and other aspects of folk morality. The rules of morality we invent are attempts to systematize and extend these simple goals into a rigorous framework that can cover as many circumstances as possible in an unambiguous way.

And what if someone doesn’t agree with our folk morality or the systematization thereof? What if someone wants to bring some Calvinball to our pickup game? We do the same thing we’d do in basketball: we penalize them. We call a foul, or traveling, or just refuse to play with them. And we don’t need to invoke God or the laws of nature to do it. It’s true that we made up the rules, but they are no less enforceable for it.

  • Cooper

    I am not sure I buy 100% Sam Harris’s moral landscape argument. I think there is an important question he is missing, but it is the same question all utilitarian arguments have missed over time — computability.

    This seems somewhat in the same vein. One of the best examples, IMHO, is polygamy. It might have been a fine idea when humanity was much, much more warlike and double digit percentages of males died in inter/intra tribal conflicts. Once that started to fall away significantly 1000 years or so ago, having large numbers of unmated men in a society became destabilizing and needed to be corrected, so “morality” (in some traditions) changed.

    My point here is that there is, to cite your own (great BTW) book, a lessening of future possible states of morality that comes from the past developments. Elimination of bloodsport/blood resolution meant more males, mean changes to mating that couldn’t be “undone” easily. Once you add the 3 point line to basketball, you can move it, but removing it becomes very hard.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    I recently came across Naismith’s great first-hand account of the first basketball game. Just as you said, Sean, the rules are not arbitrary: There’s a lot of consideration put in to make the game fun and challenging. My favorite bit is his description of why the basket (a peach basket, in his case) is horizontal rather than vertical:

    Again a problem presented itself and no solution appeared. By what line of association it occurred I do not know but I was back in Bennie’s Corners, playing duck on the rock. The whole scene came before me–across the road that led to Walter Gardner’s home was a large rock higher than our knees & larger than a washtub. On this rock one or more would place their ducks-a rock twice as large as our fists. The rest of us stood behind a line about ten feet away from the rock. The object of the game was for “it” to tag one of the boys who was retrieving his duck. He could do this only when his duck was on the rock. It was the object of the men behind the line to knock “its” duck off the rock when he would need to replace it before he could tag anyone.

    In throwing at the duck on the rock, I recalled that at times we would throw our duck as hard as we could & thus knock his away some distance. If, however, we were all back of the line and “it” was ready to tag us we would throw our duck in a curve so as to knock his off & ours would fall on the near side & thus be easily retrieved. In this other case the duck was thrown in a curve and accuracy took the place of force. The idea occurred to me that if the goal was horizontal instead of vertical the player would be compelled to throw in a curve and force which made for roughness would be of no value. I then concluded that the goal into which the ball should be thrown would be horizontal. I then thought of a box, somewhat resembling our old rock, into which the ball should be tossed. It then occurred to me that the team would form a nine man defense around the goal & it would be impossible to make a goal. The shot would need to be highly arched to win any chance of entering the goal.

    I love thinking about the birth of this great game as just a bunch of guys playing around and seeing what rules make it work best.

  • Staircaseghost

    I’m in agreement with the conclusion, but the analogy breaks down at a few important points that make it problematic for either reading of it.

    For one thing, what Weiner calls rules (or “air quotes” “rules”, never a good sign for philosophical clarity) are hypothetical imperatives relativized to goals internal to the game. But basketball has those too! E.g. “it’s a good idea to play the zone defense setup against the Celtics offense”; “try to run down the clock when you’re up by 20 in the final minutes” etc.

    The difference between these imperatives and the formally stated, socially constructed rules of basketball is that the latter are relativized to goals external to the practice i.e. providing an entertaining spectacle, where the former are relativized to goals internal to the practice.

    What I take to be the fundamental point of disagreement between realists and anti-realists about the nature of morality is whether the universe provides us with any non-contingent, non-optional goals. Show me some outcome, some virtue, some obedience to some duty for which we can say of any creature who elects not to pursue it that they have made some empirical, conceptual, or logical error. No mistake of this nature can be attributed to someone who simply doesn’t find the spectacle of 10 roided-out tattooed millionaires bouncing a ball around to be a worthwhile pastime.

    So exactly what kind of mistake is someone who wants to disobey God, or maximize the amount of cruelty to others, making? If either of these are mistakes (and even if God as depicted in Western monotheisms actually existed, I do not think disobeying him would be a mistake), they would have to be, simply, *moral* mistakes. Which is a shaggy dog story whose conclusion is that moral errors can only be errors internal to a practice whose external goals are contingent and rationally optional.

  • CJ


  • Rationalist

    But built-in biological feelings which form the basis for folk morality are themselves arbitrary, in the sense that there is nothing objectively better about one or the other different biological in-built feeling. So when you have two different populations, such as liberal and conservatives whose biological predispositions have led them to different explicit moralities, your post is pointless and basically wrong. I’m sure you are aware of the work of Jon Haidt on the five sources of ethical impulses, and the idea that conservatives are innately more “disgustable”, and liberals score more highly on “openness to new experience” on personality tests.

    I think it suffices to say that morality *is* arbitrary, and that there is no governing objective principle for deciding what the best moral rules are; there are governing principles but they are subjective in the sense that they will be different for each individual human. Sometimes to the point of being irreconcilable.

  • Rationalist

    To be more explicit about why I disagree with the basketball analogy, pretty much everyone wants the same thing out of a basketball game; challenging, fun to watch, not too rough etc. But if there were people who wanted something different out of the game – maybe they wanted it to be violent, unfair and boring to watch, they would not accept that your Meta-goals of fun to watch, not too rough, etc.

    In morality, liberals just don’t care as much (or at all) about three of Haidt’s six pillars of morality. So the analogy fails.

  • CJ

    Sean says:
    “I don’t believe in objective morality; the universe just is, and there’s nothing “out there” that judges human behaviors to be good or bad. These categories of good and bad are things we human beings invent.”

    Sean, human brains judge human behaviors to be good or bad, and they ARE “out there”; they are part of the universe, not separate from it. So in a sense, part of the universe is judging.

    If it is true that our behaviors are determined by brains and brains are ultimately determined by the laws of physics, wouldn’t there at least be objective truths to be known about human health and well being. And would you agree that all humans in all cultures care deeply about their health and well being?

    Note: i had to delete what i said in comment 4, because it was dumb.

  • Bee

    Funny, I had a similar thought yesterday, though it had nothing to do with basketball, I swear. I just want to add that what we consider fair or what makes us happy or even what we find makes for an interesting game is not a fixed background on which one can optimize the rules. The background itself changes too, it’s also to some extent dependend on the culture and so on.

  • Bee

    Rationalist: You seem to be saying that “fun to watch” and “not too rough” are human universals. I very strongly doubt that.

  • vmarko

    CJ: “If it is true that our behaviors are determined by brains and brains are ultimately determined by the laws of physics, wouldn’t there at least be objective truths to be known about human health and well being.”

    You must be careful when you say that brains are ultimately determined by the laws of physics. I don’t know any law of physics that determines/predicts higher brain functions (consciousness, emotions, etc).

    Determinism is not as powerful as you might think — if you have a physical system that is complex enough (burning fire, Earth’s atmosphere, human brain, …), the “fundamental” equations of physics governing this system are not able to make all predicitions about it (not even in principle). So no, I’d say that human brains are *not* ultimately determined by the laws of physics, regardless of the fact that all laws of physics apply to every particle of the brain.

    Determinism is an illusion, it exists only for simple physical systems (thank Isaac Newton for fooling you into this illusion). Read up on “chaos theory” (wikipedia might be a good start).

  • Rationalist

    Bee: if they are not human universals, or at least not close to universal, then Sean’s argument about basketball fails, because people wouldn’t be optimizing the rules of the game towards the same target. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.

  • Anthony

    This topic is always like turning over a rock to find a mass of writhing, scurrying confusion. Here is the bottom line (imho): Ultimately we are machines. We have certain optimal operating conditions that would lead, ultimately, to a Star Trek like intergalactic civilization where everyone self-reports high-levels of ________ (fill in the word that doesn’t confuse you). This is all objective. But it doesn’t matter! Nobody is even remotely close to having any kind authority on what the optimal operating conditions are for people-bots and we have more urgent problems. The end.

  • Charles Sullivan

    Sounds like you support some version of Moral Error Theory, Sean.

  • realta fuar

    First: know the sport one is using for an analogy: “crossover dribble is ruled to be traveling”? Never seen this happen in a zillion or so games. It is often called carrying or palming, however.

  • Gary

    Sean: “And what if someone doesn’t agree with our folk morality or the systematization thereof? What if someone wants to bring some Calvinball to our pickup game? We do the same thing we’d do in basketball: we penalize them. We call a foul, or traveling, or just refuse to play with them. And we don’t need to invoke God or the laws of nature to do it. It’s true that we made up the rules, but they are no less enforceable for it.”

    Tribes, still on the Savannah.

    Take your ball and leave the playground.

    Chicken; er, foul; er, basketball term.

  • Brett

    The introduction of a kardashian throws the whole system into chaos. So morality really depends on: at what point is a woman’s ass big enough and voice whiny enough to blur the senses and skew judgement?

    I agree though; 1.) we don’t need God for morality and we certainly don’t need the messed up shiii-stuff in the bible. 2.) If we were just following the laws of nature, we would all be naked cannibals randomly humping each other. We slowly built the civilization we have over tens of thousands of years of realizing that the larger the group, the larger the benefits.

  • Tim May

    But there is no real morality.

    While I don’t subscribe to “survival at any cost,” I view my stuff as my stuff.

    Consistent with this, I expect, given current and likely to be continued trends, about 4/5 the of the planet to starve or otherwise die off.

    To some of some morality beliefs, we in the 1/5th should give what we have to extend their lives for another couple of years.

    To my particular believe the message is clear: buy guns, lots of guns. And gold. And a place in the country.

    Morality? I think so.

    I don’t think this is physics-related. But you brought up the topic and invited response. I just am replying that at last some of us don’t view morality in the way most of the world does. To most of the world, I expect, the wealth I have I is immoral. They are wrong, but this is not the point. They also don’t think I have should have guns. Even many well-off Americans don’t think anyone except those in government should have guns. It’s why I have 5 times the number of guns I actually need.

    –Tim May, Corralitos, California

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  • JimV

    Another nice post, thanks. I have nothing profound to add, except to all of you who think Michael Jordan was the greatest NBA player of all time, you are wrong. Bill Russell was.

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  • BobC

    Morality is not a single-context noun. For this context, let’s restrict ourselves to the morality an individual expresses or embodies as a member of society, viz. “Social Morality”. What are the “best” ways for an individual to act within a society, and for society to act toward the individual? What should be done when an individual or society acts counter to these “best” ways?

    In the midst of my engineering education I stumbled into a year-long elective in the Philosophy department with the deceptively simple title of “Man and Society”. It followed the various paths trod by philosophers over the millenia while pondering what is and what should be the relationship(s) between Man and Society. We started with Socrates and Aristophanes (his nemesis), then Plato and Aristotle, visited Englishmen Milton and Hobbes, Frenchmen Rousseau and Descartes, also Marx and Freud (social philosophers both), and several religious philosophers before moving on toward contemporary philosophers. We also tip-toed along the borders between social philosophy and economics. And every step along the way we learned more about how to critique a philosophical stance.

    Society’s behavoir toward the individual is often referred to (and summarized by) the term “justice”. Rawls’ amazing tome “A Theory of Justice” stopped me dead in my tracks, and made me think harder than did any of my other classes.

    The individual’s relationship to other individuals and society as a whole can be called “ethics”. I much prefer the concepts of personal “ethics” and societal “justice” over the relatively vague/overused/misapplied terms of “morality” and “law” or “rules”.

    We can reason deeply about social morality through the lenses of ethics and justice. How do various social (small group) and societal (large group) structures facilitate or hinder key aspects of ethics and justice? What is the “proper” tradeoff or balance? Why?

    What is the difference between a “right” and a “privilege”? (Hint: It’s a trick question.) How can it be shown that the “War on Drugs” is immoral? (NOT a trick question.) Why is murder worse than manslaughter, but reckless driving is not worse than a DUI?

    Which of a society’s “laws” or “rules” may be considered to be more “fundamental” than others? Which can be shown to be arbitrary, despite intuition or feelings to the contrary? When is “common knowledge” in this context “not even wrong”?

    What are the equivalent concepts for basketball? What is the game’s relationship to the individual and team, and the individual’s relationship to the team, game, and sport? What is the root metaphor here? What do the “rules” represent?

    For Pankration, the “rules” are emergent successful strategies (based on the results of prior attempted behaviors), arguably ones that make the game as short as possible by establishing advantage as quickly as possible. In basketball, the “rules” are limitations on arbitrary behavior. It’s like comparing evolution to classical physics: In what context does this make sense?

    The subject of the blog post may well be paraphrased as “the origin and dispensation of rules”. But the sports metaphor was broken before it really got started.

    The thing is, unlike a game, social and moral rules often lack solid mappings, or clear derivations, or even well-defined interactions. We do have some generally agreed-to extremes of “good” and “bad” rules and behavior, but we have to work hard to make sense of the in-between. What I find amazing is that it is at all possible to do so, and to do so with a surprising degree of confidence and power. Social philosophers rock!

    I recommend reading Rawls in the comfort of Plato’s Cave.

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  • brucem

    I disagree with the basketball rules analogy, and here’s why: context matters with morality. It does not matter with basketball rules. My perfect example: Treason is not only against the law of all countries and has been since the dawn of civilization, but we all consider being a traitor immoral. However, during WWII would we think poorly of, let alone punish, a German who betrayed Hitler and the Third Reich to spy for the allies? He is certainly guilty of treason under german law. Is he immoral? I think we’d all say not only is he not immoral, he has done something extremely moral. But it’s still against the law. Yes it’s a violation of Germany’s treason law, not ours, but we both have the same law regarding being a traitor to your country, providing assistance to the enemy during wartime being the most egregious violation. So since there’s parity with both laws, why is violating one immoral and the other moral? Context. Social context.

    If the British won the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold would have been a beloved hero. Every city would have a “Benedict Arnold Avenue”.

    So morality is beyond being merely subjective. It is totally dependent on the situation, the context, a determination to be made on a case by case basis. This is why “thou shall not do x” type rules never work out and always lead to injustice and irrationality. Kids being kicked out of kindergarten for using a butterknife to cut a muffin. College students being expelled from university for taking an aspirin during class. Stupidity.

  • driverguy

    Competition and cooperation are both fundamental aspects of basketball. AND natural human behavior. A mixture of both is required for the survival of our species. So why is cooperation considered “moral” by many, and competition is not?


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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