Injuries, Future Selves, and the Difficulty of Goodness

I had an interesting conversation with a student today. She runs tracks but had been injured for a good chunk of the semester. I asked her how her foot was doing and she said it was okay now although it still hurt. Moreover, she thought there might be some more serious damage to the bone. After she went into some detail as to why, she said she would see someone after the season. When I asked why not now, she said she can walk and run without too much pain at the moment, so she’ll compete and wait to get things looked at later. Even though she knew she was risking further and possibly permanent damage, she had made the decision–with the apparent sign-off her training staff–to compete in the last two track meets.

What struck me as interesting here, from a sports ethics perspective, is the difficult balancing of interests in cases like this. The trainers and coaches have an interest in her competing now. They also have an interest in protecting her for future meets in seasons to come. And, of course, they have an interest (obligation?) in protecting her in the here and now from doing this further damage.

She has these same interests and obligations to herself. She has an interest in competing now and in the future. She ought to be taking care of herself in the here and now as well.

I don’t have any deep insight into what (if any) of these interests ought to be decisive. Inclined towards a kind of Aristotelian virtue ethics of some sort, I veer towards individual phronesis (practical wisdom) to weigh these different interests and obligations ought for the individual in her circumstances given her goals in life. That said, an 18 or 19 year old is still developing phronesis and needs the help of those more experienced and more wise than she from whom she can learn. And as members of an academic institution, her coaches and trainers have an obligation to help her develop this phronesis (that is, in theory,part of their central purpose at the institution).

Although the question of what she really ought to do is an important one, I am not going to explore it here. There are two more comments that I want to make.

First: One of the tensions is the interests of the person today: she wants to compete now; and the interests of the person down the road: when she is 30, 40 years old, how will this decision affect her. This kind of issue comes up all the time. Most people, in my experience, tend to think that the future person has a kind of trump. That is, let’s say she does some permanent damage to her foot that makes it more likely that she have early arthritic pain in her foot. Not so much that she is incapacitated, but enough that it is a regular feature of her experience. Most people seem to want to say that she was wrong or foolish to take this risk because of this future damage. Similar cases abound from issues like concussions and other injuries in sport. Since the future person is going to experience pain and some level of damage in the future, the present person ought not to engage in that behavior. “You’ll regret it later” we say.

I am skeptical that this is universally true. That is, I am not convinced there is a good argument for why we ought always to privilege the interests and concerns of our future selves. Certainly in many cases we should—that’s a big part of learning how to be a rational adult. But always? That I am not so sure about. Is it true that an athlete engaging in risky sporting activities today at the expensive of his or her future self is always in the wrong? If it is not, then this seems to cast doubt on many of the arguments against dangerous and risky sport.

Second: This case, and ones like it, highlight just how complicated things in ethics (and life) really are. This is not some acquiescence to what Ayn Rand called the cult of moral grayness.  It is to point out that even in a single case where everyone, let’s presume, is trying to do what is best and right, it is not easy or obvious to know what to do; let alone actually follow through and do it. As Aristotle said: “it is no easy task to be good”.

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Filed under athletes, coaching, Sports Ethics, virtue

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