Businesses seek profit and sportsmen chase victory, but there’s still hope for morality

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

There are times when a columnist, conditioned to take a firm line, feels pressure to pronounce about a controversy – but what if he knows that logic and evidence can be marshalled to make an equally strong case for both standpoints, even though they are perfectly opposed? The temptation is to pick a side and be done with it. Yet if two opposing views support such convincing defences, the hinge of the argument must be in the wrong place. Instead of summoning rhetorical conviction, perhaps we should try to redraw the debate along more helpful dividing lines.

That is how I’ve felt watching the rows about fair play that have flared up throughout the Ashes. The most controversial was Stuart Broad’s decision not to “walk” when he edged the ball to first slip during the thrilling first Test match at Trent Bridge.

Two clear-cut columns write themselves all too easily. First, the disgusted moral one: “Sometimes a batsman is unsure if he hit the ball and may rightfully stand his ground. This was not one of those moments. Cheating is a strong word but when a batsman is 100 per cent sure that he hit the ball and still doesn’t walk, it is hard to pretend that ‘gamesmanship’ is the accurate term.” So thunder the moralists.

It is just as easy to defend Broad by arguing that he did what everyone does, only better: “Modern batsmen do not walk. They let the umpire decide. So a batsman who doesn’t walk for a thick edge is no more ‘in the wrong’ than a batsman who doesn’t walk for a slight deflection. Broad should be congratulated for his professionalism and his poker face.”

The problem is that neither column captures my conflicting emotions. As a batsman who did not always “walk”, I sympathise with Broad. I also know that watching him get away with such an obvious edge felt wrong. It looked silly and demeaned the day.

How did we get into this mess? Ironically, it was once assumed that professionalism would eventually negate the need for moral judgements. Accepting the umpire’s decision would replace the moral imperative of doing the right thing. The advent of new technologies, too, encouraged the delusion that players would never have to think morally in the heat of battle.

However, umpires make mistakes and technology has proved inadequate and unpredictable. We have moved from one grey area, based on a player’s word, to an increasingly precisely calibrated grey area, determined by a Byzantine system of technical apparatus designed to clarify the matter but serving only to confuse it.

If we substitute the words “umpiring” and “technology” with the word “law”, we see how the everyday professional working world has encountered similar problems. Narrowly “legal” behaviour is often shown to be morally wrong. Jimmy Carr’s tax avoidance was entirely legal but rightly caused public indignation. The letter of the law be damned – a rich man should pay a decent amount of tax, even if none of us knows exactly what proportion that should be. The same point applies even more strongly to the tax-avoidance strategies of Starbucks.

We can never reach such an evolved stage of technological or legal precision that the question “Does this feel right?” stops being central to a professional code. Matthew Parris has argued that the pages of small print tacked on to employment contracts paradoxically only encourage dubious behaviour. A long list of prohibited actions merely suggests a further list of (presumably) unprohibited ones. In contrast, the assumption that they shouldn’t “do anything that feels wrong” encourages employees to think for themselves.

When businesses seek profit and professional sportsmen chase competitive advantage, what hope is there for morality? The answer is more likely to reside in culture and conventions than in law and technology.

In her 1994 paper “Bourgeois Virtue”, the American economist Deirdre McCloskey argued that modern society was stuck with outdated conventions. We fall back on old ideals – the honourable aristocrat, the plucky worker – but we lack ethical models for professional or bourgeois virtues.

The history of modern sport fits McCloskey’s model. At first, sport was obsessed with the honourable gentleman who was above the fray. The Corinthians football team declined to score from penalties on the grounds that the opposition’s foul must have been accidental. The second phase of modern sport, the early years of professionalism, emphasised hard work and industry – the plucky worker who kept his head down and stuck to the task. Not for him moral grandstanding and “walking” when he edged it; he had to put food on the table.

Sport is now – uncertainly but distinctly – entering a third phase. It may prove a happy surprise. The relentless determination to win, founded on scientific training and ruthless planning, does not inevitably lead to moral collapse. Today’s snooker players own up when they faintly touch the cue ball, even though it is entirely against their self-interest and rarely visible to the referee. Rugby players in a scrum, driven backwards on to their try line, could halt the disaster by pretending that one of the players was suffering a neck injury. It never happens – faking serious spinal injuries is not part of professional rugby culture. Tennis players are more respectful and courteous than they were 20 years ago.

Cultures are always in flux. An extreme example of questionable behaviour, one that pushes an accepted convention beyond common sense, can tip the culture in a positive direction. Broad’s successful stand may encourage more batsmen to walk.

Professional sportsmen are groping towards McCloskey’s “bourgeois virtues”. But as the third phase crawls forward, spare a thought for the players. If you are confused in the comfort of your armchair, imagine how they feel in the white heat of competitiveness, with the roar of 30,000 people in their ears.

Get more sports news and views over at Fast News Release.

Stuart Broad, whose controversial decision not to "walk" when he edged the ball to first slip has been a point of controversy. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

GETTY
Show Hide image

The post-Brexit power vacuum is hindering the battle against climate change

Brexit turmoil should not distract from the enormity of the task ahead.

“The UK will not step back from that international leadership [on clean energy]”, the Secretary for climate change, Amber Rudd, told a sea of suits at Wednesday's summit on Business and the environment.

The setting inside London’s ancient Guidlhall helped load her claims with a sense of continuity. But can such rhetoric be believed? Not only have recent events thrown the UK's future ability to lead on climate change into doubt, but a closer look at policy suggests that this government has rarely been leading to start with.

Rudd’s speech came just 24 hours before she laid the order of approval for the UK’s fifth Carbon Budget. This budget will set our 2028-2032 emissions target at a 57 per cent reduction on 1990 levels – in line with the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change. And comes amidst a party-wide attempt to reassure green business that Britain is open as normal: "I think investors now should feel they have a very clear path ahead," Andrea Leadsom has insisted.

In some respects, those wanting to make the case for an independent UK, could not have wished for a better example than the home-grown carbon budget. The budget is the legal consequence of the UK’s ground-breaking domestic 2008 Climate Change Act, which aims to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. And the new 57 per cent interim target also appears to put the UK ahead of European efforts on the matter - exceeding the EU goal of a 40 per cent emissions reduction.

The announcement will thus allow David Cameron to argue that he has fulfilled his husky-loving promise to provide leadership on the environment. He may even make it the basis for an early ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement, ahead of the European bloc as a whole.

Yet looked at more closely, the carbon budget throws the UK’s claims to climate leadership into serious doubt.

In the short term, its delayed, last moment, release is a dispiriting example of Westminster’s new power-vacuum. Business leaders, such as those at yesterday’s conference, are crying out for “consistent, coherent and predictable national policies” on climate change and emissions reductions. Yet today’s carbon budget can only go so far to maintaining the pretence of stability.

Earlier this week, Amber Rudd responded to a parliamentary question into how Brexit will effect the UK’s climate ambitions with a link to none other than the Prime Minister’s resignation speech. And while concrete progress on policy will have to wait for party-political power struggles politics to run their course, historic Tory hostility to green policy makes progressive change far from certain.

Supporters of Brexiteer Boris Johnson may have played down his opposition to action on climate change in recent days, quipping that he would sooner be “kebabbed with a steak knife over the dining room table” by his environmentalist father. But the recent appointment of UKIP’s Mark Reckless, from a party notorious for its climate scepticism, as the new chairman of the Welsh committee on climate change has sent shock waves through the environmental community and will do little to help allay investor fears.

More concerning still is the 47 per cent shortfall between emission targets and present reality. A progress report released today is damning evidence of the Conservative's long-term neglect of the underlying issues.

Such censure builds upon the findings of a recent study from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. Far from leading Europe’s major nations on issues of energy and climate change, their research finds the UK to be distinctly middle of the pack. “Of the ‘Big Five’ economies with comparable levels of population size, GDP, ect., Britain ranks third, behind France and Spain but ahead of Italy and Germany”, write authors Matt Finch and Dr Jonathan Marshall.

A significant number of incentives for government action – such as fines for not meeting interim targets on energy efficiency – would also be nullified in the instance of Brexit. And it cannot even be claimed that our long-term ambition is greater than Europe’s: the UK’s target is an 80 per cent cut between 1990-2050, and the EU’s is 80-95 per cent.

News that the manufacturing giant Siemens is suspending new investment into its UK-based offshore wind operations could thus be set to prove symptomatic of a wider trend. And ministers must act fast to turn promises into policy.

Even  Michael Gove - the man who once wanted to take climate change off the curriculum – now describes as one of the world’s greatest challenges. While according  to the new shadow secretary for energy and climate change, Barry Gardiner: “The government can no longer wait until December to publish its Carbon Plan. It must do so now.”  

Included in such a plan should be clarification of the UK’s relationship to European emissions trading, the development of a Carbon Capture & Storage strategy, and urgent action on heating and transport efficiency. The 5th Carbon Budget is an important step towards this process but Brexit turmoil should not distract from the enormity of the task ahead. Nor from the damning fragility of Cameron’s environmental legacy to date.

 

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.