Andrew Fiala

Run up the score or use a mercy rule? Competition can reveal one’s ethical values

The U.S. women’s soccer team clobbered Thailand in the World Cup tournament by a score of 13-0. This is the largest goal differential in World Cup history. Some argued it was rude to run up the score. But the objective of soccer is to keep scoring until your opponent stops you.

One of the U.S. players, Alex Morgan, said it would have been disrespectful to the Thai team not to play hard for the entire game. Morgan scored five goals, which tied the World Cup record for most goals in a game. You can’t blame Morgan for wanting to get her name in the record books. Elite athletes live in a competitive world where mercy is not an option.

Andrew Fiala Fresno Bee file

Unfortunately, we tend to view life in similar terms. This is an era of running up the score. Winning often seems to be the only thing that matters. Pop stars and politicians brag and boast. Ego is everything. Modesty and humility seem quaint and old-fashioned. Nor do we think much about mercy and compassion.

We are obsessed with records, rankings, and point differentials. In the Trump era, winning is measured numerically. What matters for the president is ratings, Twitter followers, the size of electoral victories, the numbers who attend rallies, and rankings of the world’s richest people. What matters for the rest of us is SAT scores, GPAs, salaries, 401(k)s, home value and net worth.

When success is measured in quantitative terms, running up the score makes good sense. The billionaire Malcolm Forbes supposedly said, “he who dies with the most toys wins.” We think that we can win at life by piling up stuff.

The world’s ethical traditions teach something different. Morality advises moderation as well as mercy. We should look beyond quantitative measures of success. We should focus on intrinsic values that cannot be tallied on a score card. And we should have compassion for others, even those we compete against.

Moralists teach that there is something shameful and obscene about having too much. What Aristotle called “smallness of soul” can be linked to money-grubbing, greed, and the incessant desire for gain and advantage. Small souls strive to make themselves superior by counting and boasting and bragging.

This becomes even more problematic when your success comes at the expense of others’ suffering. It is easy to exploit the weak. You can beat up on the little guy to make yourself feel superior. But morality requires the opposite, teaching that we make ourselves better by helping those who are worse off.

Ethical traditions also focus on virtues, such as self-control and modesty. Self-control demands that we learn to moderate the greedy desire for more stuff. Modesty would seem to require that we don’t run up the score. It is enough to win. It is immodest and cruel to rub your opponent’s face in their defeat and kick them when they are down.

Mercy is a moral value. In youth sports, the so-called “mercy rule” caps the score. The mercy rule is intended to prevent the humiliation of the weaker team. It depends upon compassion for the losers and a sense of camaraderie and sportsmanship.

But youth sports give way to the big leagues, where ranking systems and point-differentials matter. In the big leagues compassion is replaced by cut-throat competition. Realists will claim that this is simply the way life works. In the real world, there is no mercy and the winner takes all. War, politics, and economic competition seem to teach that history has no sympathy for losers.

Morality resists this conclusion. The world’s ethical traditions call for us to transform the law of the jungle. Egoism should give way to altruism. And the urge to run up the score should give way to the desire to lift others up.

Cut-throat competition leaves us with cramped souls, forever seeking advantage in a game no one can ever finally win. Moral development takes us out of the jungle and into a more humane world in which mercy and modesty enlarge our souls, deepen our relationships, and put us in touch with intrinsic values. Moral development moderates the ego, teaches us compassion, and helps us know when enough is enough.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala