B. Star Morals: Domination versus Teamwork

So far, in part one of this examination, we have focused on domination only where it is clearly misplaced and selfish, to bring out the contrast with egoism. Such selfish domination can be cured by getting the dominator to aspire to excellence of a more team oriented kind. But is the ideal of teamwork always to be preferred to the ideal of domination? There is something impressive about the leadership and independence of a dominating athlete that makes it hard to think the answer is "Yes." The very existence of a prolonged and spirited debate about the relative excellence of Chamberlain and Russell shows there is more than one side to the issue. It is hard to find, or even invent, an analogous debate between partisans of egoism and altruism. The solitary egoist, caring nothing for anyone but himself, simply does not fire our imaginations; but the dominating leader who bears every burden and is always in charge, at the heart of the action, can attract us and give us something to aspire to. We can find domination inspiring, but egoism merely tempting.

When should someone of outstanding talent develop the excellences of domination rather than teamwork? Once again, we can get clearer on the issues if we look at things from the teaching perspective of a coach. Suppose you are coaching a basketball team of grade school boys. One of your players has far more natural talent than the other players. He is taller, jumps higher, runs faster, has quicker reflexes, and also possesses outstanding skills specific to basketball, such as dribbling, passing, and shooting. You have a difficult choice between building the team around him and letting him dominate or making him fit into a more team oriented style of play where he is not the focus of the action.

At this low level of competition, your team is quite likely to win more games if you subordinate everyone else on the team to this one player. Let him rebound, drive the length of the court, and fire away whenever he can, and you will score more often than if he passes to his less skilled teammates and tries to stay within the confines of a team offense. If your primary goal as a coach is to organize the team to win as many games as it can, this is the strategy you will adopt. You will develop in your star those aspects of his game that are especially important for a dominator. But you may well be uncomfortable with this if the price of winning more grade school games is that you stunt the basketball development of your best player. You may decide instead to train him in the more team oriented kinds of excellence, even if this will make the team less successful, in order to make him a better player.

Your star's inept teammates may not be able to exploit his team oriented excellences very well; for example, they may fumble his artistic passes or fail to take advantage of the picks he sets for their shots. But you may be looking ahead to his high school career and beyond, when his teammates will be better able to appreciate and utilize the excellences you are developing in him now. At these higher levels of competition, with more talented teammates and opponents, your star would be at a disadvantage if you had let him be a dominator rather than a team player back in grade school. It is precisely with a view to this higher level that you can judge that you are making him a better player, training him in a higher degree of basketball excellence, by focusing on team oriented rather than dominating excellences. You congratulate yourself on having the boy's long term interests at heart as you help him live up to the ideal of Bill Russell rather than Wilt Chamberlain.

But what if your star is a real star? Suppose, for example, he is a boy like Wilt Chamberlain. Now there is no level of competition so high that this athlete will not be able to dominate. Even in the rarified world of professional basketball, he will be capable of, say, scoring 100 points in a single game or averaging 50 points per game over a season. (Wilt Chamberlain actually accomplished both of these feats during the 1961-62 NBA season.). So no matter how far you look ahead, you see that this athlete will always contribute most efficiently to his team's success when the team is built around him, and the style of play of his teammates adapted to him. The basis for your judgment in the previous case that you were making your star a better basketball player (even if you were making your grade school team worse) by emphasizing the excellence of a team player rather than a dominator is now gone. Can you still congratulate yourself if you get your star to model himself on Bill Russell rather than Wilt Chamberlain? Once we remove the possibility that the dominator will harm his team with selfishness, can we still prefer the team player?

This is the situation that brings out most clearly the tension between the ideals of domination and teamwork. Even here, many basketball fans (especially coaches, I suspect) will prefer the excellence of the team player. They will feel that the skills required for adapting to one's teammates and responding to them effectively represent the highest, most refined level of achievement in basketball, even if the dominator's coarser talents can bring team success. By considering some of the reasons behind this preference, we can get a much more detailed picture of how these ideals emphasize different aspects of human excellence, and be better able to see the more general significance of the moral problems raised by the tension between them.

I will consider three different kinds of reason that might be given to prefer the Russell ideal, along with the responses a Chamberlain supporter could make. First, Russellites could argue that the dominator is acceptable only when circumstances are inferior in some way, proving that in the best circumstances the team player is preferable. Second, they could focus on the greater flexibility and adaptability of the ideal team player compared to the ideal dominator. Lastly, players striving to live up to the Russell ideal have an effect on their teammates different from and perhaps better than those modeling themselves after Chamberlain. Again, all of these issues are clearly not limited to basketball, and have some application in any common enterprise; but the basketball case provides an especially clear illustration of them.

i. Does domination rest on imperfection?

Recall how you justified coaching your grade school star in team oriented rather than dominating excellences: you looked beyond his actual level of competition toward a higher, future level where he would have more talented teammates and so be better as a team player than as a dominator. The Russell partisan could argue that we should extend this reasoning. Why not consider an ideal level of competition, with ideally talented teammates, rather than just future levels? If we want to understand the fullest flowering of basketball excellence, we must consider what it would be under the most favorable circumstances. Perhaps in real (i.e., imperfect and therefore distorting) life there sometimes arise circumstances where a star will in fact make his team more successful by dominating than by becoming a team player. But this, Russellites could argue, is only a second-best situation, a compromise, even if those circumstances can in rare cases be present even at the highest actual level of competition. The conditions that make domination appropriate obtain much more often as we move to lower levels of competition and perfection, evidence that the dominator is a creature of necessity, not the peak of full basketball development. The dominator, they could say, may do as well as he can under the conditions he is in; but he lacks the opportunity and the equipment for the highest exercise of excellence.

This general "idealist" position could be challenged in a number of ways by Chamberlainians. Their most radical response would deny altogether the relevance of idealized circumstances to the judgment of greater excellence. Let us, they might say, stick to the effectual truth of things rather than to imaginings. Many men have imagined teams and leagues that have never existed; but the way men play is so far from the way they could or should play that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his own failure rather than his success. For a star who strives always to be a good team player is sure to fail, since there are so many players who are not that good. The ideal case provides no meaningful standard or guidance; it is no more than a figment of the imagination. Real princes can't always be charming.

This response to "idealism" is nearly 500 years old, though no worse for the wear. But less radical responses are also possible, ones that challenge the specific idealization proposed by the Russellites rather than the relevance of any idealization. For example, Chamberlainians might argue that an idealization that makes things too easy will fail to illustrate the highest excellence. Thus they could reject the style of basketball of a star on the ideal team for demanding too little of the talents of the individual player. Individual excellence shows itself most clearly, they could argue, only when it overcomes difficult obstacles.

They might point for support to the way sports fantasies often set up extreme adversity to be overcome by the fantasist as hero: the clock is running out as you take a desperate final shot in the seventh game of the NBA Championship; you limp into the batter's box in the bottom of the ninth at the World Series; the pass rush breaks through as you look for a receiver in the Super Bowl. In all of these cases, the fantasy idealizes to the extreme case precisely to isolate the highest exercise of talent. Or to make an un-Aristotelian point in Aristotelian language, a star can sometimes have too much equipment for his happiness. "Wish not a man from England," says Shakespeare's Henry V to a subordinate who wishes for more troops before the climatic battle, "I would not lose so great an honor as one man more would share from me." This is not a wholesale rejection of the Russellite's idealism, for the Chamberlainian agrees to judge between the ideals of domination and teamwork from the perspective of an ideal case. But the issue of whether it is more appropriate to idealize to the best circumstances or to the most extreme circumstances in looking for the fullest expression of excellence must be fought out before we rank one ideal over the other.

ii. Is it better to be adaptable or immutable?

The second issue created by the tension between domination and teamwork concerns the way stars adapt to teammates. The ideal team player is characterized by a very refined sensitivity and responsiveness to the particular strengths and weaknesses of his teammates. Like a skilled member of a choral group, he exercises his talents in perfect harmony with his partners. Necessarily, then, the team player's style of play will adapt to his teammates, so that as they change, his play will change. He is a multipurpose chameleon, always blending in with his surroundings. This flexibility will show itself in a striking way if such a player is traded to a team quite different from his original one. He will be able "to fit in right away" and "find his niche" within the new style of play; he is just the player a coach might look for to turn a group of talented but young and selfish players into a cohesive team.

By contrast, the dominator is relatively immutable. He does not adapt his style to his teammates, they adapt to him. From game to game, his contribution to the team does not vary nearly as much as the team player's, either in style or quantity. He is and expects to be the focus of the team's strategy. In short, a dominating star is a rock, and you do not trade for him unless you can say, "You are my rock, and upon this rock I will build my team." He is always and everywhere the same.

Which reflects a higher ranking excellence, the self-sufficient immutability of the dominator or the responsive adaptability of the team player, the rock or the chameleon? Here again we have a basketball illustration of a more general clash of moral ideals. From the Russellite's perspective, the dominator's immutability is another aspect of his selfishness, since he makes others adapt to him rather than the other way around. But notice that immutability is opposed by adaptability, not by some form of altruism. The team player views the dominator's inflexibility as an impediment to self-expression, to the most refined exercise of excellence. A violinist who is a fine soloist but never learns or never gets the chance to play well in an ensemble might similarly be thought to fall short of the most accomplished musicianship. To be sure, this emphasis on responsiveness puts the team player more at the mercy of circumstance than the dominator, since he depends much more on the high quality of his teammates for the exercise of his talent. But the Russellite may argue that fragility does not detract from goodness here: the highest accomplishment may be possible only under the rarest conditions.

Of course, Chamberlainians will point to the dominator's greater self-sufficiency, or what we might call his sturdiness compared to the fragility of the opposing ideal, as a clear advantage for their ideal. They will also question whether there is anything selfish about the dominator. Imagine an entire team of team players without anyone who is at least something of a dominator. Such a team, they could argue, lacks something essential to the best teams, even if all the team players are extremely good: the team has no "go-to man," and so will lack the leadership required in certain situations. Its defect is somewhat analogous to that of a group made up entirely of pure altruists. The altruists need at least one first-order, egoistic desire to give them direction; otherwise they have no reason to act. The team of team players is not empty of motivation in this way, since they share a common goal of team success. But they are missing the focal star who can lead them to this goal. Their defect is not emptiness but timidity. Chamberlain's partisans will point out that coaches will often put up with a fair amount of blatant selfishness in a star just to be sure of having someone to take on this leadership role. These general issues of the relative value of fragility and sturdiness and of whether at least some domination is necessary for leadership must also be resolved before ranking one ideal over the other.

iii. How does the star's ideal affect his teammates?

Finally, the Russellite may claim that the team player is superior to the dominator because he "makes the players around him better." He has a synergistic effect, not only exercising his own virtue but raising the level of performance of his teammates. From this point of view, the dominator's effect on his teammates' excellence is baneful, taking away their opportunities and stunting their development. The only talent the dominator makes flower around him, the Russellites might say, is a knack for feeding tigers -- a knack not incompatible with occasionally being oneself the food.

From the perspective of the ideal of domination, however, this objection will not look persuasive. Conceding that the team player does in some sense "make those around him better," why should we think that the dominator makes them worse? Do not disparage the skill of properly subordinating oneself to a much better player, the Chamberlainians will say. It is not the highest excellence, but it is a respectable one. For the player who is not a star, why should it be more excellent to function in a "democratic" context with the team oriented star than in a "monarchical" context with the dominating star? No doubt the conditions under which athletic monarchy is legitimate are fairly rare; but when they are fulfilled, shouldn't the more ordinary player exclaim, "Long live the king!" and become a loyal subject? A coach who has a real dominator might well think that the less skilled teammates who demand equal opportunity are the selfish ones, not his star. The Chamberlain partisan could claim that the willingness and ability to subordinate oneself effectively to a dominating star is the Chamberlainian version of the adaptable responsiveness so prized by Russellites. Once again, this dispute raises issues of more general moral significance. But here the questions do not concern only the star (and the coach who is training him) choosing between the competing ideals of domination and teamwork. They also involve the player of more ordinary talent, forcing him to consider his proper relation to a teammate of truly outstanding excellence.

The two ideals, then, raise a number of sharp ethical issues about how we should evaluate success and excellence in shared activities. The dominator and the team player both have their attractions. And the way these stars shine in athletics illuminates more general ethical tensions that can arise within any common enterprise. What conditions justify domination of a group by a very talented leader? When these conditions prevail, does such a leader exercise his or her excellences more fully and successfully than he or she would under conditions more favorable to an egalitarian division of labor? Should a man or woman of outstanding talent cultivate the rock-like sturdiness that fits a star for being the cornerstone of a common enterprise, or pay more attention to developing the fragile and chameleon-like adaptability that draws out the talents of co-workers? How do we compare the excellence exercised in the ministerial services of the associates of a kingly dominator to the less subordinate excellence of the democratic associates of a team player?

This inquiry has been more interested in raising these questions than in answering them. I have tried to show how the debate between Chamberlain and Russell partisans reflects a more general tension between two ideals of human excellence, one emphasizing domination and self-sufficiency, the other teamwork and adaptability. This tension is not the same as the tension between egoism and altruism, and brings to light a different aspect of our moral lives, one well worth arguing about in its own right. Altruism is at home where we confront one another as independent sources of valuation, so that the issue is how to reconcile our competing valuations while respecting one another's independence. Some think the reconciliation should be mediated through principled impartiality, while others believe directly altruistic attitudes (e.g., sympathy) are more important. But either way, altruism is primarily a response to our detachment from one another, and the egoism/altruism dichotomy captures only those parts of our lives where we are fundamentally alien to those around us. The tension between domination and teamwork, on the other hand, arises precisely where we agree in our valuations. It has its home where we meet one another in a common enterprise rather than confront one another with competing projects. Of course, even within such a common enterprise there is much moral work to be done; the domination/teamwork dichotomy reflects some of the difficulties. But still this is a different job from the one altruism performs, and should be kept distinct.

The tension between domination and teamwork casts light on extremely important parts of our lives rather neglected in recent moral philosophy. Most of our everyday life does not take place with strangers whom we simply confront in their otherness. We live among those we know quite well, and much of our energy is devoted to pursuing some common enterprise with them. We disagree less about what to aim at than about how to divide the action. Our relations with our spouses and our professional colleagues, for example, demand more from our capacities for teamwork than for altruism, I believe. No doubt the shared goals of our marriages and departments are less clear and more complicated than the goals of an athletic team, and what it takes to be a star may be more controversial. But it is just the relative clarity and simplicity of the athletic case that makes it such a helpful illustration of the fundamental issues involved. We can all aspire to be stars, whether dominators or team players, if we stay close enough to home. For example, those of us who are professors can all play Wilt Chamberlain to our graduate students, farming out pieces of our own research projects for their dissertations. Or we can be a Bill Russell and try to adapt to their (sometimes modest) talents and interests, modeling ourselves after a different ideal of teaching. Something similar is true for anyone in a leadership position. Either way, we have some explaining to do; and I hope my discussion of the issues in basketball helps us to see more precisely what is at stake in our choices, and in our explanations.


Visit Tom's New Website and Blog!

EMAIL TOM HERE: TomVMorris(at)

The Morris Institute is based on the philosophical work of Tom Morris
and the Morris Institute Fellows, as they bring wisdom to life for people throughout the world.

2012 Morris Institute for Human Values, All rights reserved.