Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for August 10th, 2007

Semantics 756

Posted by digglahhh on 10 August 2007

Okay, so Barry Bonds launched 756 off Mike Bacsik this week. I only mention Bascik’s name to relay the fun fact that Bacsik’s father, of the same name, actually faced Hank Aaron when Aaron had 755 career homers. Also, Clay Hensley, the pitcher who gave number 755 had failed a steroid test when he was in the Minor Leagues. Looks like there was some fate at work, or something. But, anyway, enough of the fun facts and onto the dissection of language.

Throughout this whole debacle, we’ve constantly heard the following words, “(un)ethical,” “(il)legitimate,” “(im)moral,” “(il)legal,” and “cheating (or not).” Many people throw forms of these words around as if they are interchangeable. In fact, they are not. Let’s go through how they relate to the Bonds situation.

“Legitimate” is the simplest of these terms to deal with. Barry Bonds hit (as of today) 757 fair balls over the outfield fences of various Major League ballparks during regular season play. None of the homeruns were fake, or recorded as the result of a clerical error or anything like that. Legitimacy pertains to MLB’s abilities to void the record, and to whether those which were labeled as homeruns really were. The record is “legitimate.”

Next, we have a nexus of similar terms. Let’s get rid of a couple to simplify things. Some people don’t distinguish morality and ethics at all, if so, we can drop the one in favor of the other. To the extent they’re different, morality pertains to your personal views regarding the means by which Bonds has been aided in his achievement of the record, independent of the user or purpose. Personal views are interesting, but not really important.

Then too, one may think that the use of anabolic steroids is immoral because it is illegal. Fine. We’ll turn to the question of legality in a minute.

Cheating and ethics are the two most closely related and tricky terms here. I’m going to collapse them, because cheating is something that seems to have an inherently unethical component. The act of cheating is defined by dishonesty, so it is almost always unethical. I say almost always because an action that is normally unethical can be rendered not so, provided that performing the said action opposes larger or greater unethical behavior. This is the “if you had a chance to kill Hitler argument.” If Barry Bonds was cheating, then his actions were unethical, unless you can argue that he was cheating to right some greater form of wrong.

The above preamble is necessary because of the complications involved in establishing Bonds’s cheating, and its extent. Some try to separate the cheating and the ethics, other than my above explanation, I don’t see how you can really do that. But, here is how people try.

Steroids were not explicitly disallowed by Major League Baseball prior to 2002. Subsequently there has been testing; Bonds has not failed a steroid test (undetectables, I know – but speculation is not evidence). Some argue that if Bonds used, pre-2002, he was not cheating because it was not against the rules, and there wasn’t anything unethical about it because it was not cheating.

That steroids weren’t banned until 2002 is an important point, but it doesn’t absolve Bonds of the charge of cheating. It gets Bonds off the hook on the question of the illegality of his actions – according to MLB, at least. (see, I said I’d come back to that).

But breaking the explicitly stated rules is way too strict an interpretation of cheating. Laws and rules have “spirits,” anybody whose read any of the more famous court cases in this country’s judicial history knows that. Cheating, in terms of this debate, is using disingenuous methods to undermine the spirit of fair competition. This covers loopholes that involved parties would consider cheating (like PEDs), but may spare tactics that some might consider “dirty,” but are not explicitly forbidden, provided the practice is accepted by the participants (e.g. stealing signs). Kind of like the “reasonable citizen” standard…

My characterization merges the cheating and the ethics issue by defining cheating in a sense that considers ethics. Perhaps I need a further argument that Bonds’ cheating was unethical. Okay then, here’s one.

Let’s consider the implications of Bonds’s actions, that is, what they did to the competitive spirit of the game. Those who achieved artificial enhancements from drug use skewed the game to give themselves unfair advantages and they were not forthcoming about it. The fact that they were not banned by the sport doesn’t matter, they contradict the notion of fair competition. They are dangerous, one can’t expect any “reasonable player” to be willing to engage in that practice. That solves the problem of those who claim that Lasik eye surgery, Tommy John surgery and such are unnatural means to enhance one’s abilities. Most importantly, ethics are not defined by the law – specifically, legal loopholes or ambiguities are not ethical loopholes.

So, the highlights/box score:

Record legit? Yes.

Bonds a cheater? Yes.

Means used to help reach the record ethical? No.


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