As the Rio Summer Olympics approach, the subject of sport, excellence, and cheating returns to the fore. With it comes discussion of what cheating in sport is and why it is bad, or not.
A recent post in FastCompany makes an argument that cheating in politics or business is bad because there is more at stake than cheating in other spheres, e.g., sport. All these activities are governed by rules but, since the rules of sport are arbitrary, cheating on them is merely a formal issue. In politics or business, however, the rules are there to promote human thriving or flourishing, so violating them is more fundamentally wrong.
I think that this argument is somewhat flawed. To explain, consider the concept of a game given by Bernie Suits (a former professor of Philosophy here at UWaterloo):
To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].
For example, the 100m dash aims to achieve the crossing of the finish line ahead of the other competitors [prelusory goal] using only a launch from starting blocks and running down a 100m lane in a track [lusory means], where the rules prohibit the use of more efficient means, e.g., a motorcycle, [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted because they make a sprinting sport possible [lusory attitude].
Suits' account supports the view that the rules of a game (or sport) are arbitrary—that is, they are just whatever people agree that they are.
I have to differ on this point. Ideally, sports exist for the development and display of human excellence, including individual fitness and pro-social behavior. The 100m dash is a good example and one of the most ancient sport types around. Running fast has always been an important skill for people to have. People who do it well are admirable, at least to that extent.
Team sports exhibit the pro-social aspect of sport more clearly. A volleyball team, for example, must communicate and cooperate well in order to compete. Those skills are also important to the proper functioning of any society, e.g., in business and politics.
We can imagine having an Olympic coin flipping event. However, flipping a coin does not exhibit human fitness nor does it feature pro-social skills.
So, I differ with the argument that cheating in business and politics differs from cheating in sport in the sense that the former are not "just a game" unlike the latter. Ideally, all involve the pursuit of human excellence. Their differences lie elsewhere.
As the Olympics progress, we will no doubt have further occasion to consider the broader significance of sport and cheating in sport.