Sunday, November 21, 2010

Moral victories

Sometimes people don’t win but claim a moral victory. The grounds for such claims fall into at least three categories. One is where the result would have been different if the luck had been more evenly distributed. The idea there is that you played better than your opponent but they still won because you picked up nothing but Is and Us while they were laying down ‘jaguars’ and picking up ‘oxidize’. The second kind of moral victory is when the result was affected by bad officiating. If the winning goal was a penalty which shouldn’t have been awarded then it is commonplace for the losing side to claim a moral draw. The third kind of claim is when the opponents cheated. It’s hard to say where to draw the boundaries between cheating, gamesmanship and using one’s nous, but it’s uncontroversial that some kinds of cheating can take the morality out of a victory.

Football managers interviewed after a bad result often make excuses which seem tantamount to claiming a moral victory, and while there’s a degree of reasonableness to at least some of these claims, they do it far too often for my taste and presumably also too often for most people’s. There’s a particular type of claim managers make which really bugs me though, and thinking about it reveals two distinct ways of keeping the moral scorecard. This is when a team loses say 4-1, and the other team scored a wrongly awarded penalty when the score was 1-1. The losing manager will say that they were really in it until the penalty was awarded, and after that the game was as good as over and things just unravelled.

There are two ways of looking at this. One way to keep the moral scorecard is to keep the regular scorecard, crossing off tainted goals and adding goals where penalties should have been awarded. The other is to calculate what the score would have been if nothing dubious had happened. On the first measure the moral score was 3-1, so the team which should have won did win. The plaintiff here must be invoking the second moral scorecard, saying that the game changed after the penalty, presumably because they had to play more aggressively and kept getting caught on the break. I’m not denying that a case can be made here that if the penalty hadn’t been awarded the game would have been a draw. The reason I think this sort of moral scorekeeping should be resisted is that it gives no credit for how the teams played after the dubious incident. It can act as evidence for how they would have played, but lots of things can act as evidence. Actual play should have a distinctive role which on this kind of moral scorekeeping it doesn’t have.

This sort of thing leads to crazy results. It doesn’t just mean that it doesn’t morally matter how you play after you change your tactics in response to a bad decision; it also means that morally nobody needs to defend against a corner or free kick which was incorrectly awarded. You do hear this though: sometimes people will claim that a goal doesn’t morally count because there was an incorrectly awarded throw-in during the buildup. Enough. Defending is just as important whether the other team should have possession or not.

One thing we could do in response to this is calculate the moral scorecard in the first way. I don’t think that’s a good idea, because the second way is plainly more accurate. A goal can change the whole complexion of a game, and a wrongly awarded penalty can sometimes change the result by more than one goal. I think the only thing for it is to forget about the moral scorecard altogether and only pay attention to what the score actually is. This isn’t the same as saying that the real score is the moral score; it’s to say that the moral score is unknowable even if it’s coherent, so we should just ignore it. It’s not easy to view bad officiating the same way you view the weather, but that’s the mature thing to do. You can campaign for better referees, but you can install undersoil heating or put a roof on your stadium. I don’t know how normal people feel about this, but Strawson said the difference was resentment. You might not like the weather, but you don’t resent it. I find it can be quite liberating to stop resenting your incompetent referees and cheating opponents as well.


  1. I was hoping this would be about bad journal referees...! :-) Perhaps a similar story could do...

  2. I think the point about resentment probably carries over but I'm struggling to find two analogous ways of calculating one's moral publication record.