Will the stain wash out?

The ball tampering cricket scandal has put moral character in the headlines again. While disciplinary action has been taken, deeper questions remain about why it happened – not only why on earth they thought they could get away with it in such a highly scrutinised environment, but also what the culture is that has allowed the cricketers to think that they could and should cheat as they did.

For the players involved, particularly Steve Smith because of his role as captain, it is a blight on their characters, and many have speculated on whether the stains will ever wash out. But is Steve Smith now a cheat or is he simply someone who cheated? Is cheating at the core of his moral character, perhaps inseparable from his fierce competitive drive, or is it an anomaly?

These are issues explored in The Character Gap (Oxford University Press) by Christian Miller, who suggests that we are ‘a messy blend of good and evil’. There are rare exceptions, such as Abraham Lincoln or Adolf Hitler, who seem consistently good or bad but most of us are too inconsistent to be labelled good or bad generally. Many psychological and sociological experiments show that our behaviour changes radically in varying situations, with our environment having a large bearing, even in incidental things like the weather. Miller suggests that the terms virtues and vices are often inapplicable because we are just too unpredictable. The evil we delight in one day, we avoid the next.

To make a judgement about a person’s moral character we have to see a consistent pattern. In Steve Smith or David Warner’s cases, it is entirely plausible they have cheated previously, but then they are exemplary in other ways. They have cheated, but it is a stretch then to label them as bad moral characters. None of us would like to be labelled for life on the strength of one incident, as we change from week to week, we make mistakes, and we can admit this if we are honest (and sometimes we are honest with ourselves and sometimes we are not!).

Unsurprisingly, studies Miller cites show the strong role of others in influencing our moral actions, whether they be figures we see as authoritative, who can cause us to act in ways that wildly deviate from our normal behaviour, or groups of people, where we might not want to be the odd one out, where we might be scared or embarrassed to be the lone voice.

In the case of Cameron Bancroft, a junior player, it is unsurprising that, with all that is at stake, he chose to conform to a culture being emphasised by more senior figures. In Steve Smith’s case, as captain, with authority came a responsibility, and he failed spectacularly with a winning-at-all-costs mentality. But then again, with all his experience, if he thought cheating was a valid strategy, we might wonder at how he was influenced by those higher up, and a wider cricketing or professional sporting culture. Talk of culture may infer consistent behaviour, perhaps suggesting pervasive bad character, but we are talking here about group behaviour. Miller’s book shows that we may act completely differently in different situations (although of course there is also the issue of the reinforcement of bad behaviour in one area of life leading to it creeping into other areas).

The flipside of this issue of culture is the positive influence of others, particularly those we see as role models. It is unusual to be autonomous in moral character. We are easily influenced and we can be blind to where our influences are. Therefore we need to make an effort to be conscious of these influences. Good moral character can happen without us knowing it, as can bad, but if we desire to improve moral character in ourselves and others we must seek it out and cultivate it. The process is like physical exercise. It must be deliberate and consistent, at least until it develops into a habit. (This, by the way, is less overt in Miller’s book, but is the way moral philosophers across the ages have thought of the matter.)

As with exercise, cultivating good moral character can be done on our own, but it helps to do it in a group, such as volunteer and charity organisations, mothers’ clubs, (dare I say) sporting clubs and organisations where morality is front and centre, such as churches. Surprisingly perhaps for a book of contemporary psychology and philosophy, Miller’s book extols churches as places where good moral behaviour is reinforced. Here are groups of people with shared moral goals that, as Miller points out, reinforce these through prayer, confession, readings and modelling behaviour.

Churches have also recognised over the centuries what psychology has more recently statistically proven – that we are inconsistent in our moral behaviour, saints and sinners simultaneously. Part of this recognition is seeing the need for forgiveness. Jesus emphasised that forgiveness should be without limit, so that to remain healthy people we always have the chance of a fresh start and wrongdoing doesn’t define us. This is perhaps a message that our cricketers need to hear right now.


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