Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Moral Development through Sports

A lot has been assumed and written on this topic, but a friend recently pointed me to an op-ed piece in the NY Times, which includes the following:

Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success. Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.

This is relevant for sports because one of the deliverances of common sense seems to be that participating in sports, which is one way to exercise, is or at least can be conducive to moral growth. A kid might grow in courage as she faces adversity on the soccer field and then become more courageous in other areas of her life. While some studies show that very little of this is actually going on in sports, I would speculate that this is not because the potential is not there, but rather it is because we are not doing what it takes to realize the potential of sport for moral growth. In the above quote, it looks as if increased willpower just happens. The difficulty is that a person can demonstrate incredible self-control and discipline in one area of life, such as the diet and training regimens of elite athletes, but severely lack it in other areas, such as finances or relationships. The important question is how to expand a virtue from one realm of life to other realms. Or, to put it differently, how to develop a virtue such as courage or self-control so that it permeates more and more of my life, and not just my sporting life. Perhaps the practical lesson is that I should seek to develop a virtue like self-control in my sporting life, and then turn my attention and seek to develop it in another realm or two (such as reading, or eating, or in dealing with difficult people, or not watching tv).


Carl Thomen said...

Mike - I have always thought it possible that sport could function in that way, but I am beginning to wonder whether seeing sport in that light requires a conceptual split that I am not sure I want to make. Cordoning-off 'sport' from 'life' or 'real life' might be dangerous...in what sense can we 'practise' one type of morality, or conduct ourselves in a certain way somewhere, and then 'apply' it or act differently somewhere else? Is 'hockey-playing Carl' that different from 'Carl' or 'Carl in real life'? Aren't I, me, Carl, the common denominator here? Also, if my personality manifests itself in my sport (because sport pushes us, takes us to the extremes of emotion, endurance etc) mightn't it be quite tough to change myself under sporting conditions first, and then change myself in the rest of my life...am I in some sense going against the flow (or 'backwards', if you will) here? I speak as someone who plays highly competitive sport though, so I realize this might not be a problem for your average sunday bowls team - which also points to a possible problem with asking the question you ask with reference to ALL sport.

Griff said...

Carl, I am quite interested in your question regarding whether 'hockey-playing Carl' is different from 'Carl' or 'Carl in real life'. Actually, I was just speaking to another philosopher last night regarding practical identities and whether they constitute different "selves," or are merely different expressions of one "self." His claim was that your various practical identities constitute several "selves," but each self being authored by one consciousness.

However, without going so far as to postulate some sort of Cartesian ego-self, I am more inclined to say that "hockey-playing Carl" is merely one expression of "real Carl" - but not a separate "self", per se. It reflects what we might call one of your many practical identities. It is a role that you play - and one with which you sometimes identify yourself. It may have a different narrative and reflect different aspects of your personality than other practical identities you embody, such as "philosopher-Carl", "son-Carl", or even "fun-time-Carl". ;-) What makes me hesitant to call these practical identities separate selves is their supposed continuity or integration with/in what we might call the "self-at-large" (for lack of a better term - I'm open to suggestions). In fact, I would claim that part of what it is to be a complete self (or to have complete selfhood) is to be able to fully incorporate and integrate your various roles and practical identities with which you identify and to reflectively endorse that integration. (You "Korsgaardians" out there will recognize some of these claims.)

Now, I will be the first to admit that this is all very loose talk and that I have not given stringent necessary and sufficient conditions for selfhood. But I think this kind of view is a very intuitive one. Indeed, those people who find themselves occupying conflicting roles often fail to be able to make sense of themselves. Furthermore, when different practical identities provide an agent with conflicting reasons for action, she will likely feel that lack of integration as a sort of cognitive dissonance. We even say things like, "I feel as though I lost myself" or "I don't feel whole." (And on my view, this is exactly what happens when agents try to deceive themselves or engage in irrational behavior - they fail to be fully integrated or to make sense of themselves.)

On to Mike's claim. Given that integration of one's practical identities is important for selfhood and agency, it does seem like lessons learned by playing and identifying with certain sports can and should cross over into other areas of one's life. The worry is that it may also strengthen vices such as over-competitiveness and douchebagginess (which I do think is an objective property *g*). And this raises a problem for the reflective-endorsement theorist: We need some sort of normative account of which practical identities we ought to endorse and which we ought to reform or reject. Integration might be necessary for selfhood, but we also don't think the integrated serial killer is praiseworthy for being a "full" self.

So we would need to give a further account of which characteristics endorsing a sport-identity can promote in the life of an integrated individual and which characteristics they ought to integrate. But some parts of the sport-identity, it seems, should just be left on the field.

Did any of that make sense or even address the issue at hand?

Mike Austin said...

I agree that cordoning off sport from real life is dangerous. I think that this is precisely the problem for many athletes, as they express particular modules of virtues such as self-control as athletes, but not in their other roles, or in the other contexts in which they live. So if 'bicycle-riding Mike' has patience, but 'parenting Mike' does not, then perhaps there is some basis for moral development given the presence of a module of patience in one part of Mike's life that can be employed to develop it in other parts. I agree that there is a possible problem, insofar as all sport may not have this potential. At the least, the potentialities will differ from sport to sport.
I agree with much of what you say. I would say that in the case of sporting vices, the moral development should go in the other direction. That is, if I am generally kind towards my friends, strangers, and others in the rest of life, but become cruel on the field, then I need to seek to eliminate this vice on the field by drawing upon the virtue of kindness and transferring it to the context of sport. This is consistent with being competitive, but in a way that retains respect for persons.

Unknown said...

Awesome idea for a blog.

The idea that we grow on the sport field and bring that growth to other areas of our lives is vague, but appealing and seemingly true in many cases. Though, the same might be said about how we develop ourselves off the field and how that effects us within sport.

In terms of "increased will power," I think that this might have to do with our ideas about our identity and core capacities to be efficacious.

It might also have to do with us finding REASONS to cultivate ourselves in other areas of life, as we find REASONS to do so on the field of sport!

PS: I'm a college student with a double major in kinesiology and philosophy, is there ANY graduate program that deals with philosophy of sport??

Thanks guys, cool stuff!

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