Is Basketball the Answer to Kant’s Ethics?
“Do you get what’s going on?”
This was a common phrase you’d hear as an undergraduate student in philosophy. Classes were exactly what you would expect. Professors would present information that students would barely understand. Eventually, we’d engage in a thorough discussion and come to understand it. However, there was one claim and one philosopher whose ideas have kept me up for many nights.
When I took a class on ethics, Immanuel Kant made a claim that he never fully explained in any of his books. He argued that people have duties to oneself. Commonly, duties are thought of as pointing a finger at someone else then telling that person to accomplish the task you assign them. So how can that be applied to one’s self? Does this mean we’re going to start pointing fingers not at others but at ourselves?
As all wonderful philosophers do, they always ask the questions and never provide the answers. A class on ethics is enticing because how we go about making decisions is based off of a system of morality and ethics. We generally know what is considered to be good and what is considered to be bad. So, it wouldn’t hurt for a class to tell us a little more about how to be a good person.
Many people have tried to find the answer to what Kant meant by duties to oneself. In his work, he mentioned that people have a duty to cultivate their talents in order to achieve their own goals. But this begs for so many questions. Which goals and talents? How many of them? When will I know that I achieved my goals?
However, the answer is much simpler than we thought. It doesn’t rely on busting through all of Kant’s literature. It also doesn’t involve taking every ethics class available. Instead, we can come to understand what Kant meant by having duties to oneself through the popular sport: basketball.
Now, you’re probably wondering… how does basketball and ethics come together? It begins with John Wooden, a revered basketball coach for UCLA. He was responsible for coaching the UCLA Bruins to 10 Division 1 NCAA championships in 12 years. It was under his coaching that the Bruins were able to win 7 championships in a row where no other school had won more than 4 in a row.
The connection between basketball and ethics starts with what resulted in the Bruin’s success: Wooden’s coaching philosophy. During his coaching career, Wooden developed his own doctrine called, “The Pyramid of Success.”
Under this doctrine, Wooden focused on making his players be at their absolute best by cultivating their talents inside and outside of basketball. He accomplished this by stressing three important values.
1) To have the right character and right goals
He wanted his players to grow into not only better basketball players but also better people. Wooden believed that if they could achieve the right character and goals in basketball, they could accomplish any other task they face in life.
2) To know that the journey is more important than the end result
Wooden wanted his players to know that the journey and the process were more important than their win-loss ratio during the season. If they could maximize their potential during practice, his players will still be successful even if they lose their next game.
3) Success is defined in relation to yourself
This meant focusing on the development of your own skills, not focusing on the skills of other players. Wooden believed that if his players focused on their opponent’s success, they would only become “good enough” to beat them. For Wooden, “good enough” wasn’t enough. He wanted them to maximize their potential and be the absolute best version of themselves.
The biggest problem with Kant’s claim was that his claim was so vague we’d never figure out what exactly he meant by cultivating our talents to reach our goals. We would skim through endless blocks of texts and find answers to no avail. However, with Wooden’s doctrine, we can answer some of the questions we might have about Kant’s claim, including the three questions I posed.
Which goals and talents?
Similar to how Wooden defined success, the goals and talents that we select should also be defined only in relation to ourselves. There should be a constant self-reflection where we are mindful on the goals we set for ourselves and our progress as we work towards them.
How many of them?
Perhaps, there is no answer to this question. Wooden didn’t want his players to focus on their win-loss ratio. On the same note, he most likely wouldn’t want us to focus on how many goals and talents we are pursuing. Instead, he would want us to focus on the process . By doing this, we will still be successful regardless of the results.
When will I know when I have accomplished my goals?
a. For everyone, the answer to this question may be different. But as Wooden has mentioned, we shouldn’t stop at just good enough. We should strive to maximize our potential by constantly working on ourselves. In doing so, we could maximize our potential the same way he wanted his players to.
While it may seem like sports has nothing to do with ethics, Wooden’s doctrine can be applied to so many more things than just basketball. Kant’s take on ethics is about fulfilling duties in order to be the best version of yourself for yourself and for other people. Wooden stresses the same idea using the medium of basketball rather than a 500-page book.
With the “Pyramid of Success,” we can learn the importance of setting realistic goals for ourselves and self-reflecting as we work towards our goals. The takeaway is really what having a duty to oneself implies — it is all about oneself — about you and not about others. So, there’s no need to dominate in D1 NCAA basketball like Duke University currently does nor do we have to read through all of Kant’s theories in order to apply this to our lives. This is something simple, something we can all do to become better versions of ourselves.