Ethics of Minor Rules

Following up on the ethics in basketball thing:

I was arguing with my neighbor about the poor aesthetics of a sport where breaking certain rules is encouraged and accepted (as I wrote, I think basketball is broken), and he argued that there aren’t any “rules” in sports, really, just tradeoffs: if the penalty is worth it (or the whole point of it) it’s not unethical to break the rule, it’s just part of the game.

The “don’t intentionally foul” article helped crystalize this for me. There, Lopez argues that there are regulatory rules and “constitutive” rules: that the latter define the sport, and the former are essentially arbitrary details specific to a particular variety of the game (pro vs. collegiate, pickup vs. formal, etc.)  I had sort of a similar feeling, but my argument last time helped define things better for me.

The constitutive-regulatory spectrum has no sharp boundary: enough regulatory rules and at some point it’s a new game (witness rugby, soccer, and the many versions of football; all of them evolved from the same sport).  The real distinction for ethical purposes is which rules the community expects to be followed—what’s “normal”.

Consider an analogy to law. Is it unethical to break the law? Remove for a moment the situational dependence involved in, say, civil disobedience or justified homocide, and just consider breaking a law because you want to or it’s convenient. In this case, it depends on how society views the law.

For instance, if it’s the middle of the night and there is zero traffic, is it ethical to jaywalk, or should you dutifully go to the corner and push the walk button and wait for the light? Clearly, jaywalking is no big deal; the ethical consequences of jaywalking in that situation are probably not worth the thought given to the problem in the first place.

If the law is that the speed limit is 65 and you’re doing 67, this is not a big deal and generally not unethical, per se.  If you’re doing 65 and you’re still the slowest one on the road (it happens!) there is a good argument that you should speed up.

Don’t buy it? Look at how outraged (and actually dangerous) people became when some students pranked a highway by driving the speed limit, in formation:

This is not the cleanest example—the law says you should leave the passing lane clear for faster traffic to move ahead—but it more than illustrates what every driver knows: the speed limit is not a hard limit, and no one expects it to be universally honored. Murder, of course, sits at another end of the spectrum, because laws against arbitrarily killing people are pretty fundamental to the functioning of society; jaywalking is more of an arbitrary detail that can often be ignored.

Back to sports: I think “constitutive” rules in sports aren’t more important because they’re foundational per se, but because being foundational they’re less likely to have a consensus that it’s OK to break them. The “Mano de Dios” soccer goal is notorious because the rule that was broken—don’t use your hands in soccer—is foundational (“constitutive”), which makes the violation seem especially flagrant. Compare this to the equally legendary 1999 World Cup shootout:

The US won in part because the US keeper, Scurry, left her line before the ball was kicked, which is a technical infraction (go to 0:43, and compare Scurry’s jump on the kick to the action of Chinese keeper, Gao, holding her line until the moment of the kick at 1:00).  This isn’t to minimize or question the validity of the US victory: this technical infraction is so minor and violated so routinely that even most soccer fans aren’t even aware it exists.  My point is that the difference in reaction to these two goals shows that Lopez’s “constitutive” vs. regulatory continuum maps pretty well to my “community norms” test.  And the latter is better connected to ethical reasoning.

Why is socially acceptable (even expected) to break some rules and not others outside of sports? That’s a deep topic, but my point isn’t to explain why, just to show that it clearly is, because it’s a key element in any ethical analysis of when it’s OK to break a rule, whether it’s a speed limit or a basketball foul or a high crime or misdemeanor. It’s not a dispositive test (society can condone evil law-breaking behavior, like lynching) but I think it’s the difference between my conclusion and Lopez’s.

2 thoughts on “Ethics of Minor Rules

  1. Greg

    I think most sensible folk understand the difference between breaking a rule and actually doing something wrong. Drinking and driving puts yourself and others at risk, but going 5 MPH over the speed limit doesn’t. The same disparity applies to grabbing someone’s facemask vs holding in football. I don’t think rules are meant to be ethical proclamations, just standards that allow society to function; it’d be hard to go about your life if murder was allowed, the free market doesn’t operate properly when there are monopolies and price-fixing, and the roads would be a terrifying mess if there were no speed limits.

    That’s just my take, and I might have this impression primarily because I used to regularly break several laws, but most folks at least act like it’s true.

  2. SpaceCowboy

    It sounds like athletes are operating under the “post-conventional” stages of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.

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