Should You Root Against Tiger Woods at the Masters?

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This is a serious question: Should you root against Tiger Woods at this week's Masters golf tournament because of his past misbehavior?

A quick refresher: Two and a half years ago, Woods's wife, wielding a golf club, chased an Ambien-addled Woods out of their house and into his Cadillac SUV, which, with her in hot pursuit, he drove into a fire hydrant and a neighbor's tree. Then came a parade of purported mistresses, a remarkably brief sex-addiction rehab, a speedy divorce, and a sustained inability to win golf tournaments--in particular, an inability to win one of the four annual "majors". Woods needs five more majors to break Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 and claim the "greatest golfer ever" title--a goal that once seemed assured and is now in doubt. But two weeks ago Woods won his first PGA tournament since his career collapse, and now, at the first of this year's four majors, he seems poised for a breakthrough. Today, on the first day of the Masters, he fought adversity to wind up at par, and he's very much in the running to win the tournament come Sunday.

The case for rooting against him: His story will be with us a long time, and people (including young people) learn from stories. Do we want them to learn that you can succumb to your id, cheating on and lying prolifically to your wife, cavorting with porn stars, and still achieve greatness?

The case against rooting against him: But hasn't he been punished enough? Can't the story be that, yes, if you make mistakes you have to pay a price, but once you've paid the price redemption is possible so long as you recognize your mistakes, buckle down, and work hard? Besides, who among us is without sin? Who among us could handle fame without succumbing to its temptations? There but for the grace of God go all of us.

The reply: Yes of course there but for the grace of God go all of us. But that's always true! Presumably if you had been born into Slobodan Milosevic's environment, with Slobodan Milosevic's genes, you'd have become Slobodan Milosevic! In that sense Slobodan Milosevic was a victim of his genes and his environment. Does that mean we should have given him a pass? We don't punish people because their suffering is in itself a good thing, but because the spectacle of their punishment will have good effects on the future behavior of others!

The reply to the reply: Wait, I thought we did punish people because the suffering of wrongdoers is inherently good. In fact, doesn't the law recognize 'retribution' as a legitimate function of punishment, leaving aside any additional deterrent effects that the spectacle of punishment may have?

The reply to the reply to the reply: Yes, but this part of legal doctrine comes from the pre-Darwinian era, before we realized that our intuitive belief in the inherent goodness of retribution is just a product of natural selection, not a divinely implanted insight. In light of post-Darwinian knowledge, we shouldn't get distracted by the question of the justice of the suffering itself; to an enlightened person, suffering is never a good thing in itself. Rather, we should focus on the practical benefit of suffering. And Tiger Woods' ongoing suffering has practical benefit.

And so on... you can argue this all day (unless you're a golf fan, in which case you'd probably rather just watch the Masters). What I wonder, though, is whether this whole argument isn't considered quaint by a growing number of people, especially young people--and maybe especially young people who, like the moralist in the dialogue above, have absorbed the modern Darwinian view of the origin of our moral impulses but, unlike the moralist, take this view as rendering moral discourse itself absurd.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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