Thursday, October 01, 2009

Play up! Play up! And play the game!

I'm reading again some of Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics. It's mostly very sensible stuff, clear, interesting, and often right. He's very good, in the main, on pleasure and desire and is refreshingly happy to talk about the complexity of the psychological factors involved. (I reckon this is in part because he was a careful reader of the Philebus and of Aristotle as well as the various more recent people he mentions, but let's leave that aside for now.)

But there are obstacles too. He's long-winded and sometimes boring. And also occasionally lets slip something jarringly pompous and Victorian. Like this (from Book 1 chap. 4 sec. 2):

Take, for example, the case of any game which involves---as most games do---a contest for victory. No ordinary player before entering on such a contest, has any desire for victory in it: indeed he often finds it difficult to imagine himself deriving gratification from such victory, before he has actually engaged in the competition. What he deliberately, before the game begins, desires is not victory, but the pleasant excitement of the struggle for it; only for the full development of this pleasure a transient desire to win the game is generally indispensable. This desire, which does not exist at first, is stimulated to considerable intensity by the competition itself: and in proportion as it is thus stimulated both the mere contest becomes more pleasurable, and the victory, which was originally indifferent, comes to afford a keen enjoyment.

This comes just before the section on the paradox of hedonism. HS does allow that one might conceive a 'transient' desire to win, just because some such desire is a necessary condition of engaging properly in the game. But for HS it is the pleasant excitement of the competition that matters most and any desire for victory must be instrumental to it. Well, this just seems to me to be false: I can imagine all kinds of sportsmen and women whose principal desire is to win the game, who would relish a game that was not a struggle at all. Sure, they don't want to be bored. But a desire for the pleasant excitement of competition whatever the result and a desire for victory that is stimulated only as a result of the excitement in engaging in the contest? I don't find this very plausible. I wonder if the professionalisation of sport and competition is what makes me less sure than HS about this. Is that a shame?

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