The Ethicist: Fantasy Baseball Edition

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?

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  1. Millsy said...

    Our league ran into the a problem similar to the draft one you discuss.  It’s a pitching-heavy points league, and the Commish selected Roy Halladay 5th overall.  Not a terrible pick given our points structure, but I happily was getting Ryan Braun at Position 7 after Mauer went with #6.

    I picked Braun, and 3 more picks were made after that.  Subsequently, said commissioner reversed the draft back to his picked, and repicked Ryan Braun instead of Halladay.  He claimed to be having computer problems, to which I screamed a number of obscenities (but later let him off the hook because I knew I would win the league thanks to an inefficiency I knew about the points system).

    I ended up with Prince Fielder in a league where the rosters are made up of C, CI, CI, MI, MI 3 OF and 1 U.  So CI is actually less important than OF (since you don’t need a 3B).  Needless to say, Prince hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations.  I almost dropped out of the league, but paid my entry fee en route to currently being 9-1 with an enormous points lead (second place is 6-4).  I’m still not sure how I feel about the situation, computer problems or not, but I’ll be happy to take the check at the end of the season.

  2. Kevin said...

    This year, I was involved in a situation similar to your first scenario, but on the other end. Before the draft began, and while queueing up players I wanted to target later in the draft, my computer froze. And with the third overall pick, automatically chosen from my queue while I scrambled to get back online, I ended up with…

    Shin-soo Choo! Surely, I was happy to have Choo on board, but not at the expense of Hanley, who, I found out later, had fallen to me. While I was on the verge of screaming, planning a later trade for a top tier player, or giving up—or all three, for that matter—I found my situation not all that unpleasant.

    Instead of having the luxury of Hanley, I was forced to solve different, perhaps more exciting, problems. Point(s) being, I had a more gratifying experience, precisely because of the snafu, and even with the loss of first-round pick, which inevitably changed my strategy, such a loss is not necessarily a destructive one (In this points league, I am in first place by a wide margin. Imagine that.).

    I am glad nobody offered to save my team from the oncoming train.

  3. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Personaly, I think computer problems are not grounds for mulligans – especially if it’s only one pick. We had situation a few years ago where an owner (who must have been using his queue to line up players he liked and didn’t want to forget about) saw his computer crash and wind up with a first round pick of Shane Victorino. Of course, the rest of the owners in the room, unaware of what had happened at the time, were in shock. WTF?

    Basicaly, your computer is your equipment, when it comes to a draft. It’s like blowing a wide open lay-up because you tripped because your shoe was untied. …Maybe not the best analogy, but I’m sticking with it for now.

  4. Millsy said...


    I echo your thoughts on that, especially with the easily accessible internet speed these days (it’s not like we’re on dialup anymore).  I tried using that argument, but was called a number of names as I complained.  It seemed that most of the league thought the event to be just fine.

  5. Tommy Bennett said...

    All I have to say is that I am a very big supporter of the sabermetrics/ethics crossover. Bravo.

  6. matt said...

    The fact that in case 2 it’s your friend you’re dealing with totally changes everything.  Similar to what you were talking about with the proportional harm of an action, the potential harm of denying your friend’s request goes beyond harming his team (a team that, given your friendship, you’d probably like to see finish 2nd, right behind you), you’d be harming your friendship.  Granted, your friendship probably wouldn’t fall apart over something like that, but you’d be ticking your friend off and certainly not improving his view of you as a person.

  7. DB said...

    I think in both situations you should have undone the transaction.  Admittedly, the first guy was a bit presumptuous.  He should have said mea culpa, I hit the wrong button, like in the second trade.  But, considering the speed of the response (you didn’t indicate that he made the pick with 2 seconds left on the clock, indicating panic and quick regret, which is life on the clock), I don’t think a physical blip should penalize someone.

  8. Mike Powe said...

    The guy in scenario one is SOL in my opinion.  Just as your computer is a part of your drafting equipment, so are your fingers.  I’ve fallen victim to mouse inaccuracy myself (thankfully never in round 1) and it sucks.  But you deal and move on.

  9. Tom B said...

    In my leagues I tend to leave the air of “morality” on the involved managers.  If they both agree to undo whatever happened, I have no problem with un-doing it.  Otherwise, any decision you make will be favoring one position over the other, in that case we tend to “play it as it lies”.

  10. WilsonC said...

    I think a fundamental difference aside from the individuals involved is that the second mistake is an incident involving only two parties, whereas the first could have some impact, if small, on the overall dynamic of the draft.

    A question to ask is, if he had selected Pena, would you have chosen Lee with your pick?  If yes, then the situations are more similar, as only you and the person who made the error are involved in the decision, and I’d lean in favor of undoing his mistake. 

    If you were considering choosing a different player hoping that Lee might fall to the next round, however, then the other player’s error could negatively impact the chance of that happening, as you’d not only be competing with people who want Lee, but also with people who want Pena and are faced with the same ethical dilemma.  In this case, you’re not only considering your own actions, but also guessing what the actions of other strangers will be.  Since you can’t be certain everyone will follow suit and treat Pena as Lee, you shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice your own draft strategy to compensate for someone’s mistake.

  11. Derek Ambrosino said...


    That is a good point and one I chose to leave out for brevity (imagine how long-winded my columns would be if I didn’t leave some things out). I had no interest in Lee. And, also speaking purely practically, the longer everybody has to keep this Pena is Lee thing in their head, the bigger the pain in the ass it is. If I would have taken Lee, the gaffe would have achieved closure in five minutes and we’d all move on. The longer “Lee” stays on the board, the messier and more influential the whole situation actually becomes.

    What if somebody forgets – or what if somebody else disrespects the embargo, so to speak, and takes Pena and say’s HE’s keeping him? I have a friend in one league (the brother of my partner in this league) who has a weird computer glitch, that doesn’t allow him to see the chat room in the draft screen (I can’t imagine the ways in which that might ruin watching porn). What if there’s somebody else whose screen is, um, differently abled, who never even saw the whole thing and thinks Pena is Pena? It’s really just more trouble than its worth.

    Mike Powe,

    Okay, that’s scenario one. But, you’ve reiterated the fat man problem. Situation two isn’t really any different by the standards you’ve expressed.


    That’s partially a personality issue. Some people have no trouble being all business with their friends when those relationships cross lines (and, fantasy baseball, is a friendly activity, but the actual competitive angle of things is nearly all business!). But, me personally – you’ve got me pegged. If anything, I’m overly gracious with my friends when those relationships delve into contexts that toe the business/friendship line.

  12. Howard said...

    Great ethics post.  I enjoyed reading it, even the tangential stuff.

    Anyway, I’m a commish of a pretty competitive league, and I announce before draft day & again in the chat something along the lines of “if you hit the wrong button & draft the wrong guy, deal with it.” Despite that, in your annectdota A I would do the same thing as you b/c it opens the flood gates for many more rounds of “I hit the wrong button”

    BTW, not that Pena is doing fantastic, but Derek Lee has been TERRIBLE…it’s gotta burn especially as Pena hits a HR everyday lately.

    In scenario 2 you HAVE to undo it/let the commish know to cancel.  Forget that he’s a friend.  But he’ll never want to trade with you in the future and others would be hesitant as well.  Additionally you’ll look like a Jerk if he rallies other owners to veto the deal and then you are stuck dealing with him and accepting a “weaker” offer.

    How about this scenario that happened in my league this year.  We did a snake, over 2 days.  Day 1 in person, day 2 over the net.  On day 2, one guy lost power (so not really a comp error or human error, but an “act of God”) and his final 11 picks were made by the auto-draft.  Should we have stopped as soon as he called me to inform & postponed the thing?  Or is it a too bad, you should have done more comprehensive preranking?

  13. Donald Trump said...

    there is a fundamental difference between the two scenarios.  When you offer another manager a trade, they are forced into action.  They must click ‘accept’ or ‘reject’.  While easy, there is some chance of error.  Since you forced him into action, I think some understanding is appropriate.
    In the draft, there is only one party.  I think that party has to be totally responsible for his actions.

    Similarly, we have ALL had the situation where we add a free agent while dropping the worst guy on our team, and then immediately think “Oh no, did I just drop A-rod by accident?”.  Now, most often we did not accidentally drop Arod.  But the question is: What are you thinking in that moment?  Are you thinking “I will make a post discussing my obvious error and asking for Arod back” or are you thinking “Oh well, I just cost myself the season”?
    Personally, I take the second approach, that it is my fault and I will deal with it.  That being said, in a trade situation, and have been willing to undo a trade that the opposing manager wanted to immediately undo.  I believe that both parties should be in agreement in wanting to enter into the trade.

  14. Andrew said...

    These things get even more complicated with online auctions in which owners can input the wrong bids, get disconnected and miss out on players thrown out for bidding, push “Bid +1” immediately after another just made a high bid, and so on and so forth.

    Personally, I recommend sites like CBS that allows the Commish to go back and changes things if an owner makes a mistake.

    Also, trades should always be reversed if an owner misclicks accept, provided said owner announces to the league within minutes that he clicked the wrong button.

  15. Jason B said...

    I think Matt hit on it – you were generally more gracious/patient/lenient in dealing with your friend than a league full of strangers you scarcely knew. If you piss one of those guys off and don’t get invited back, is it any skin off your back? Nah. But in the other situation (the trade with your friend), is it worth straining a friendship over? No, likely not. 

    Howard – I would have rescheduled that draft if there was a time that could be found to get everyone together.  I don’t know of anyone that pre-ranks their players exhaustively in the event of a power outage.  I would claim force majeure and call a do-over.

    I had a *huge* draft boner this year – online auction draft, did all sorts of planning and cajoling to get a league full of interested and informed owners and find a draft time that worked for everyone…did my projections and assigned dollar values…and promptly mistyped and bid $232, rather than $23, on Pujols.  I offered to keep him and knew it was no one’s fault but mine, but after some intense searching was able to find a way to undo the last five picks and retract that pick.  I was very pleasantly surprised at the other owners’ willingness to restart or reschedule, and stall on their bidding a bit while I looked for a resolution to the issue.  Crisis averted.  Although my team is currently in seventh, so it wasn’t averted *all* that much.  smile

  16. Derek Ambrosino said...

    To be honest, I don’t think it would have much damaged my frienship at all had I just said, if you click, it sticks. I may have shown deference to my good friend, but I wasn’t worried about my decision, either way, having massive ramifications on our friendship.

    I’d be willing to say that the fact that I know him well enough to feel like he’d do the same for me had the shoe been on the other foot might have played some subtle, subconscious role in things. But, I don’t know if I’d go much further.

    I’m certainly not the type of person to mistreat or be insensitive to strangers outside of my normal character just because they are strangers either. I have friends who are business first, and in their cases, I probably wouldn’t have hesitated to do the same thing I did with the stanger. So, if I had to try to pin down my motivations for my actions (something we are all terrible at doing, btw), I’d say that my friendship mattered, but not in the way many of you have suggested. My familiarity with this person allowed me some insight into his character and whether my gracious act is something that he would reciprocate given the chance. Perhaps, I used the stranger’s immiediate reaction as a proxy for that level of personal insight and that is why his unapologetic and presumptuous tone turned me off so.

  17. Derek Ambrosino said...


    I believe you misread Kevin’s post. I assume he meant that Hanley had fallen to pick #3, the pick that Kevin had. So, he found out that the player he lost out on by unintentionally “selecting” Choo third was Hanley Ramirez. He got Choo instead of Hanley, which apparently incensed him more than getting Choo instead of A-Rod or Braun, or whoever else he assumed he’d get at #3 (not Hanley – he assumed Hanley would be off the board already.)

  18. Dave said...

    I had a situation earlier this year in which an owner dropped Heyward unintentionally while he was intoxicated (this was while Heyward was raking).  The next day he asked on the message board if we could let him pass waivers because he meant to drop different player of obviously lower quality.

    As a league with friends, one owner & I said we would be willing to let him go if everyone else was on board, but no one else responded for the next 24 hours.  Having the 3rd waiver position, I had a decent shot at getting him, and I would have felt sick to let him go, only to have another owner with a lower waiver-priority pick him up.  I voiced this concern the next day, at least 12 hours before the waiver deadline, and again no response, so I assumed he was fair game.  I placed a claim and got him.  While I was happy about the addition, it felt bittersweet, as I may have betrayed my friend, but I had no way of knowing whether Heyward would have made it through the wire past the teams with lower priorities.

    Ultimately, I took some solace in the fact that the Heyward-dropping owner had been able to pick up Nelson Cruz off of waivers a week or two earlier when another owner dropped him as he hit the DL (probably unaware of the DL slot).

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