I enjoyed giving a talk at the Villages’ Philosophy Club on February 25th on some of the issues raised in my new book Golf and Philosophy: Lessons from the Links. I have been a lifelong golfer and I currently teach philosophy at Muskegon Community College. So, I decided to bring my two lifelong passions together in the book. I don’t think any other sport affects fundamental philosophical issues in our lives like golf. Golf affects where we live, such as the Villages and often who we our friends are. Also, unlike most other sports, we can play it nearly all our lives. The Power point presentation that on the book I gave is available at: http://www.muskegoncc.edu/PDFFiles/C&P_Arts/Wible_Villages.pdf The narrative below is a sketch of the lecture that accompanied the slides.
I started the talk by explaining a common theme that runs through the book and philosophy in general. The theme is the importance of finding the essence of a concept. The essence is what makes something what it is. Let’s look at a simple example. There are many different tables in the world, but what makes them all tables? One might say it is a flat surface with four legs. But four legs do not seem to be necessary for being a table. So, “four legs” should not be part of our definition of table. A flat surface is not enough for being a table for we know the floor is a flat surface and is not a table. To get the full essence of a concept, we are looking for the necessary (required) conditions that are jointly sufficient (enough). A better answer might be that a table is an elevated flat surface (this is close to what the dictionary says). This definition is closer to the truth but still does not seem to be sufficient for some things like buildings fulfill this definition.
We can use this conceptual framework to look at the essence of golf. The Casey Marin court case was an examination of the essence of golf. The question was whether giving Martin a cart would change the nature or essence of the game. If it did, then the cart legally did not need to be given. Is walking a necessary condition of golf? Many argued it was. Of course, many people use carts and are still playing golf. So, on the surface it seems that he should be given the cart given his disability (the majority on the Supreme Court agreed). It is a tough issue though, because we might argue that walking is an essential part of “professional golf” where greater excellence is demanded.
A similar issue is whether golf is a sport. Some have argued that it is not because there is not as much of a physical requirement as sports such as football or basketball. A cart clearly would change the nature of those sports. Running though does not seem to be a necessary condition of playing a sport. A tennis player who walks to her shots is still playing tennis. So, what makes some games qualify as sports? In chapter 15, Holt and Holt suggest that a sport be defined as a competitive game of inclusively gross physical skill. Do you think that this definition provides the necessary and sufficient conditions of the concept “sport?” If they are on the right track, then we can safely say golf is a sport.
We next turned ways golf can teach us about big issues in life. The first way golf can help us to understand personal identity or who we are. What makes me who I am? Why am I the same person as five years ago even though I have changed? If I change and yet remain the same, then whatever changed in me is not who I am essentially. That quality that changed was not a necessary condition of who I am. For example, many people say that their jobs make them who they are. “I am Joe the Plumber.” It is true that many peoples’ identities are influenced by their work, but we are not essentially our work. If someone changes his job he is still that person. We are also not our body or our soul for we could change our body or soul and still be the same person.
Golf helps us to get a better understanding of who we are by noticing the importance of memories when playing. If we remember a bad short putt, then that memory causes our current self to shiver over the next short putt. The reason is that we largely are our memories. I am who I am because of the memories that I have. If you lose all your memories, then you are no longer the same person (we often say that Alzheimer’s patients are not the same person, but cancer patients are the same person.). This theory of personal identity is not perfect for I could have false memories of something that I never did. I might remember playing golf with my Grandfather at Doral, but there could be good evidence that I never did.
Nonetheless, it does seem closer to the truth. Philosophy does not always give us the right answer, but attempts to get us closer to the truth.
We next turned our discussion to the meaning of life (chapter 16 of the book). I asked whether living a happy life is sufficient to living a meaningful life. One problem with saying that happiness if sufficient for a meaningful life is that a happy immoral person could be said to have a meaningful life. I think most of us would think that he does not for a generally moral life is necessary to live a meaningful life. Golf can again help see this. Our most meaningful rounds are not the ones where we cheat and win the bet we make with opponents. Our most meaningful rounds tend to be the ones where we did the right thing and achieved moral and physical excellence. We also looked into friendships and how golf (done right) can help us to make meaningful friends (moral friends).
I concluded by looking at ethics and golf. Does golf make us more or less moral persons? Beller and Stole argue in chapter 5 that golf is the one sport that the more people play it, the better their moral reasoning skills become. Other sports seem to have the opposite effect. Why is this? Is it correct? I think it might be due to players calling their own rules and the history and civility demanded by the game. Lumpkin talks of an interesting result of this data in chapter 7 of the book. She says that golf is the one sport that the professionals are moral than the amateurs when they play. The pro basketball player would never say that he fouled another player, but an amateur commonly does. In golf, amateurs touch their golf balls all the time for a better lie, but pros never do.
I don’t mean to make golf sound perfect. We know the elitism, racism, and sexism that has plagues the sport. As one questioner nicely pointed also pointed out, “Couldn’t be we doing something better with our time and money? Are we isolating ourselves from more important issues?” We should work to make golf overcome these problems. Some attempts are out there. The First Tee program helps to diversify the sport and the PGA tour has given over a billion dollars to charity. Pushing ourselves and others in the sport to do better is essential to preserving and improving the game.
Thank you allowing me to talk about golf and philosophy. More in-depth analysis and topics are available in the book which is available at amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or can ordered by your local bookstore. The Villages is directly mentioned in the book. Can you find it? Comments and questions about all these topics or the book are welcome!