Thank You Luis Suarez!

The world cup is winding down, and a lot of astonishing, surprising things happened throughout the tournament. But nothing offered more to people interested in morality than when Luis Suarez, Uruguayan football star and Premier League player extraordinaire, bit Italian football player Giorgio Chiellini during the World Cup match between Italy and Uruguay. Which is the third time Suarez bit someone on the football pitch. Of course, in the ensuing days, the Twittersphere exploded, the global media jumped on it, and every imaginable joke and pun made the rounds on the internet. And every single person with the slightest claim to expertise was asked one question: How should Suarez be penalized? Their answers provided one textbook example after another of the ways that research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that people make moral judgments, and especially how emotions trump rational arguments.

I’ll let Alan Shearer do the talking. Since he used to be one of the best strikers in the world, we expect him to know how to judge Suarez. When asked on BBC 5 live, he said that the FIFA – the football organization in charge of making the decision – should give Suarez a worldwide ban (banning him from playing for the national and club team) and that he would ban him for as long as possible. Robbie Savage – another football expert – even demanded a life-long ban. Other British “experts” expressed similar feelings. Note that the player Suarez bit is not injured in any way, though he had an apparent bite mark on his shoulder and was rather upset about the whole incident.

So, Alan, why such dramatic measures? Because it is disgusting, was Shearer’s answer. Disgust is probably the emotion that has received the most attention over the past decade in research on morality (see here or here for examples). In a nutshell, when people experience disgust they use this feeling to guide their subsequent moral judgments; disgust moralizes. And when we feel disgusted, we want purity like Robbie Savage wants the lifelong ban. Research on disgust is one of the main sources of the idea that we make moral judgments by using emotional gut reactions rather than reasoning.

One problem with judgments based on gut reactions is that we don’t really know how to justify them. So, when pressed by the talk show host as to why he wanted such a drastic and lengthy ban, Shearer started to do what researchers call moral dumbfounding; once our emotional reactions have triggered a certain moral judgment, we frantically look for a good reason for it. In a classic study, researchers presented people with a scenario of consensual incest between siblings. The scenario described a situation in which the siblings took all precautions so that no one would learn of this incident and there was no chance of reproduction. Participants still found that this was morally wrong; they were disgusted by the idea of a brother and a sister having sex and enjoying it. Yet, they struggled to give reasons for it.

Back to the experts. How does one justify a potential life-long ban for an action that did not cause any real harm? Why such a ban for biting but way less for somebody punching another player in the face? Andy Murray, another expert who also plays decent tennis, had an eloquent answer. He just repeated several times: because it’s wrong. This is remarkably similar to what participants repeated in the incest – study when pressed as to why they thought it was morally wrong for the siblings to have sex: Because incest is wrong. This brings us to another major distinction in morality research. While moral judgements come in many shapes and forms, one can categorize them into two main branches: rule-based and consequence-based. Rule-based arguments judge actions on whether or not these actions violate certain moral rules (e.g., you should not lie). Consequence-based judgments judge actions by their consequences (e.g., his lying concealed a crime). Rule-based arguments are often hard to defend on rational grounds (e.g., why not lie to save the life of a person), but are fuelled by emotional reactions. So, if we have a strong emotional reaction, we will most likely judge based on moral rules. However, people are capable of overcoming these emotional reactions if they have a strong rational faculty at their disposal. People, for instance, with a marked capacity for reasoning judge less based on emotional reactions (rule-based), and more in line with rational arguments (consequence-based).

But Alan Shearer was not giving in so fast. He argued that while a vicious tackle might end the career of a player, this is part of a game. Players mistime tackles and we never really know if the tackle was intended or not. With biting, we always know. While it is easy to see the flaws in this argument about why a worldwide ban is justified (e.g., punching somebody in the face is also clearly intentional), it also hints at another major determinant of moral judgments – the intention of the judged person. Obviously, if you intended to hurt someone, say on the football pitch, or if you did it accidentally, this matters for how you should be judged. Even if a person causes minor harm intentionally, this harm is judged as much more serious and damaging than if a person causes the same minor harm accidentally (article). In other words, we might perceive the consequences of the bite as way more dramatic than they actually are because we think that Suarez did it intentionally. Alan might have been caught in another moral trap.

A reporter, calling in from Rio de Janeiro, noted that most people in Brazil seem to think that a one-game-suspension would be sufficient. When asked for the reason, the reporter expressed that most South American people think of biting as a childish behaviour. As parents all know, there is a biter in every nursery class. No real harm was done, so why should we judge him harshly? A consequence-based judgment. What followed was a wonderful example of the classic debate about the universality of moral values. While Shearer claimed that his view expresses the universal moral truth about biting on the football pitch, the talk show host asked if we have the right to apply our moral judgments to a South American player, who plays for a South American team in a South American country where people seem to perceive it very differently. But Shearer was having none of this. He said that his judgment still stands, and that the FIFA penalty for Suarez should follow his judgment. When asked why, Shearer said because football is a worldwide game, implying that the South Americans should tolerate his verdict. The host pointed out that the same argument could be made for him to tolerate the South American view. Shearer at this point decided not to respond anymore. As many of the great debates about the universality of moral values, this one too ended inconclusively.

In the end, Luis Suarez received a 4 month suspension for his bite. This seems excessive. As much as Suarez should receive a penalty for his behaviour (and probably some psychological help), is seems hard to justify why biting is worse than intentionally punching in the face or intentionally head butting. A three-game ban is the FIFA standard regulation for violent conduct. Other than moral outrage, little suggests that Suarez deserves more. However, I and many other researchers and teachers have to be thankful for Suarez biting another player, since it is a wonderfully engaging example to start a conversation about the complicated ways in which the human moral systems works. A good old punch to the face would not have caused such moral outrage.

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2 Responses to Thank You Luis Suarez!

  • Andrew Pearson says:

    Without wishing to defend the naive view of moral “reasoning” as exemplified by Shearer, it strikes me that there are two large considerations which should arguably push in favour of a longer sentence: that this is the third time he has bitten someone, and that it happened at the world cup rather than in a domestic match.

    By ignoring the punishments he has previously received for biting, Suarez arguably demonstrates a lack of respect for the rules of football and/or his fellow players. This lack of respect, then, rather than the actual substance of his action, would be what merits such a punishment.

    One might alternatively argue that, by committing the offence at one of the most publicly visible matches of the period, Suarez damages the public appearance of football as a sport. By playing in one of the key matches in which football is presented to the world and then committing what is unmistakably a violent, thuggish foul (rather than a late tackle or some other such foul which has plausible deniability regarding its intent) he promotes a view of football as being violent. This creates a need to fiercely denounce his action – particularly as he escaped receiving a red card on the field – and a complete ban from footballing activities may satisfy that need.

    • Mike Thomas says:

      Although I agree with the assertion about Suarez’s inability to reform his behaviour, surely the key point is the fact that it is the emotion reaction to the nature of his crime that is paramount in the punishment.

      Given a choice, I would rather someone attempted to bite me on the shoulder than punch me in the face, but the FA has decided that the ‘lesser’ crime deserves harsher punishment. Why is it morally more acceptable for a grown man to lash out by punching an opponent rather than trying to bite him. Both actions are violent conduct, both bring the player and the game into disrepute. Should the FA not have a published set of rules that cover levels of violence on the pitch and then apply them. One of the odd things is that the FA seems to be able to make up punishments purely on the basis of how they ‘feel’ about the infraction.

      If I was involved in a fight in a public area, I might be arrested for causing injury to another person. Whether I used my fist or my teeth to cause the injury would not be relevant in court, but purely the level of injury caused. Why should football be different?

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