What Baseball’s (Un-)written Rules Tell us About Business Ethics
The fist that landed on Jose Bautista’s jaw echoed around the baseball world almost as loudly as his famous “bat flip” last October. And whereas Bautista’s bat flip violated the unwritten rule against grandstanding, Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor’s punch violated the written rules, but also followed from a different, unwritten rule that permits retribution. In particular, Odor was getting back at Bautista for a very aggressive slide into second base just seconds before — which may in turn have been retribution for a fastball to the ribs that Bautista had previously suffered at the hands of a Rangers pitcher, and which was presumed to be intended as — you guessed it — retribution for last fall’s bat flip. That’s how retribution often works, namely that it results in a string of tit-for-tat acts of violence with no natural end point.
But what’s important, here, from a business point of view, is to see the way all of this plays out within what has been structured, intentionally, as an adversarial system. This kind of eye-for-an-eye pattern of retribution would be seriously problematic in private life; but on a baseball field, it’s merely the working out of a set of informal rules designed to civilize a rather aggressive set of activities.
The point here is that in baseball — as in business — people on opposing “teams” aren’t supposed to get along. They’re supposed to compete, each trying to get the better of the other. And such competitive domains typically have their own rules, rules that permit behaviours not considered OK in everyday life. In everyday life, after all, throwing a ball towards someone at 96mph would be considered recklessly dangerous, possibly criminal. But that’s something major league pitchers are encouraged to do, if they can. And in everyday life, causing a person to lose their job would be a terrible thing to do. But in business if you invent a better mousetrap and force makers of lesser mousetraps out of business, that’s considered entirely justified in the name of innovation.
As philosopher Joseph Heath has convincingly argued, this idea of constrained competition serves as a strong foundation for an ethics of business grounded in the goals of markets themselves. Business is tough and competitive, but even tough, competitive games need rules if they are to achieve their purpose. In a business context this puts limits on the aggressive strategies that managers can use in pursuit of profit. Managers of competing companies are free to act aggressively, trying to outmanoeuvre each other, zealously seeking out efficiencies, devising devilishly clever new products and so on, all in an effort to drive the “other guy’s” market share to zero. Managers at all competing firms employ the same tactics, and generally it is the consumer who wins by gaining access to better and better products at lower and lower prices. But the permission to act aggressively in the market — permission granted as an exemption from the rules of polite society — is limited by requirements that the competitors avoid taking things too far, by for example sabotaging each other’s factories or lying to customers to boost sales. Those would certainly be competitive strategies, but anti-social ones.
My Ryerson colleague Hasko von Kriegstein argues, in a forthcoming paper, that this obligation to compete in a constrained way in principle really applies to corporate shareholders, not to managers. After all, shareholders are the ones seeking to profit in the market, so it’s their profit-seeking behaviour that must be constrained. But it still implies limits on the behaviour of managers because managers act as shareholders’ agents in the marketplace. When you’re the one “on the field,” you’re the one subject to the rules.
And in both business and in baseball, the rules — both written and unwritten — serve to protect a range of stakeholders. Some rules protect participants. Others protect innocent bystanders. In some cases, the written rules are controversial or unclear. And in others, the unwritten rules are uncertain. And so sometimes the former get changed or clarified, and the latter evolve. But we can’t begin to understand the point and the proper scope of particular rules — rules against aggressive slides, rules against insider trading, etc. — and the way those rules differ from the rules of everyday life, without understanding that they are rules whose logic is internal to the game, a way to civilize a justifiably aggressive activity.