Monday, November 14, 2022

The 2018 Belgium vs Brazil World Cup game

In 2018, the Belgians beat the Brazilians 2-1 in the 2018 World Cup soccer quarterfinals. There are about 18 times as many Brazilians and Belgians in the world. This raises a number of puzzles in value theory, if for simplicity we ignore everyone but Belgians and Brazilians in the world.

An order of magnitude more people wanted the Brazilians to win, and getting what one wants is good. An order of magnitude more people would have felt significant and appropriate pleasure had the Brazilians won, and an appropriate pleasure is good. And given both wishful thinking as well as reasonable general presumptions about there being more talent available in a larger population base, we can suppose that a lot more people expected the Brazilians to win, and it’s good if what one thinks is the case is in fact the case.

You might think that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, and Belgians are few. But, clearly, the above facts gave very little moral reason to the Belgian players to lose. One might respond that the above facts gave lots of reason to the Belgians to lose, but these reasons were outweighed by the great value of victory to the Belgian players, or perhaps the significant intrinsic value of playing a sport as well as one can. Maybe, but if so then just multiply both countries’ populations by a factor of ten or a hundred, in which case the difference between the goods (desire satisfaction, pleasure and truth of belief) is equally multiplied, but still makes little or no moral difference to what the Belgian players should do.

Or consider this from the point of view of the Brazilian players. Imagine you are one of them. Should the good of Brazil—around two hundred million people caring about the game—be a crushing weight on your shoulders, imbuing everything you do in practice and in the game with a great significance? No! It’s still “just a game”, even if the value of the good is spread through two hundred million people. It would be weird to think that it is a minor pecadillo for a Belgian to slack off in practice but a grave sin for a Brazilian to do so, because the Brazilian’s slacking hurts an order of magnitude more people.

That said, I do think that the larger population of Brazil imbues the Brazilians’ games and practices with some not insignificant additional moral weight than the Belgians’. It would be odd if the pleasure, desire satisfaction and expectations of so many counted for nothing. But on the other hand, it should make no significant difference to the Belgians whether they are playing Greece or Brazil: the Belgians shouldn’t practice less against the Greeks on the grounds that an order of magnitude fewer people will be saddened when the Greeks lose than when Brazilians do.

However, these considerations seem to me to depend to some degree on which decisions one is making. If Daniel is on the soccer team and deciding how hard to work, it makes little difference whether he is on the Belgian or Brazilian team. But suppose instead that Daniel is has two talents: he could become an excellent nurse or a top soccer player. As a nurse, he would help relieve the suffering of a number of patients. As a soccer player, in addition to the intrinsic goods of the sports, he would contribute to his fellow citizens’ pleasure and desire satisfaction. In this decision, it seems that the number of fellow citizens does matter. The number of people Daniel can help as a nurse is not very dependent on the total population, but the number of people that his soccer skills can delight varies linearly with the total population, and if the latter number is large enough, it seems that it would be quite reasonable for Daniel to opt to be a soccer player. So we could have a case where if Daniel is Belgian he should become a nurse but if Brazilian then a soccer player (unless Brazil has a significantly greater need for nurses than Belgium, that is). But once on the team, it doesn’t seem to matter much.

The map from axiology to moral reasons is quite complex, contextual, and heavily agent-centered. The hope of reducing moral reasons to axiology is very slim indeed.

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