Sport, Morality, and Trying your best

In life, morality requires a determined effort

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-08-11

It is often good strategy not to try your best. Several athletes in the London Olympics have reminded us of this. The most notorious case involved badminton players who tried to lose their games, hoping to draw preferred opponents later. The players were officially reprimanded.

Another athlete, Taoufik Makhloufi from Algeria, was disqualified for not trying hard enough in an 800 meter race. He had stopped running because of pain in his knee, which he didn’t want to interfere with a later race. After an appeal, he was reinstated.

We don’t like to admit it, but it is often good strategy not to try your hardest. In swimming and track, sometimes it is wise for an athlete to ease off in qualifying heats in order to save energy for later races. Even worse, sometimes it is good strategy to try to fail. During one of the Olympic cycling races, a British cyclist crashed on purpose in order to get a restart on the race that would benefit his team. His team went on to win the gold medal.

A variety of sports have rules that allow for strategically valuable failures. In baseball, pitchers walk some batters intentionally, rather than trying to pitch to them. In football, quarterbacks throw the ball out of bounds rather than trying to force a completion. In basketball, players try to commit fouls in the waning seconds of a half. Sometimes it is better not to try at all. In sports like gymnastics, trying and failing can leave you with a broken neck.

Knowing when to give up trying is also a good skill in business. Bankruptcy filings can reflect smart decisions about giving up. Successful people have a knack for knowing when to try, how hard to try and when to walk away from things that are not working.

Even though it is sometimes wise not to try your hardest, “not trying” runs counter to a basic moral intuition. We like to think that you should always try your hardest. We tell our children this. The Cub Scout motto is: “Try your best.”

One version of morality focuses entirely on effort. Since we do not have direct control over consequences and outcomes, it seems reasonable to focus on effort and will. This view is associated with the German philosopher Kant. Kant explained that even if you suffered misfortunes, your good will would remain: “Like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself.”

The problem is, however, that it is difficult to measure “trying.” How do we know how hard we tried? There is a lot of self-deception and rationalization involved in assessing effort. How do we know how hard an athlete or a co-worker is trying?

Furthermore, the notion that you “tried your best” is often a consolation when you have lost. “Well, at least I tried,” you tell yourself as you stumble across the finish line in the back of the pack. It is often deflationary to tell someone to “go out there and try your best.” That’s the sort of thing we say to people when we expect them to lose.

There is a humane spirit behind praising people for “trying their best.” Sometimes people give up too easily in the face of small obstacles or minor inconveniences. Perseverance is admirable.

But “trying your best” is often not enough. Perseverance without accomplishment is nothing to brag about. We don’t have much patience with people who use “trying their best” as an excuse for poor performance or as a rationalization for moral failure.

There is some truth to the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And apparently, the road to Olympic victory is paved with strategic effort: knowing when to try and when to ease up.

But life is not sports. Living well involves more than strategic effort. Morality requires determined effort. We value love, loyalty, fidelity, fortitude and resolve because we know that it is often too easy to give up trying. And we tend to reserve moral praise for those who try their hardest, even when good strategy might point in the other direction.