The Ethicist: Fantasy Baseball Editionby Derek Ambrosino
June 16, 2010
British philosopher, Philippa Foot, originally posed what today is a somewhat famous morality puzzle. It’s referred to as the “Trolley Problem,” and basically goes like this:
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five innocent people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Is it morally permissible to flip the switch?
Most people answer that you should pull the lever. Oddly, enough I lean toward the minority side here, but I’m used to being an outlier, and unfortunately not in the Gladwellian sense. Yet, I digress.
This puzzle was subsequently modified by Judith Jarvis Thompson into what is referred to as the “footbridge problem,” or the “fat man problem,” which goes like this:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track toward five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Is it morally permissible to push the man to his death to save the lives of the five others?
Most people answer this question by saying that it is not morally permissible to kill the fat man.
In both instances, the subject is ostensibly killing one to save the lives of five, yet the consensus conclusions about the morality of each act is quite different. To reconcile these answers may be confounding, on the surface at least. (Those who study neuroethics have offered hypothesis reconciling the two. Quite an interesting tangent, but not one for a baseball site.)
That’s fascinating, Derek, but what does it have to do with fantasy baseball? Nothing, I’m trying to branch out here… Seriously, let me relay two anecdotes from this fantasy baseball season.
Rewind to draft day. I’m co-managing a team in a standard 12-team mixed draft league and my buddy and I are looking to our next pick with the idea that we need to draft the biggest source of power available, preferably from a 1B. Luckily, Carlos Pena is still on the board and our turn is up in fewer than a half-dozen picks. Pena is the second highest ranked 1B left on the board and adjacent to him in the available 1B tab is Derrek Lee. Two picks before our turn, a team chooses Lee. But, within the seconds of the pick the other owner types a message in the chat room along the lines of, “I meant to take Pena, consider Pena taken and whoever wants Lee should draft Pena and then trade him to me for Lee after the draft.” Two picks later, my buddy and I select Pena and simply announce to the room, thanks for the offer, but no thanks, we’ll be keeping Pena.
Anecdote two happened last week. I had been engaged in a little back and forth with my good friend in a different league negotiating a deal that basically consisted of me giving him Victor Martinez for Ben Zobrist. I had been trying to pry out a bit more from the deal, which he seemed willing to give, but I didn’t like any of the throw-ins discussed. My buddy is second in saves and still has Mike Gonzalez stashed on his DL, while I need saves desperately. So, I took a shot and asked for Zobrist and one of his mid-level closers, Leo Nunez. To my delight, when I checked my team the next evening before going to dinner, he had accepted the deal. But, then, about two minutes later my cell phone rang and is was my friend who apologetically said, “Dude, my bad, but I didn’t mean to accept that trade, I’m not comfortable giving up a closer and I had even written a note about it, but I just accidentally clicked the wrong box and accepted the trade. Can you call (the commish) or post on the message board that we want to void the deal and I’ll do the same?” I did so immediately.
So, here’s my trolley vs. fat man dilemma. In both cases, the other party made a simple mistake – basically the fantasy baseball equivalent of a typo (my readers know that, despite the best efforts of the editors here, I know those well – you there, Lloyd?). Yet, in one case I was forgiving and in the other I was not.
My first question is whether there is an essential difference in these two scenarios. Are the decisions to be made here morally equivalent?
To expound a bit, I’ll offer a bit more context that I think may help explain why I made the decisions I did, but does not necessarily speak to the essence of the situation from an ethical point of view. That is, I’ll offer some context that somewhat explains, but may or may not justify.
The first circumstance worthy of mentioning is that in the draft case, those who comprise the league are not my friends. They are mostly fraternity mates of my buddy. Coincidentally enough, the only other member of that league who is among my personal friends is the guy involved in anecdote two with me. This offers an interesting question, which is whether I would have behaved the same way if the offending party in scenario one was my friend from scenario two. However, I also believe that had the subject of anecdote two made the gaffe from anecdote one, he would have just ate it. And, this is important, because it explicitly suggests that I recognize some sort of fundamental difference between the gaffe in anecdote one and anecdote two. So, what might it be?
Some people argue that the extent to which an action should be regulated is what is proportionate to the potential harm of such action, and perhaps that is at play here, that the distinction here is a matter of degree. (Ever argued with a libertarian about Civil Rights legislation? Again, I digress.)
In anecdote one, the owner still has 20 or so rounds to draft a competitive team and his error resulted in him getting a similar asset to his preference and therefore there is not much harm. After all, it’s not like he accidentally selected Ryan Z. Braun accidentally in the first round, when had intended to select Ryan J. Braun. So, that might be part of my decision as well.
The co-manager scenario might have played a hand as well in the sense that there could have been some mini mob mentality at play. Had my co-manager – the guy who actually is friends with the other managers in this league – said, “Nah, that’s messed up; let’s respect his wishes,” I may have conceded. I don’t say this to pass the blame to my friend and imply that if he didn’t care about his friend why should I care about a stranger, just that there was an echo chamber that comforted each of us because neither saw drafting and keeping Pena as egregious.
Another situation impacting anecdote one was that the draft itself was already a cluster of fornication. The draft order was manually determined, but the commish had forgotten to program it, so when the draft launched, it mixed everybody up and all the owners were in the wrong order. We had to quickly call the person who was in our rightful spot and exchange log in info, so we’d be logged in as the false team in our spot and draft for that team, and vice versa, and the commish would then reset the rosters later. This was amateur hour at its finest – not the type of oversight you expect in a significantly high stakes league. So, by the time we’re in Round 6 or so, I had grown kind of frustrated and was perhaps not my otherwise understanding and empathetic self.
But, above it all, I think what it may have come down to was mostly an issue of communication, or tact, and maybe even metalinguistics. The presumptuousness of the other owner in anecdote one that everybody else was basically bound unquestionably to inconvenience himself to concede him a mulligan rubbed me the wrong way. There was no contrition or accountability in that message, no apology, and no request. In anecdote two, my friend called me up right away and his voice reflected that of somebody who felt guilty because he was about to flake on a commitment. His first words were, “Yo, my bad. I need to ask you a favor.”
Perhaps if the first owner would have phrased his request more along the lines of, “Whoops, I totally didn’t mean to do that. Would anybody mind treating Pena as Lee and swapping with me after the daft,” I would have conceded. I don’t know for sure, but I know I would have actually paused to think about it.
So, my second question is whether any of the last few paragraphs offer circumstances that legitimately alter the problem itself, or are just ex post facto rationalizations for an essentially unethical decision?
Derek Ambrosino aspires to one day, like Dan Quisenberry, find a delivery in his flaw, you can send him questions, comments, or suggestions at digglahhh AT yahoo DOT com.
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