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Philosophy of Sport

John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Sport

David T. Schwartz
Randolph-Macon Woman's College

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ABSTRACT: While his own preference may have been for an engaging book over an exciting ballgame, John Stuart Mill’s distinction in Utilitarianism between higher and lower pleasures offers a useful framework for thinking about contemporary sport. This first became apparent while teaching Utilitarianism to undergraduates, whose interest is often piqued by using Mill’s distinction to rank popular sports such as baseball, football and basketball. This paper explores more seriously the relevance of Mill’s distinction for thinking about sport, focusing specifically on his claims about intellectual complexity and aesthetic value. It finds that while the distinction of higher and lower pleasures does support a hierarchy among sports, it remains problematic to assert that any sport could in fact constitute a genuine higher pleasure.

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Mill originally offered the distinction between higher and lower pleasures as a way of defending utilitarianism against critics who found it degrading. Because utilitarianism defines moral rightness solely as the net production of pleasure over pain, critics charged that it portrayed human happiness as no different from the contentment of well-fed barnyard animals. To these critics, any moral theory that cast human life as having no end higher than the pursuit of pleasure was surely "a doctrine worthy only of swine".(1) Mill countered that it was actually the critics of utilitarianism who degraded humanity, for they tacitly assumed that humans were capable of nothing more than animalistic pleasures. Mill maintained happiness is indeed a function of pleasure, although humans are capable of higher forms of pleasure than the other animals. Mill writes

Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.(2)

True human happiness thus requires at least some exposure to activities that gratify the higher faculties of the human mind. And though the pleasure of such activity requires greater effort and even some pain to realize, Mill considered it intrinsically superior to the relatively passive and animalistic pleasures obtained from satisfying one's hunger, thirst, or sexual desire. Thus, unlike Bentham, who thought that the pleasure obtained from reading one good poem could be equaled through playing many games of pushpin, Mill's distinction is qualitative: a higher pleasure can never be duplicated through the simple aggregation of lower pleasures.

Mill posited three distinct sources of higher pleasure: (1) acts involving intellectual complexity (2) acts engaging the aesthetic imagination; and (3) acts engaging the moral sentiments. The most straightforwardly applicable of these categories to sport is intellectual complexity. Mill's idea here is that the value of an activity (i.e., the quality of pleasure it produces) follows in direct relation with the degree of intellectual complexity that activity requires. For example, playing chess has greater intrinsic value than playing checkers because chess in more intellectually demanding. Chess has a wider variety of playing pieces and a more complex set of rules, requiring players to track more variables and construct a more complex playing strategy. While such complexity presents players with undeniable short-term difficulties, it is precisely these difficulties that—when mastered—enable chess to provide a higher quality of pleasure than checkers.

Applied to sport, Mill's claims about intellectual complexity capture the basic reasoning of many who argue that baseball is superior to American football. While both sports no doubt require athleticism and physical strength, baseball is hailed as the thinking person's sport because of its greater need for thoughtful strategizing. Those who would argue for baseball's superiority often cite its need for greater strategic forethought, with the best players and managers having to know and apply a variety of fundamental rules and stratagems to various game situations. For instance, smart baseball requires a batter's knowing not to swing at a pitch when his team is behind and the count is three balls and no strikes; or, a base runner's knowing that he/she ought to be running with the pitch if there are two outs and the count is full. At a higher level, baseball managers must consider how best to use and substitute players. This task is made more difficult by the fact that, unlike football, a baseball player may not return to a game once he/she is removed. In making substitutions, managers typically rely on their knowledge of various mathematical percentages, including how a particular player has performed in similar situations, and about whether the opposing pitcher (or hitter) is left or right-handed. This is further complicated by the likelihood that the opposing manager will respond to any decision with a counter-substitution. Thus, an actual substitution will often be only the first link in a chain of anticipated substitutions and counter-substitutions extending several innings into the future. Because of this good baseball managers—like good chess players—must track not only the characteristics and availability of their own players, but they must also possess a similar knowledge of the opposition. Of course, none of this is meant to imply that football is without complexities of its own.(3) Rather, it is to claim that Mill's distinction offers a coherent basis for discriminating between these two sports based on their relative complexity.(4)

Yet this conclusion alone may be less than satisfying. For while it is one thing to show that Mill's distinction can be used to draw relative comparisons about the value of different sports, it is quite another to claim that any particular sport does in fact constitute a higher pleasure. Presumably, those who think seriously about sport would find it much more useful and important if Mill's ideas could be used to make value judgments about sport in this more absolute sense. Also, casting the value of sport primarily in terms of intellectual complexity seems to miss something essential about sport itself—its physicality. That is, even if baseball could be shown to be as intellectually challenging as chess, this evaluation omits the athletic prowess that is an integral aspect of our appreciation of sport.

Thus, if the analysis is to be taken to a more fruitful level, what is needed is an approach that both incorporates the inherent athleticism of sport and provides a more certain barometer of its status as a higher pleasure. This task is inherently difficult given that higher pleasures by definition engage our rational faculties, while physicality resides primarily in the realm of material body. A promising start in reconciling these two disparate considerations is to invoke Mill's second category of higher pleasure, acts of aesthetic imagination. For instance, if it could be shown that a sport shares essential aesthetic characteristics with art forms such as music or ballet, then perhaps this would justify claiming that the sport was source of higher pleasure as well. For example, it seems plausible to claim that a graceful, leaping catch by a wide receiver exhibits many of the same outward characteristics as the leaps and moves of a ballet dancer, as do the graceful, leaping moves of (elite) basketball players.(5) Further, one might even distinguish two distinct ways in which athletic grace can be appreciated aesthetically: (1) as an act of beauty in nature, appreciated as one appreciates the movement of a deer; and, (2) as an act of cultural accomplishment, appreciated much as one appreciates the beauty of ballet.

Drawing an analogy or even an identicality between the physical aspects of certain sports and certain art forms is initially plausible, and if successful it would certainly go a long way toward establishing that at least some sports are genuine sources of higher pleasure. However, making this move is not without difficulties of its own. To recognize these difficulties it is helpful to examine the game of basketball. Basketball is instructive here because it contains clear examples of two distinct types of physical act that occur in sport—the improvisational and the mechanical. While every play in basketball likely contains elements of both, improvisational acts are typified by Julius Erving's gracefully driving through a host of defenders in search of a lay-up. This act is improvisational in one sense because Dr. J does not know ahead of time the exact path he will pursue in order to make the shot. It is improvisational in a second sense because it requires Dr. J to decide on the spot—and often while in midair— how he will actually shoot the ball (e.g., bounce it off the backboard; release it underhanded with a finger roll). Improvisational acts are the primary source of basketball's aesthetic value, as evidenced by the fact that such plays are the ones that catch our attention and stay in our memory the longest. Improvisational acts are often highly graceful and aesthetic, and the comparison with ballet is again relevant.

In contrast to improvisational acts are mechanical acts, exemplified in basketball by the free throw, or foul shot. Shooting free throws is a highly controlled event: play is halted while the shooter takes aim always from precisely the same spot on the court. Success in free throw shooting comes not from improvisation but from being as predictable, repetitive, and machine-like as possible. For this reason, there is a clear correlation between proficiency at free throw shooting and the amount of discipline and practice one devotes to perfecting the skills of the task. This reliance on discipline and practice marks an essential contrast between free throw shooting and Dr. J.'s improvisational lay-up, which almost by definition cannot be directly practiced. Another contrast between the two is that while free throws may be appreciated for their instrumental contribution toward winning a game, they do not engage our aesthetic imagination in the same manner as the game's improvisational acts. That is, when asked to describe the source of basketball's aesthetic value, proficiency of free throw shooting is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind.

It is this last point that raises difficulties for the argument, for it suggests there may an essential difference between aesthetic value in sport and in art. This difference concerns the causal source of aesthetic value in each. That is, while improvisational acts are the primary source of basketball's aesthetic value, improvisation is not the primary (causal) source of value in more purely aesthetic sports such as gymnastics and figure skating. In these sports, routines are established far in advance and honed through discipline and practice. Then, if all goes well in competition, the athlete duplicates the routine exactly as it was perfected in practice. As in shooting free throws, mechanical reproduction pays the highest dividends. And even more importantly, in unadulterated artistic pursuits such as ballet, improvisation often plays little role. Rather than improvisation, the work of a ballet dancer is typically characterized by the discipline and practice needed to perfect a pre-determined routine. In all of these highly aesthetic activities, improvisation is typically of little or no value, and sometimes even a source of disvalue.

What are we to make of this difference between the source of aesthetic value in sport and art? Does it indicate a disanalogy significant enough to argue against classifying sport as an aesthetic source of higher pleasure? While I don't think this issue can be definitively answered in this paper, it will be helpful to explore briefly a few relevant responses. Those who would defend the analogy might claim that aesthetic value resides in the act itself, irregardless of its causal history. If this is true, then differences in the source of aesthetic value in sport and art are merely coincidental and hence irrelevant. Proponents of this view might also borrow an argument from the philosophy of art and claim that the prior practice and discipline of a performer is irrelevant to an aesthetic evaluation of his or her work. For instance, Monroe Beardsley has argued that non aesthetic factors such as authorial intention are irrelevant to evaluating the aesthetic success of a poem or story. An artwork must stand on its own, and the reader commits an interpretive fallacy by appealing to outside factors such as authorial intention or means of creation.

Yet while interesting, this response fares no better when applied to sport than when applied to art. Just as our aesthetic response to a painting will often change upon learning the artist's intentions, so, too, will our aesthetic response to a ballet differ with knowledge that the performance is improvisational rather than rehearsed. While the two performances may be perceptually identical, such knowledge transforms the two into quite different objects of appreciation. The more general principle implicated here is that the causal history of an object or performance does indeed affect its aesthetic evaluation. Examples of this are art forgeries and imitated natural objects. And regardless of whether one values the original or the forgery/imitation, knowledge of the object's causal status no doubt affects our evaluation of that object. Turning back to sport, part of why we marvel at Dr. J's movements is precisely because we know they are improvised. We would react differently if we knew them to be otherwise.

A second possibility for those wanting to defend the analogy would be to argue that what we truly value in both art and sport is improvisation. On this view spontaneity and creativity are paramount, with Dr. J's antics being comparable to the work of a virtuoso jazz musician. This response may interest proponents of jazz music and basketball, but it carries implications that proponents of the more traditional artistic genre might find objectionable. For example, it seems to imply that the aesthetic value of a rehearsed ballet performance would be somehow less than that of a similar performance done improvisationally. Indeed, proponents of the traditional arts might well counter that this response had gotten it exactly backward, and that the real source of aesthetic value is not improvisation but discipline. On this view, appreciating activities such as ballet, figure skating, or gymnastics involves appreciating the discipline and practice of the performer as much as (or more than) the aesthetic movement itself. This response is not as counterintuitive as it might at first seem, for while one may have seen ballet performances many times, deep appreciation may come only after attempting such a routine oneself. Yet as one might expect, pushing the emphasis in this direction carries implications that others would find uncongenial. For instance, when applied to artforms such as jazz music, it suggests that we ought to adjust downward our initial aesthetic reactions given that jazz relies heavily upon improvisation. And when applied to basketball, it suggests— against our intuitions— that we ought to assign greater aesthetic value to free throw shooting than to an aesthetically impressive, but improvised, lay-up.

Having identified several inconsistencies raised by analogizing between the aesthetics of sport and art, I shall conclude by sketching two additional considerations that may argue against classifying sport as a higher pleasure. The first concerns the aim of the activities in question. Imagine for a moment two brief video-tape recordings, one of a daring, improvised spin move by Dr. J. and the other a leaping spin of a world-renowned ballet dancer. Watching the tapes side by side, we see that the moves involved are identical (we could even imagine their costumes to be identical). Yet while the ballet dancer's action would uncontroversially be art, and while Dr. J.'s move may be perceptually identical to that of the dancer, this does not necessarily show that Dr. J.'s move is also a work of art. This is because, quite simply, the artistic intention and emotional expression inherent to the ballet movement would not be present in the movement of Dr. J. This is a variation of the point made earlier concerning the causal source of aesthetic value. The means and intention of the actor do indeed affect our reaction and evaluation of his or her action. And if no artistic intent or artistic emotional expression are present in Dr. J's move, then this is a valid reason to question its status as art. Said another way, because their respective intentions are different, we could not validly interpret the work of Dr. J using the same range of artistic predicates as we could the work of the ballet dancer. And this may well show that ballet engages our higher, interpretive faculties in a way that sport does not.

The second consideration concerns the nature of the aesthetic experience itself. While many people may prefer the excitement and uncertainty of Dr. J's improvised drive to the hoop over the mechanical repetition of accurate free throws (or even over the rehearsed perfection of a ballet routine), excitement and uncertainty are really not the hallmarks of genuine aesthetic appreciation. Here again, Mill's Utilitarianism can be instructive. In discussing the relationship between pleasure and happiness, Mill is careful to distinguish that a life of human happiness does not consist in mere aggregated moments of excitement. Indeed Mill believed that for some persons "the need of excitement is a disease." Rather, true human happiness consists in a give and take involving both excitement and tranquillity, both pleasure and pain. Perhaps, then, the pleasure of watching a spectacular lay-up by Dr. J stems more from its ability to excite us than its ability to provide us with true aesthetic pleasure. Conversely, while baseball may indeed be the thinking person's sport, it is also a sport that many people find boring because it often appears to move so slowly. This distinction also helps explain why a great ballet can be appreciated over and over again, yet that mesmerizing lay-up loses much of its force after only a few instant replays. Again, the lay-up lacks the metaphorical richness and interpretive potential of the ballet, even if for brief moments the two may be perceptually identical.

What would Mill himself think about classifying sport as a higher pleasure? While unfortunately he is mostly silent about making absolute classifications, in Utilitarianism he does assert that distinguishing higher from lower pleasures always rests on the decision of competent judges—i.e., the preference of those with experience and knowledge of both activities. Some might infer from this that Mill's distinction is inherently subjective and hence relative, and thus that it is misguided to invoke it in any absolute sense. However, given that Mill's intention was to defend his moral theory against the 'swine' objection, it seems that the distinction cannot be wholly relative. If his intention was to distinguish human from animal pleasure, then art and sport may well both qualify. Of course, one would have to emphasize here that sport is a rule-governed, strategy driven activity. For while many nonhuman animals engage in playful activity of one sort or another, few non human animals can engage in calculative baseball strategizing. However, it seems more likely that Mill viewed sport as a form of diversion or recreation, and thus as a lower pleasure. Nonetheless, his Aristotelian heritage would also have reminded him that rational activity requires diversions if it is to be sustained. While the game of pushpin may well be inferior to poetry, it may be no less essential.

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(1) Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. George Sher, ed., Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, p.7

(2) Utilitarianism, p.8.

(3) For instance, football requires learning and executing complex blocking assignments. Indeed, executing these assignments is often more important to the success of a play—and a richer object for appreciation—than a running back's carrying the ball over the goal. Similar claims of complexity could be made about wide receivers, who must learn complicated passing routes. And on a managerial level, football coaches must call strategically-effective plays, stressing the team's strengths while avoiding predictability. One mark of a good football strategist is the wisdom to make judicious use of 'trick' plays. Yet while all of these claims about football are compatible with the structure of Mill's distinction, one appeal that his scheme would not support is one sometimes offered by my undergraduates: football is superior because it provides the pleasure of 'watching a good hit.' While this claim may even be true, it is irrelevant to an evaluation of sport based on intellectual complexity.

(4) While rendering a definitive verdict would require examining many more aspects of each game, offhand it appears that baseball is indeed more complex than football. While certain claims about football's complexity are undeniable, its complexity still seems relatively less than that of baseball. A general difference between the two is that unlike football, baseball requires that more decisions be made from moment to moment within the game. Also, these decisions are often based on strategic calculations extending further into the future than is even possible in football. Football strategy is more static, typically fixed beforehand through a general game plan. While strategic changes certainly occur during the course of a football game, the nature of baseball requires that much of its strategy be mapped out while the game is in progress. This suggests that strategizing in baseball is an inherently greater mental challenge.

(5) And in contrast to evaluations based on intellectual complexity, the agility of a football running back assumes greater value when considered aesthetically, perhaps equaling or surpassing in value the complex blocking that make such runs possible.

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