Morality, its opposite, and the lessons from cricket

Sometimes things happen which are squarely within the rules yet are not quite 'right' according to a higher ‘natural’ sense of fairness

Shouldn't Broad have walked?
Charles Crawford
On 13 July 2013 14:15

Yesterday saw an unedifying cricket spectacle. England cricketer Stuart Broad edged a catch to an Australian fielder but then acted as if nothing had happened and stood there waiting to bat on. The umpire bewilderingly did not give him out. He batted on, to Australian consternation.

In earlier years it was part of the moral code of cricket that a batsman ‘walked’ (ie left the field without waiting for any formal umpire decision) when he knew that he had been caught out. He would not want to take unfair advantage by continuing to bat. Now we have the far opposite: the batsman knows or at least strongly believes that he has been caught and so is out, but he stays put; he wants to take unfair advantage of a bad decision.

This episode contrasts horribly with what we saw in July 2011, when the Indian cricket captain took sportsmanship to a new dizzy height. He allowed Englishman Ian Bell to resume his innings after he had been given out just before the tea break in confusing circumstances to which the Indian players themselves had contributed.

Not only was this noble in itself. It also was a decision likely to cause India more pain out there on the pitch, as Bell was scoring well.

So much of what we do in modern life is bounded by Rules, and so by those whose job it is to interpret them. Most of us like to think that we respect the rules and expect them to be enforced against others who don't do so. British 'adversarial' legal and political cultures play to this: part of the cleverness of the game lies in using the rules to bring down the other side that for one reason or the other has not quite followed the agreed procedure.

See also eg parking wardens, political correctness commissars and the multitude of other officials who claim to perform a useful function for society by enforcing the relevant rules 'properly' and therefore fairly.

These annoying people have sway in our lives because there is a generalised fairness in having rules that are meant to be applied to all of us and are upheld pretty strictly.  This defends the less advantaged against the more advantaged (see private victims of media telephone 'hacking' getting sizeable compensation awards).

In fact it could be said that the iron impartiality and 'objectivity' of rules, where the rules are agreed by a democratic process and generally accepted by everyone, is what distinguishes civilisation itself from everything else, from Magna Carta onwards. Likewise if most rules aren't properly enforced or are somehow 'negotiable', what is the incentive for anyone to learn or obey rules at all?

Yet instrumental, mechanical fairness is not enough.

Sometimes things happen which are squarely within the rules yet are not quite 'right' according to a higher ‘natural’ sense of fairness. The very fact that a situation is governed by Rules rather than Principles means that anyone who wants to behave badly or recklessly but cunningly stays within the rules has a happy life. And too many rules can create all sorts of negative incentives to bad behaviour or bad outcomes.

Banker friends say that a large part of the current banking disasters comes from the state eroding the basic principles of good banking by piling on regulations, thereby encouraging a narrow and ultimately irresponsible box-ticking approach to subtle and far-reaching issues risk-management:

"You have taken away from me the responsibility for regulating this sector and its risks. You have laid down the rules in vast profusion, and threatened me for not complying with them. I did everything you asked – you have the papers. Yet we now have a total mess. If I behaved unwisely within the context you devised it’s mainly  your fault, not mine."

OK. But isn’t the whole point of sport to win, especially when we are up against the Australians?

The Americans and eg Russians and Australians and many other species who play hard and long to win have a blunt expression: 'a good loser is a loser' (ie it's a fatal expression of inherent weakness not to do everything needed to win at almost any cost).  There is gritty human wisdom in this. If you have good reason to expect that the other side will not put fairness before their own advantage, why should you?

The humble existential answer to that is that it is not just about getting through life trampling on others. It is about living well. Back in 2011 Team India exemplified this. Classy Indian batsman Rahul Dravid captured something profoundly important when he said that the Indian team had walked off for the tea break thinking that something was 'not quite right' about Bell's strange dismissal, and had then acted accordingly.

That decision stood out precisely because it was now so unusual. Broadly speaking we are getting more and more nitpicking oppressive rules, and less and less wisdom and fairness. This has the social effects you would expect to see. With politicians and BBC potentates and cheating footballers blazing the trail, the spirit of our times is being redefined and dumbed down before our very eyes.

Stuart Broad yesterday joined that swinish charge. It’s not about what is right or decent or fair or reasonable. It’s what you can get away with.

All of which said, let’s once again grind those cocky Aussies deep into the crickety dust. That’s what they want to do to us.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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