Diving. Professional fouls. Time wasting. These are extremely divisive things in the world of football. Why is it so? Shouldn’t we applaud players who manage to deceive referees? After all, isn’t this simply “winning at all costs” – a foundational idiom in today’s sporting environments? Aren’t “noble” players somehow perceived as weaker? You know, the ones who stop the match after committing a hand ball that no one noticed?

We’ve all been faced with this dilemma at one point or another. As a fan, have you celebrated a goal knowing your striker was offside? What about as a player. Have you refused to take a penalty when wrongly awarded one? How did you feel after your decision?

This conundrum is not a new one. It is as old as society itself. As a hunter-gatherer, do you hide the extra rabbits you speared, or do you share them with the hungry group? Do you force a weaker bloke out of his cave when it’s cold? Or do you take a less sheltered cave?

Many have grappled with these ideas over the millennia including the ever-influential Ancient Greeks.   Aristotle believed it was better to conduct your entire life as a virtuous slave than live as an unjust king.2 In other words, Aristotle would stop the game if he was offside, even if being through on goal could win the World Cup for Greece against the Persian Empire. He argued that in doing so, you are nourishing your own spirit, in the same way that you nourish your body by eating healthy food and exercising.

Aristotle would stop the game if he was offside, even if being through on goal could win the World Cup for Greece against the Persian Empire

It’s quite a compelling argument. As a demonstration, we can take the virtue: courage. Courage is useful here because a healthy dose evokes strong emotions in people. For example, it would be unthinkable – bordering on inhuman – to publicly admit you would watch a child drown rather than attempt to save her. Chances are you’ve daydreamed about being the hero in a similar scenario: the endorphin rush, the admiration of the onlookers, not to mention reading about yourself in the newspaper. Importantly, not only are the rewards immediate but the deed lasts in people’s memories. This increases your standing in the community, because people seek courageous friends.

The lasting good that comes from this type of self-sacrifice can then be extrapolated further to the other virtues such as generosity and honesty etc. When faced with a “moral dilemma”, we can say that the virtuous or noble choice is always good in itself. Furthermore, as no one ever makes a decision to make themselves less happy, we should be compelled to take the path of virtue at each junction.2 As the argument goes, regardless of relative wealth level, the life that reaps continual “rewards of the soul” is far superior to the alternative. Further still, the mind boggles at what a society populated exclusively with virtuous citizens might be able to achieve.

So why isn’t this the status quo? Why are there clumsy defenders hacking down graceful players contributing to the “beautiful game”? Why are referees devaluing matches by accepting bribes to sway their outcome? Well, as it turns out there’s been some pretty persuasive counter-arguments to acting “in the spirit of the game” that have taken a strong foothold in the very fabric of our society.

The ideas Charles Darwin conceived whilst penning The Origin of Species in the 1850s described the intensely competitive history of all life on earth. Today we know the phrase “survival of the fittest” well. Natural selection was in some ways the antithesis of morality. A selfish entity motivated purely by its own proliferation – exploiting any advantage ruthlessly to meet that goal.1

Today we know the phrase “survival of the fittest” well. Natural selection was in some ways the antithesis of morality

You might agree that phrases perpetuated in modern sports like “win at all costs” sit well with the principles of natural selection as described above. This is no accident.

Economists in the 20th Century drew inspiration from the competitive nature of evolution. It appeared that as far as natural selection was concerned, concepts such as trust and happiness were irrelevant to the success of the genes. They speculated as to whether there was a purely rational system devoid of emotion that could inform business decisions in order to get ahead.

A logical exercise called The Prisoner’s Dilemma arose from Game Theory in the 1950s. I will adapt it slightly for readers of PDP Magazine. Imagine you support a team called the Bobcats. You and another fan conspire to bribe a local referee to sway the final of a major tournament in favour of the Bobcats. The referee accepts your bribe and the Bobcats win in the final against local rivals, the Wizards, thanks to a bizarre penalty awarded in injury time. You celebrate the victory that night until festivities are interrupted when you are both arrested. It turns out the Wizards’ management have requested an investigation. The authorities feel they have some evidence of bribery, but for a full conviction they require a testimony. They give you some options:

Option A – You tell them that the other bloke was responsible for the bribery. If he says nothing, you pay nothing and he gets fined $4,000.

Option B – You both say nothing, and are fined $1,000 each.

Option C – You both turn on each other, and are fined $2,000 each. 

Think about this. The rational decision when calculating the penalty is option A. You’re sitting in your cell thinking about option B because perhaps you feel some sense of loyalty to your partner in crime…

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