VAR and Virtue

Rebecca Lowe has written a piece arguing against the introduction of video assistant referees (VAR – additional referees who monitor football matches on video, and intervene if they believe the lead referee has made an error) in this year’s World Cup. She claims that the reform undermines sportsmanship by reducing players’ freedom to choose not to cheat. Moreover, she suggests that the importance of preserving this freedom extends to other areas where people are forced or pressured to do the ‘right’ thing – such as being required to use some of their income to help the less fortunate, or having junk food regulated.

It’s am interesting argument, but I disagree on a number of different points. First of all, I have a different view about the moral importance of virtue. I don’t share Lowe’s fundamental intuition that there is intrinsically something valuable about doing the right thing for the right reasons, independent of the consequences. In the case of football, I don’t agree that it makes things worse if players only abide by the rules to avoid getting caught.

I am sensitive to the concern that crowding out ‘intrinsic motivation’ – making players more concerned about the referee than their conscience might be counterproductive, and lead to more foul play.  Such ‘motivational crowding’ is much-discussed in psychology. But I am sceptical that this will empirically turn out to be the case. Lowe has a rather essentialist view of virtue – on her view, our virtue comes from within, and we need the freedom to express it. Yet the situationist critique of virtue ethics points out that social context often matters more than inherent character – indeed, it often plays a crucial role in creating what appears to us as a person’s character. In that vein, we could imagine VAR leading to new norms in football – because players know they won’t get away with cheating, they cease to bother trying to cheat until gradually doing the right thing becomes second nature. Indeed, there was a striking moment at this World Cup, where Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku went down in the penalty box, but nonetheless insisted to the referee that he should not get a penalty. It is possible that VAR was in his mind when he did so. Similarly, state enforced concern for the socially disadvantaged could shape attitudes amongst the general public to create an egalitarian ethos far beyond what is legally mandated.

Lowe’s argument about VAR is puzzling, too, because VAR doesn’t actually impose any new laws on the game – it merely seeks to ensure that the existing laws are better enforced. Clearly the more enforced a law is, the greater effect it has. For example, if the government imposes an unjust tax and recruits more officials to catch those evading the tax, I see how that makes it worse. But VAR doesn’t mean referees will do more – just that they will do it better. It’s like making sure those prosecuted for evading the unjust tax are done so less arbitrarily.

From this analogy, it seems the logical consequence of Lowe’s views is that we should get rid of referees altogether. If it’s bad to enforce the rules of the game because it limits players’ freedom to be sportsmanlike, then when bother trying to enforce them at all? Lowe is clear she’s not against laws altogether, so I presume she thinks this is going too far, and that there is a trade-off between protecting freedom and virtue and avoiding the bad consequences of anarchy. But without further argument, it’s not clear why Lowe has drawn the line where she has, and why VAR is that bit too far.

There are legitimate arguments to be had about the dangers of authority crowding out private virtue, and of the problems of paternalism, but ultimately I don’t think VAR exhibits these well. Not only does Lowe get VAR wrong, I think also she demonstrates the dangers of overreaction: by painting mundane technical improvements as major threats to liberty, classical liberals like Lowe risk crying wolf and limiting the force of their stronger arguments.

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