I’ve found that I’m more skeptical than average about whether the deliverances of political institutions carry some sort of moral authority. It no longer surprises me that much when people disagree with me about this. It still surprises me a little when people take the side of the rules of institutions in which they have no stake at all.
The latest case is about Russian Olympic skater Kamila Valieva, who tested positive for a banned drug but is still being allowed to compete this week. Lots of people find this egregious. NBC’s announcers were so incensed that they declined to comment on her short program.
The general feeling seems to be that it’s unfair for Valieva to skate, given her failed drug test. Letting her compete upends the “level playing field,” thereby compromising “the integrity of the sport.”
I’ve been exercised before about how I think rules are overrated. Here I want to make two more points. First, rules aren’t always connected to fairness. Second, fairness isn’t always the most important thing.
Consider five ways that rules and fairness can come apart:
(1) There may not be good reasons supporting rules. Just because there are rules, it doesn’t mean they’re the right rules. I don’t work for the IOC, so why do I care about what rules they happen to have? Remember the runner who got banned from the Olympics for using marijuana? That doesn’t make sense, right? It’s not as though smoking marijuana improves one’s sprinting. There’s no issue of fairness here. Some journalists have made the entirely fair point that “if you cared about the ‘rules’ with Sha’Carri Richardson and weed, make sure you still care about them with Kamila Valieva and trimetazidine.” I would just add that we can put the point the other way, too. If you were against the rules then, I invite you to side against them now, as well.
(2) Even if there are good reasons for rules, those reasons may not be based on considerations of fairness. Sometimes it does make sense to have a rule, but it’s not because violating the rule would give a competitor an unfair advantage. It might be that there are other reasons to constitute the game in some ways rather than others. I’ve heard differing explanations about why the drug in question – trimetazidine – is banned. Some experts seemed puzzled why one would be motivated to take it at all in pursuit of an advantage.
(3) Even if there are good, fairness-based reasons supporting rules, the underlying value may not be implicated by the case at hand. Maybe it’s true that in most cases, taking the drug would confer an advantage by enhancing heart performance and increasing endurance. But it seems like there is reason to doubt this holds for Valieva, a 15 year old and a high level athlete. As an NPR explainer observes, “certainly for an elite athlete, this may not make much of a difference.”
(4) Even if there are good, fairness-based reasons supporting rules that are implicated in the case at hand, some penalties might still make things less rather than more fair. The IOC’s take, which has really been getting worked over, strikes me as completely reasonable. It might both be true that there is a reason for the rule, that the reason is based on fairness, and also that enforcing the rule by banning Valieva would be more unfair. Set aside all this debate about how she’s a protected person and how best to protect her. Suppose we are running a race and you step slightly out-of-bounds, shortening the distance between you and the finish line by – say – 3 inches. That's unfair. But suppose also that you beat me by twenty yards. I guess I could tsk tsk you about the misstep, but that seems like poor sportsmanship. My point here is that these issues will depend on local facts to the activity in question. Admittedly, I know nothing about professional skating. I’m just saying that we would need to know more about how the rules work – not just the facts about what the rules say.
(5) Fairness might just be outweighed by other considerations. Remember when Michael Jordan, in the last seconds of his last game playing for Chicago, pushed off of Byron Russell to hit the game winning shot for a sixth championship? In Utah, people still remember. Anyway, my understanding of the basketball consensus on this point is that Jordan did in fact foul Russell, but also that no NBA referee would call the foul. Why not? Well, to have the greatest player in the world in the moment of his greatest achievement – and then to intervene to settle things with a rules violation – that doesn’t seem right. In other words, it might not have been fair that Jordan got the call, but fairness wasn’t the most important value in the moment. I’m not saying that morality doesn’t trump; rather, maybe morality isn’t really the issue in these cases. Russell himself was philosophical in his reflections on the moment. “Why have somebody that works that hard against you? Why not have him with you?” Russell asks. “It doesn’t matter,” he says.