The [cadet honor] code comes to mind while reading the sordid news about the University of Miami’s football program. The Hurricanes have been in the headlines since last week, when Yahoo! Sports ran a story about a former booster—now serving time in federal prison for a $930 million Ponzi scheme—who says he spent millions on cash, hookers, holidays and entertainment for players from 2002 to 2010, at times with the knowledge of coaches. As a result, Miami is now fighting off a threat by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to impose the “death penalty”—i.e., banning the football team from competing for at least a year.
Everyone should have learned early in life that apples and oranges can’t be counted or compared, except perhaps as members of the same family of fruits that grow on trees. Yet William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal does basically that in comparing West Point to the University of Miami, concluding that the U (as Miami supporters call it), recently accused by a convicted felon of scandalous cheating in its sports programs, is less honorable somehow than is West Point.
The purpose of the two institutions is only barely tangential. About all they have in common is that each are in the business of training and educating young adults. For West Point, the training is intended to prepare a young man or woman to be a junior officer in the US Army. West Point is funded by taxpayers, so it has no real concern for its immediate economic viability and survival. West Point students decide to attend for any number of reasons; the free tuition, the cool uniforms, a warrior’s heart, societal approbation, etc.; but all ultimately do exactly the same thing if they graduate and are commissioned–spend their next five years serving as an officer in the United States Army. Intercollegiate West Point football is a more or less extra-curricular activity that could be discarded completely without any untoward consequences to the institution or the individuals within it. Football at West Point, though perhaps capable of teaching some of those attributes most highly valued in a warrior on the battlefield, has practically nothing to do with its animating purpose.
For the U, the purpose of the training and education is existentially defined by each student that voluntarily partakes of it. It may be training for some future occupation, or it may just be a way to waste some time and money while figuring out what to do with one’s self as an adult, which in some rare instances might actually result in the student achieving something of an educated foundation for life. The purpose of the institution, like all other organizations, is survival. The strategies it employs to ensure its survival and continuation turn mainly on attracting as many fee-paying students as it has the capacity to enroll, and in cajoling as many dollars out of its alumni as they will give. Fielding competitive intercollegiate sports teams is a strategy that a great many more higher education institutions than just the U employ in attracting students and donations. While fielding a competitive football team is not an integral reason the University of Miami exists, doing so aids in its continued survival.
But the crux of the matter is the apparent divergence in moral codes at West Point and the U. Why does West Point need to instill in its cadets the idea that lying, cheating and stealing are bad while the U seems less inclined to do so? Because West Point is training young adults for leadership in battle. Fighting units live and die according to their cohesiveness, and nothing destroys cohesiveness quicker and more devastatingly than a unit whose commander is found to be a liar, cheater or thief. There is nothing intrinsically good or moral about West Point’s vaunted code. It is utilitarian. The nation is more capable of defending itself if its Army officers rigidly adhere to a code of conduct prohibiting deceptive behavior within the ranks. Lying, cheating and stealing are perfectly permissible, and even encouraged, in engaging the enemy on the battlefield. West Point is not some paragon of moral virtue. It is simply teaching what its defense establishment overseers have determined are the best attributes for its officer corps to possess.
The defense of society is a consummately communistic affair. Everyone involved has to subordinate their own selfish impulses, including even the impulse to live, for the goals of the society. Yet, communism, in all its various forms, has a fatal flaw: It encourages free-riding. There is always the incentive to receive the benefits of the collective effort without contributing to the effort. In a fighting unit, unselfish, communistic cooperation is required if the unit is to survive. The West Point code of conduct is intended to instill the sort of unselfishness required of all the members of a fighting unit if it is to survive on the battlefield.
Capitalism is just the opposite. Instead of restraining selfish impulses, it encourages them. It celebrates the individual over the collective effort. Lying, cheating and stealing in capitalism suffers no absolute moral prohibition; everything is a bit hazy. Capitalists lie to sell their products and services; cheat a little by under delivering what they had promised and in numerous other ways; and intentionally steal customers and territories away from their competitors. Lying, cheating and stealing is effectively what capitalism is about, and the U is preparing its attendees for capitalist survival, not survival in a cohesive unit on the battlefield.
In capitalism, whether to break a societal rule is explicitly evaluated on a cost/benefit basis. If the expected benefit of breaking the rules exceeds the expected costs for doing so, then the rule will be broken. Yet both the U’s capitalist and the Army’s communist system participants do the same moral cost/benefit calculus. The main difference at West Point is that the penalties for breaking the code are so severe and the benefits likely so small that it rarely makes sense to lie, cheat or steal, whereas, for example, the rampant cheating in collegiate athletics means that failing to cheat might actually impair one’s ability to compete. West Point holds out its moral code as an absolute expression of truth, but then dares with the most severe of all human penalties, tribal expulsion, anyone to break it. If its code reflected some absolute, innate moral sense in mankind, the penalties for its breach would need only be minimal, as the very act of breaching it would make one a pariah.
If this seems very relativistic, that’s because it is, or at least it is all perceptually driven, and so too is all of morality, a subject recently covered by the New York Times in its philosophy corner, “The Stone”, which “features the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless”. Joel Marks, a professor emeritus at the University of New Haven, declared the absence of moral absolutes in a piece titled Confessions of an Ex-Moralist. Here’s an excerpt:
In the three years since my anti-epiphany I have attempted to assess these surprising revelations and their implications for my life and work. I found myself in the thick of meta-ethics, which looks at the nature of morality, including whether there even is such a thing as right and wrong. I myself had ignored the latter issue for most of my career, since, if there was one thing I knew in this entire universe, it was that some things are morally wrong. It is wrong to toss male chicks, alive and conscious, into a meat grinder, as happens in the egg industry. It is wrong to scorn homosexuals and deny them civil rights. It is wrong to massacre people in death camps. All of these things have met with general approval in one society or another. And yet I knew in my soul, with all of my conviction, with a passion, that they were wrong, wrong, wrong. I knew this with more certainty than I knew that the earth is round.
But suddenly I knew it no more. I was not merely skeptical or agnostic about it; I had come to believe, and do still, that these things are not wrong. But neither are they right; nor are they permissible. The entire set of moral attributions is out the window. Think of this analogy: A tribe of people lives on an isolated island. They have no formal governmental institutions of any kind. In particular they have no legislature. Therefore in that society it would make no sense to say that someone had done something “illegal.” But neither would anything be “legal.” The entire set of legal categories would be inapplicable. In just this way I now view moral categories.
Baruch de Spinoza, a seventeenth century Jewish heretic philosopher, would explain that everything which we characterize as good or evil is only thus because of the perspective with which we view things. Moral relativism is actually only a projection of our perceptual biases. Thus lying, cheating and stealing may be evil for a West Point cadet, within the confines of West Point, but it is encouraged by the society he will be tasked with defending as the highest expression of its capitalist virtues, and lying, cheating and stealing will be encouraged as good and merciful and just when exercised in the defense of the capitalist society whose values the cadet purportedly eschews.
In the universe of nature, all that is good is that which enhances survivability. Bad is that which impairs survivability. The relevant perspective from which to gauge the value, good or bad, of any action is at the level of the reproducing gene. Thus, lying, cheating and stealing among Army officers is bad, as it impairs unit cohesion on the battlefield, endangering the long-term survivability of the genes carried by the soldiers in the unit that is defeated because its leaders are liars, cheaters or thieves. But for the U’s football program, lying, cheating and stealing relative to its or the NCAA’s moral code may be just the ticket to ensure the athletes and coaches involved are competitive, thereby enhancing the prospects for survival and propagation of their genes.
The human animal is a giddy and ironic one. The very same people who proclaim the highest respect for the moral virtues of West Point cadets also are capitalism’s most vociferous defenders. Regardless of their admiration for the heroic West Point cadets and their code of conduct, there are no moral absolutes; there is nothing that is the morally correct thing to do no matter the situation. The question always resolves to survival. A thing is good, if in the premises, it enhances survivability, and bad if it doesn’t. The trickier moral question is the level of organization at which survival is to be judged. Is the collection of cells cooperating within a human body to see its genes to the next generation the relevant organization? Or is it at the level of human society in which individuals engage for their own selfish survival and propagation imperatives? In the case of an Army fighting unit on the battlefield, the individuals and the unit live and die more or less together; so long as the individuals unselfishly cooperate, all might survive, so there is less compulsion to lie, cheat or steal, or accept those that do. In the case of a collegiate athletic program, cooperation is not so drastically important. And therein lies the difference in moral codes between the apple of West Point and the orange of the U.