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Hume, Hobbes, and the World Cup

Date:13 July 2018
Author:Alexandra Chadwick
David Hume by Allan Ramsay (plus football)
David Hume by Allan Ramsay (plus football)

As a member of a Dutch university, perhaps I shouldn’t talk about the World Cup. But as a (casual) supporter of the English football team, I’ve been talking about it far more than I expected. England, of course, are out of the competition. Football is not coming home as a thousand headlines and social media posts have (rather predictably) put it. But the consensus – and, strangely for the country at this time, there does appear to be something of a consensus – is that the team are winners anyway, having restored some pride and hope to the English national side. Turning a loss into a victory is not unusual over in the UK these days. In June last year, when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party lost the General Election, gaining 262 seats to the Conservatives’ 317, the result was deemed a fantastic success for Labour, with Corbyn hailed as a hero and worthy of his own football chant-like anthem. But I am not here to muse vaguely on national psyches, I’m here to talk about Hume and Hobbes (bear with me).

A striking feature, it seems to me, of the coverage of the England team during the tournament, and in the aftermath of the loss against Croatia on Wednesday night (11.07.2018), is the high degree of agreement in the left and right wing British press about why exactly this team deserves praise. And even more surprisingly, this agreement appears to be mirrored in many below the line comments too (currently, at least: things change fast online). Two aspects in particular stand out for applause. One, the empathy and magnanimity displayed by England manager, Gareth Southgate, pictured hugging and consoling the Columbian midfielder  whose missed penalty lost Columbia a place in the quarter finals. The second, that the players responded with dignity and restraint to insults and injury on the pitch, refusing to rise to provocation from opponents. Whether this was actually always the case is not really the point here. Neither would it matter if Southgate was really taking the opportunity of the hug to whisper in Mateus Uribe’s ear, ‘What a loser, soon you’ll be doing Pizza Hut adverts with a paper bag over your head'. What matters, I think, is the response shared by so many of those watching. The sentiment of praise felt for what was seen as fair and kind treatment, and the sentiment of disapprobation felt at instances of petty or vicious behaviour. In the actions of the footballers we seem to have instances of behavior which, in Hume’s famous metaphor, ‘move some universal principle of the human frame, and touch a string, to which all mankind have an accord and sympathy’ (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, section 9 ).

Indeed, the kinds of behaviour Hume identifies as giving rise to sentiments of approbation seem to fit quite well with the kinds of behaviour the team and their manager have been praised for. Hume himself illustrates his argument by using the fictional example of a man called Cleanthes. Imagine your daughter is going to marry this man, he says. You’re glad, because you think he’s a good man, and you think he’s a good man because you feel the sentiment of praise at qualities he possesses, qualities which Hume classifies into four categories.

First, Cleanthes possesses ‘qualities useful to others’, such as ‘honour and humanity’, and ‘fairand kindtreatment’. (See Southgate hugging Uribe, and comforting his own disappointed players on Wednesday night.) Next, Cleanthes possesses qualities useful to himself, such as an ‘assiduous application’ to his work. (Think of the praise for the hard work and dedication of the young team.) He also possesses qualities ‘immediately agreeable to the person himself’ such as ‘tranquillity’ and ‘greatness of mind’. (The ability to rise above resentment and take the high ground, rather than dissolving into petty squabbles on the pitch.) The qualities listed under the final category are perhaps less easily relatable to footballers: Hume writes of ‘qualities immediately agreeable to others’, and under this heading puts ‘wit’ and the ability to be ‘the life and soul’ of conversation. If anything, the stereotypical lack of such qualities in a football player is a source of affectionate mockery. Though ‘good manners’ and ‘cheerfulness’ can perhaps be applied.

Now, there are certainly many objections to be raised to what might seem to be my sentimental (in the pejorative sense) response to a game of football. One of these we can find in Thomas Hobbes, who was extremely alert to the extent to which human beings differ in what they deem to be praise or blameworthy, and of the consequent difficulties of forming moral consensus:

      Good, and Evill, are names that signifie our Appetites, and Aversions; which in different tempers, customes, and doctrines   of men, are different…Nay,the same man, in divers times, differs from himselfe; and one time praiseth, that is, calleth Good, what another time he dispraiseth, and calleth Evil: From whence arise Disputes, Controversies, and at last War ( Leviathan, Ch.15 ).

Another is suggested by Hume’s somewhat jarring description (to many modern ears) of Cleanthes as a man to whom you are happy to have ‘given your daughter’. The football players are all young, rich, men, at the top of their game. Would so many people be so eager to attribute praiseworthy qualities to less powerful people? Perhaps in different, less fortunate, circumstances, the players might have found life took a different turn, and been subject to public opprobrium as, for example, work-shy ‘benefit scroungers’.  No doubt the kinds of qualities that are praised are more easily and frequently attached to those who are more fortunate, or who fit more easily the model of a dominant group. (Think, for example, of how the ‘hard-working’ entrepreneur is lauded, yet some research has suggested that one of the factors contributing to entrepreneurship is having a rich family ).

Further, while widespread approval of a quality such as ‘greatness of mind’ might help public discussion by encouraging calm tempers and respect for those of opposing views, it can also be used to stifle political debate. Think of the arguments against ‘Remoaners’ (those who oppose the UK leaving the EU) who are told they are 'bad losers'  who should be magnanimous in defeat and voice no further opposition.)

Hobbes was particularly aware of the potential for moral terminology to be defined according to political ends. One of the problems with deliberation in democracies, he argues, is that eloquent orators will try to ‘make the Good and the bad, the useful and the useless, the Honourable and the dishonorable appear greater or less than they really are, and to make the unjust appear Just, as may seem to suit the speaker’s purpose’ (De cive, X.11).  

Yet despite these significant arguments, it seems important not to lose sight of Hume’s claims by focusing solely on the difference and disagreement so strongly emphasised by Hobbes, dismissing entirely the significance of small moments of consensus and shared emotions. Yes, international football is not exactly an arena free of corruption. Yes, the footballers are powerful men, but it's surely good to see them applauded for giving each other hugs and shunning aggression and violence. And, I know, it’s just a game. But when we seem daily to be confronted by heartbreaking examples of inhumanity and cruelty, when the childishness and petulance of world leaders goes unchecked, it’s nice to be reminded that Doreen from Wisbech,* ardent Brexiteer, who decks out her house in St George’s flags, and Helena from Islington, adamant Remainer, who can’t leave the house without checking her privilege, share some fundamental moral sentiments.

*(Or insert your own lazy stereotypes here. I have not been long enough in the Netherlands to be able to translate these to a Dutch context.)



About the author

Alexandra Chadwick


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