Worst behavior: Woody or Tressel?
Ohio State philosophy department chairman Don Hubin dissects the two most infamous Ohio State scandals.
Woody Hayes. File photo
Spectacular mistakes forced both Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel to leave Ohio State in shame, but which behavior was worse—punching a player on the football field (Woody) or covering up player misdeeds and lying to his bosses (Tressel)? An impulsive act of violence or calculated deceit?
This question is beyond our pay grade, so Columbus Monthly contacted Don Hubin, chairman of the Ohio State philosophy department, in search of an answer. If you want a snappy sound bite, you probably shouldn’t e-mail a philosopher. Here is Hubin’s thoughtful response:
“The question of which behavior is worse—that which resulted in Woody Hayes’ firing or that which resulted in Jim Tressel’s resigning—seems to me a bit like asking who is a greater creative genius: Shakespeare or Monet. They are both undoubtedly creative geniuses, but the forms that their creative genius take are very different. Similarly, both Woody Hayes’ striking out at a player on an opposing team and Jim Tressel’s conscious failure to report infractions he is required to report are wrong, but they are very different kinds of wrongs. This makes them hard to compare in terms of the severity of wrongness.
“We can say more about how the two behaviors are different. The philosopher David Hume distinguished between natural and artificial virtues and vices. Artificial virtues and vices aren’t fake; they’re real virtues and vices, but they are ones that can’t be understood apart from cultural institutions or practices. Translating this distinction into talk of duties, we can distinguish between natural duties and artificial duties. Striking out in anger at an innocent person violates a natural duty. One needn’t understand social conventions or institutional rules to understand the wrongness of such an action. Failure to report violations of NCAA rules is a model of a violation of an artificial duty; the wrongness of this action can’t be understood apart from understanding the nature of the institution of college athletics and the reasons for the rules in question.
“People probably react more emotionally to typical violations of natural duties than they do to violations of artificial duties. A direct assault on a person is more vividly wrong to most of us than some violation of arcane institutional rules, even if it causes less harm. But the vividness with which we perceive the wrongness can be misleading. A scientist who intentionally misreports the results of critical medical research in order to further his career may engage in a much greater wrong than a bully who beats up a fellow student—even though the wrongness may not be as vivid to us.
“As this example shows, the fact that wrongs are of very different kinds doesn’t preclude comparing the severity of the wrongs. But, with respect to the specific case of the behaviors of Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel, I think the significant differences in the kinds of wrongs each committed make it very difficult to compare, in any very illuminating way, the magnitude of the wrongs.”