WHAT WILT CHAMBERLAIN COULD SHOW ARISTOTLE, Part One
David O'Connor

I wrote this paper about Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Aristotle a number of years ago. After the death of Walt in October 1999, Tom Morris asked me to share it with visitors to the Morris Institute website. I dedicate it to Wilt Chamberlain's memory. D.O'C.

A burning moral issue of my youth was whether Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell was the better basketball player. No mere theoretical squabble, this question made a real difference in what standards my friends and I set for ourselves and what ideals we tried to live up to, especially but not exclusively in athletics. Supporters of Chamberlain pointed to his greater ability to dominate a game by himself, especially on offense. They also pointed out that he generally carried a heavier responsibility for his team's success than Russell, since he was always the focus of the action, whereas Russell had better teammates who could contribute more on their own. Partisans of Russell claimed it was no fault of his that he played on better teams than Chamberlain; surely this is part of what shows he was a better player. And besides the fact that his teams were more successful than Chamberlain's, Russell's supporters went on, he was also a better team player, especially on defense. They would compare Russell's way of "making everyone around him a better player" with what they perceived as Chamberlain's selfish play, hogging the ball and generally stealing the spotlight.

There are serious moral issues at stake in these competing evaluations of human excellence in basketball. To some, the particular contexts in which these issues are embedded (e.g., is it or is it not selfish to take this particular shot in this particular situation?) might look rather trivial or childish compared to some stock cases in moral philosophy: Do I blow up the fat spelunker to escape the flooding cave? Do I turn the plunging trolley onto some youthful strangers to save my aging mother? Do I wantonly tread on my neighbor's gouty toes? I agree that these sound more "adultish" than the Chamberlain debate, but I doubt that they are more adult. The serious pursuit of athletic excellence is no place for babies. But more importantly, the basketball case raises a set of moral issues quite different from the stock cases, which all focus in one way or another on egoism and its proper limitation by altruism. The Chamberlain debate focuses on a different tension in our moral lives. Here the clash is between two accounts of (basketball) excellence, two visions of the ideal player. The Chamberlain ideal of the dominator emphasizes self-sufficiency and the capacity to bear the brunt of responsibility for team success; the Russell ideal of the team player focuses on shaping one's talents to one's teammates and on the capacity to improve their level of play. Though from the Russell perspective the Chamberlain ideal is selfish, these two ideals are poorly contrasted as more and less egoistic. They focus on how we share with others in a common project, rather than on whether we consider others' interests in pursuing our own projects.

In this essay I want to explore the region of morality defined by the tension between the ideals of domination and teamwork, and to provide a map of it, or rather a preliminary traveler's report. It is a region not much explored today, so in section A I try to pinpoint its location by distinguishing domination from egoism. Then I move on in section B to a more detailed account of this region's geography. It is a fertile region, and I will concentrate more on pointing out some important issues than on deciding for one ideal over the other; we won't in the end discover whether Chamberlain or Russell was the better player.

I also want to suggest to the reader that this moral region is inhabited, and that it is perhaps more densely populated than the region defined by the tension between altruism and egoism. The clash between the ideals of domination and teamwork is not limited to basketball, or even to athletics. Some version of it can arise within any shared activity. For example, Aristotle's comparison of kingship and what he calls "political rule" (i.e., a system in which peers take turns ruling) shows him very much alive to the issues raised by the Chamberlain debate as they arise in the shared life of a polis. Closer to home, our everyday lives with our spouses and professional colleagues often require us to divide up the labor (and thus the opportunities for expressing and developing excellence) within some common enterprise. At least for the more talented parties to such common enterprises, this is more likely to involve balancing the demands of domination and teamwork than of egoism and altruism. Marriage and organizational life are important to many of us, yet they are strangely underrepresented in philosophical discussions of ethics. I believe my emphasis on domination and teamwork will give us a better theoretical grip on them than more familiar approaches emphasizing altruism.

A. Distinguishing Domination from Egoism

Imagine you are the coach of a professional basketball team with two especially troublesome players. Both are criticized by teammates and sportswriters for being "selfish," but the underlying causes of their selfishness are very different. Ed the Egoist is too worried about his own success for the team's good. He wants his contract to call for bonuses based on various kinds of individual statistics: minutes played, points scored, post-season inclusion on all-star teams, and the like. His conception of his own (basketball) excellence focuses on compiling these statistics, and the bankroll that goes with them. The result is that he has a rather detached attitude to the team's success, and grumbles about coaching decisions that take away from his numbers even when he realizes that they promote the team's efficiency.

In the most extreme case, Ed may be a pure egoist, in the sense that he is utterly indifferent to team success. But I think such pure egoists are rare in or out of athletics, since few people don't identify at all with the successes of the most important groups in which they live. Instead, Ed wants the team to win, but subordinates this goal too much to merely personal success. This shows itself partly in such crass ways as his shooting too much, or insisting on staying in the game when he should take a breather. But his egoism might also be displayed in more subtle ways. For example, he will be unhappy with a shift in your coaching strategy from high scoring games to lower scoring games, even if as a result the team is winning by larger margins. In general, his conception of how the team should be run is tainted because he does not identify sufficiently with team success. The other players on your team think that Ed is selfish, always looking out for number one.

Your second problem player is Don the Dominator. Don is an extremely gifted athlete, easily the best on the team. He is passionately committed to team goals, and he wants his contract to reflect this: his bonuses are for things like total wins and success in the playoffs rather than personal statistics. Unlike Ed, he receives precious little consolation from having a big night when the team loses. His conception of himself as an excellent basketball player depends to a large extent on how much he contributes to the team's success. Of course he does not identify completely with the team's success, any more than Ed is completely indifferent to it; he takes some consolation in a big night during a loss, just not very much.

In light of his relatively strong identification with team goals rather than merely personal ones, Don is clearly not excessively egoistic in the way Ed is. How then can he be called selfish? His problem is that he expects to be the focus of his team's play, to dominate the action. Don is used to being the star, and he expects the team to be built around him and his talents. Unlike Ed, he doesn't care much about whether you coach a high or low scoring style of play, as long as he is at the heart of things. He insists on being what sportscasters like to call the "go-to man" when the game is in the balance. Sometimes you as a coach are relieved to have someone who wants to bear this responsibility; but other times your star's domination can upset the rest of the team. Don takes opportunities to excel away from the other players, and even if they realize he has the team's success at heart, they can still be irritated by being second bananas. His very excellence can be disruptive to the team's chemistry. When his teammates criticize him for being selfish, they have in mind the way he seems to hog the ball and the spotlight, forcing them to adapt to him much more than the other way around.

Both of your problem players, then, offend their teammates with their selfishness, but their offenses are different. Ed the Egoist is (relatively) indifferent to them and their goals, while Don the Dominator impedes their participation in achieving those goals, even though he is very much committed to them himself. Sometimes both sorts of selfishness will produce the same behavior (for example, shooting too often), but they still have distinct underlying psychological causes. In light of this difference, you as a coach will not be able to cure or mitigate the selfishness of Ed and Don, and so make them better basketball players, with the same treatment. Your cure must fit their distinct diseases.

With Ed, you might first try to enliven his rather anemic empathetic sentiments so that he identifies more with team success. This would change Ed's egoistic conception of his own success and excellence in basketball. But even if you can't correct the root cause directly in this way, you can try to harness his egoistic desires more effectively. For example, you might rewrite his contract to give bonuses for assists rather than points, or simply eliminate all personal incentives in favor of team goals like those in Don the Dominator's contract. This would give Ed egoistic reasons to "accept his role on the team," as people say. He would still not be cured of his anemic identification with the team, but at least the symptoms of selfish play could be alleviated. Even so, Ed would do no more than simulate Don's sincere commitment to team success. Rather than seeing himself engaged in a truly common enterprise with his teammates, Ed sees them as vehicles for his own success. He understands his relationship to them as a kind of symbiosis or mutual parasitism rather than as a partnership in a shared pursuit. His teammates may realize this and still think that Ed is selfish, but at least his egoism won't be disruptive anymore.

Don's selfishness requires another approach. He already identifies strongly with team goals, so there is no need to get him to conceive of his own excellence in a less personal, detached way. You are not interested primarily in making your dominator identify with or respect the independent desires and aspirations of other people, even of that particular group of other people consisting of his teammates. As Don's coach, you do need to teach him to open up more opportunities for his teammates to excel and contribute to team success. But it would be a blunder to appeal to Don's altruism here. You don't want to treat Don like a grade school boy, telling him to "give the others a chance to play," or asking him, "How would you like it if someone else dominated the game when you wanted to contribute more?" This is too much like asking him to hide his bright lamp under a basket to let the other dim bulbs shine. The point is not for Don to let his teammates have their turns, as if a basketball game were a series of solos and Don stayed on stage too long, cutting down on the time the others had to perform. The game is more like a choral performance, with Don the strong voiced singer who hasn't learned yet to blend in properly, spoiling the overall effect by sticking out too much. You need to teach Don to exercise his basketball excellence in a more harmonious way, one that fits him more effectively into a partnership with his teammates and their talents.

You might do this by focusing Don on parts of his game that his current dominating style of play does not draw on. For example, you could work with him on finding the open man in situations where he now forces up a difficult shot. You can help him appreciate the specific kind of excellence required for this sensitivity to his teammates and their position on the floor; you might emphasize how rare this sensitivity is, and hold up for his emulation great masters of these skills, like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. He can learn to take as much pride in this aspect of basketball excellence as he formerly took in shooting well. He need not at all conceive himself to be sacrificing or limiting his own opportunities for his teammates in this change, for he has also changed the conception of basketball excellence by which he measures himself. Don will be pleased if his new style of play makes the team better, to be sure; but more importantly, you have also convinced him that he will be a more excellent basketball player by developing this more team oriented aspect of his game. In a sense, then, his game has become less selfish, and he shares the spotlight with his teammates more than he once did. But your educative role as Don's coach has not been to awaken altruism where once there was only egoism. You have done something more like changing his taste from concertos (with himself playing the lead, of course) to symphonies (where he enjoys his very ability to blend in).

The distinction between these two kinds of selfishness we see in the basketball case can arise in any common enterprise. We will distort the moral phenomena if we interpret every kind of selfishness as a symptom of egoism. In general, there is a great difference between being ignored by an egoist and eclipsed by a dominator. Egoists simply fail to care much about what you care about, and what they care about comes first. But dominators care, perhaps very much, about something you care about, and you and the dominators are involved in common enterprises to achieve these shared goals. The problem is that they take on so many of the burdens and responsibilities of these enterprises that you start to feel like a fifth wheel, so that you resent the way they stop you from exercising your own excellences. This kind of selfishness is poorly captured by the egoism/altruism dichotomy, and its cure requires a different strategy from the cure of egoism. Unlike the egoist, the dominator already looks to exercise his or her excellence beyond the confines of mere personal advantage, in the context of partnership. But this very excellence grates on the other partners because it pushes them out of the heart of the enterprise. Dominators are cured primarily by learning new ways to exercise their talents, ways that are more team oriented or synergistic. Their aspirations to excellence need not be curtailed or limited like the selfish desires of an egoist, but redirected and transformed by a more collegial ideal.

For a continuation of our examination, please click on "Wilt and Aristotle, Part 2."

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