World Peace and the Difficulty of Virtues

I don’t want to pile on with commentary about Metta World Peace’s hit on James Harden this past weekend. It has already, as Bomani Jones at put it, hijacked news on a big sports news weekend. Two things, I think, bear noting in a blog on technology ethics.

1) People frequently act out of habit. We learn some way of acting, or talking, or responding. The we repeat it over years, and it becomes a part of us. That’s what the ideas of virtue and vice is all about. Vices (like lying, cheating, and stealing) are bad habits, habits that help us act poorly toward others, and in the process, make us less human. Virtues, on the other hand, are good habits that help us act well toward others, and in the process, help make us more fully human, more fully perfected. Classics here are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.

The trick with virtues and vices are that they are powerful. They take a while to form, and once formed, they are often hard to change. Ask anyone who has tried to diet or quit smoking. Part of the reason they are so powerful is that they are habitual ways of acting and responding, so we often act out of them before we even know what we are doing.

It seems to me that what happened on Sunday with Metta World Peace shows exactly how powerful vices are. Here’s a guy who grew up around violence and has, over the years, repeatedly demonstrated the vice of anger. He’s a guy who was suspended twice in the last six years for elbowing people. Wrecked a t.v. camera after a loss in 2003. And then there’s the bit where he went into the crowd to slug a guy in Indiana after being hit with a beer. That led to the longest penalty in NBA history.

But over the last couple of years, he seems to have changed. As Mark Medina at the LA Times put it,

World Peace is in most cases a good person and doesn’t fit the image he once had in large part because of his involvement in one of the darkest moments in NBA history….Since then, World Peace earned the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award last year for his efforts raising money for mental health charities, including raffling off his 2010 NBA championship ring. He famously thanked his psychologist for helping him control his emotions following Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. And covering him for the past 2 1/2 seasons, World Peace (and Ron Artest) has proved to be a genuinely nice human being who makes people laugh with his goofy antics along the way.

That all may be, but it seems that old habits die hard, even when you try hard to change them. Anger, to use the categories laid out by Aquinas, is a problem in one’s passions. It is engaging in passion and emotional energy in a way that is beyond what is warranted. Aquinas suggests that anger can be praiseworthy–what he calls “zealous anger”, what we might call “righteous anger”. It is ok to be filled with passion when confronting injustice and wrongdoing. But it must always remain measured and aim at restitution in accord with reason. If anger goes beyond setting things straight, it is vicious.

A guy who throws a beer at a player definitely deserves a punishment. Ejection and a fine make sense. A beatdown does not. (Even if the guy Artest beat had thrown the beer.) Likewise, being down in a playoff game is reason to be frustrated, even angry. Take the passion to the court; that is appropriate. But assaulting a player on the opposing team goes way beyond the reasonable.

The point that Medina confuses—from the standpoint of moral theory—is thinking that acting well in one area of one’s life will help across the board. Or to put it more pointedly, an increase in the habit of charity does not necessarily decrease the habit of going to far with passions like anger. World Peace has been working on his emotions, and that is a laudable start on the anger issue. But anger is not just emotions. Until he figures out how to eradicate the habits of physical violence, he’s in for a long, long haul.

2) In the afor-linked column, Bomani Jones made a good observation about the endless repetition of the slow motion video of the hit on television and online. As he put it:

There was nothing to clarify, nor was there any true mystery as to what happened. … All repeated viewing of slow-motion replays did in Sunday’s game was foment the visceral reaction many had to seeing what Artest did. It didn’t point out anything new. It just made what we already saw seem worse in a way, and there was no chance the replays would ever make it look better. This happens often in moments like these in sports, and it’s what kids on the Internet call “trolling.”

Trolling just makes people mad. It brings out the worst in people because it incites anger. It encourages people to respond in ways that go beyond a reasonably measured response. And most people know how to deal with the situation: don’t feed the trolls.

But when the trolls come in the form of news video, they are hard to ignore. When the footage is so stark, it is hard to turn away. In Jones’ view, it makes people angry. Perhaps it plays into a virtue, or perhaps a vice.

I remember being sick and home from school on the day that President Reagan was shot. Of course, I had the tv on. And, wow, I saw that video so many times. So many. It didn’t hit me in the anger zone, though. For me, it was more about the vice of despair, which is contrary to hope. It made me sad and disgusted to see how senseless people can be. But then again, that’s a vice that I’ve not always been able shake.

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