Monday, July 04, 2016

"Choosing Wrong"

In my last post, I identified a couple of ways in which the belief-desire model for intentional behavior is inadequate. Beliefs and desires do not adequately account for habitual actions, nor for the phenomena of "forgetting" or "remembering" a relevant fact.

However, these types of failures do not concern the subject of this blog - which is value. It is still the case that only desires provide end-reasons for intentional action. Habits and memory are means for accomplishing ends or goals, they do not establish the ends or goals.

This subject came up because I was directed to a podcast about people making wrong choices.

The question is whether the theory can handle cases, such as those of professional basketball players Shaquille O'Neal and Wilt Chamberlain, who choose actions which the authors of the podcast at least say are obviously wrong.

Specifically, these players (and, actually, basketball players generally) score a smaller percentage of free-throws when they throw the ball overhand as opposed to underhand. Some players such as Wilt Chamberlain used the underhanded method for a while and increased their percentage of successful free-throws dramatically. Yet, Wilt returned to the overhand method, and others refused to try the underhand method at all.

Is this an instance of a person acting contrary to their desires, given their beliefs?

Note that the agents in this case know that their basketball scores would be higher if they would only choose to throw underhanded. This could not help but to increase their own statistics and to help their team win more games (at least, games against teams with players who refuse to adopt the new system).

Wilt Chamberlain responded to the question of why he did not use the new system by saying that he felt silly.

The thesis that a person acts on their desires given their beliefs can handle this situation. What Chamberlain described was an aversion. He was averse to appearing before others - particularly before those who watched him play - in a way that the audience would view negatively. It is this aversion that motivated him to shoot free-throws overhand, rather than underhand.

One could classify this as a bad desire - a desire that tends to thwart other desires. This would put it in the same category as drug or gambling addictions. The agent is more interested, in this case, in the good opinion of the members of the audience than he is in scoring the most points - and that this provides sufficient reason to argue against having such a desire.

But is this a bad desire?

Basketball players are, primarily, entertainers. Their primary job is not to win games, it is to please those who buy tickets and to make those tickets worth the price. Winning games has value, but that is because they contribute to the entertainment value of the game.

One question that went unasked in the podcast is whether people generally would value basketball as much if everybody were to use this method. Do people want to pay money to watch players make what are called "granny shots"?

It seems at least plausible that the "granny shot" is disliked by the audience precisely because it is too easy. As such, it does not display skill as well as the overhand shot. Also, the overhand shot - precisely because it makes the successful basket less certain - creates more risk and, thus, adds excitement to the game. Overall, it may may contribute to the entertainment value of the game in a number of ways, thus giving more value to the tickets that the basketball organization is trying to sell. Indeed, it may well be the ridicule and condemnation coming from the audience of paying customers - as demonstrated by the very name "granny shot" - that creates the aversion in players and owners against this style of shot.

It is relevant to note, in this case, that the underhanded shot loses its advantage if everybody did it. It provides only an advantage to those who use this method against those who do not. Consequently, it is relevant to ask what the popularity of basketball would be if everybody did this. Would paying customers be as interested in tuning into a game that predominantly contained "granny shots"?

Another type of case discussed in the podcast was that of football owners who refuse to trade a first-round draft pick for a larger number of second-round draft picks. This would save the club owner money (since the first-round draft picks tend to be the star players who command higher salaries), and a larger number of second-round players are often better for the team in terms of winning games than a single first-round player.

Once again, we need to bring into the discussion the fact that the goal of a football team is to sell tickets. It is at least reasonable to suggest that a star football player results in more ticket sales, in the same way that a star movie actor improves the box-office take of a movie. In the movie industry we can well argue that for every big-name star with a huge salary there is another actor - a better actor - willing to play the same role for a lot less money. However, the big-name actor gets the job because the use of that actor will sell tickets. Where the end is to make a quality movie, the use of the big-name, high-cost actor seems to be a "wrong choice" - but not when the choice considers that the goal is to make money.

I find it interesting to note that the one person presented in the interview who did throw freethrows underhanded was also presented as somebody who seemed to care very little about the opinions or feelings of others. Scoring points seemed to matter more to him than anything else - including the opinions and feelings of other players or members of the audience. Everything that exists - and everyone that exists - has value only insofar as they serve as an effective means to scoring points.

A concern for the opinions and interests of other people may be a "bad desire" in terms of scoring points in a game. However, there are other reasons - some of which are relevant off the court - for rejecting the idea that it is a bad desire over all. Being somebody interested in not only scoring points, but in the opinions and feelings of other humans, is a better type of person to be, even if it does cause one to shoot overhanded rather than underhanded. That cost is hardly a good reason to cause people to be less concerned with the opinions and interests of others.

Ultimately, in this case, we do not have a clear example of a situation where the belief-desire model breaks down. Those types of situations exist (as when habits and memory come into play), but this does not seem to be one of them.

In addition, there are reasons to question whether this actually represents a "wrong choice". If the only end of value is scoring points then, yes, the over-hand free throw is a poor choice of a means for that end. However, if the end is to introduce risk into a game, to make it more exciting, to demonstrate skill, and to appeal to the likes and dislikes of fans (ticket buyers), it may not be a wrong choice at all. Scoring points neither is nor should it be the sole end of human action, nor should it be the sole measure of the merits of those actions.

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