Sep 132011

As part of Diana’s September 11th Rationally Selfish webcast (NoodleCast #96), she covered the following question:

Is it dumb to return a valuable home run baseball to the team? When NY Yankees star Derek Jeter hit a home run for his 3000th hit, the fan in the stands Christian Lopez who caught the ball returned it to the Yankees, even though he was legally entitled to keep it. Some experts estimate it could have been sold on eBay for up to $250,000.

The Yankees did give him some season tickets and team memorabilia but nowhere near as valuable. (In fact, he may have to pay thousands of dollars of taxes for those gifts he received from the Yankees.) Some people praised Mr. Lopez for doing the “right thing.” Other said he was foolish for giving up something valuable that could have, say, paid for his kids’ college or been used for other important life goals.

Was he moral or immoral for returning the baseball with no expectation of reward?

Here’s Diana’s discussion:

For the record, Dr. Leonard Peikoff answered a similar question on his own webcast on August 22nd, 2011.

Assuming the perspective of a rational ethical egoist, this is a very interesting question. (For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll assume there are no tax implications, just as Diana assumed in her webcast).

First of all, I want to state that I agree with Dr. Peikoff’s general principle that not all value is monetary.

Second, I also agree with the general Objectivist ethical principle that one should not sacrifice a higher value for a lower value.

So the question becomes: Did Mr. Lopez sacrifice a higher value for a lower value in giving the baseball back to the New York Yankees?

Another point I’d like to highlight is that on various discussion boards, Lopez was praised for doing the “right thing”, but this assessment presumes the conventional altruist code of morality. A typical example is this comment in the New York Times:

Of course he did the “right” thing. He acted selflessly; he didn’t do something expecting a quid pro quo. We can all learn and benefit from his example.

According this view, Lopez was moral because his action represented a deliberate sacrifice without benefit to himself.

Of course an ethical egoist would reject this view. But could an ethical egoist have a non-sacrificial reason for giving up the baseball, rather than selling it for $250,000 or keeping it for himself?

I think it’s theoretically possible, but I don’t know how likely it would be.

For instance, if Derek Jeter had been a long-time personal hero for a baseball fan and if the fan had drawn personal inspiration throughout his life from Jeter’s many accomplishments, I can see how a fan might wish to repay Jeter by giving him the gift of that historic baseball. Similarly, someone who was a die-hard Yankees fan might wish to become a permanent part of Yankees history and tradition by returning the baseball. In such cases, I can see how giving the baseball back to the Yankees might be a gain of a higher value for a lower value, rather than a sacrifice of a higher value for a lower value — if it was the result of a rationally constructed hierarchy of values.

And not knowing much about Mr. Lopez other than what’s available in public accounts, I can’t know his actual hierarchy of values or to what extent it’s based on reason.

However, it can also be entirely rational and moral for someone who had caught the baseball to decide to sell it. He might quite reasonably decide that this $250,000 would allow him to, say, start a new business, buy his beloved parents a new house, or guarantee his kids’ college education. I think many American baseball fans would make this choice, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

If someone decided that advancing his own life goals (or promoting the well-being of his loved ones) was more important to him than being part of Yankees history, he should feel proud of that decision and not accept it as any form of moral guilt.

I can also see a fan deciding to keep the baseball in his personal collection as a tangible reminder of a great achievement (which he could sell in the future if necessary due to financial hardship).

Now some egoists have defended Lopez’s decision on the grounds that returning the ball gave him great personal satisfaction. I think this merely begs the question. Whether his satisfaction was proper depends on whether his hierarchy of values was rational or not (something I do not and can not know). I just want to caution against relying on a subjective sense of “happiness” or “satisfaction” as a necessarily reliable indicator of a decision being morally correct.

Finally, it’s also possible for a baseball fan to offer to sell the baseball back to the Yankees at a discount — less than the full market value in the collectors’ market, but more than the value of some season tickets and memorabilia. Again, the proper intermediate amount would depend on the seller’s precise hierarchy of values.

For what it’s worth, when Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were setting home run records in 1998, some of those baseballs also sold for many thousands of dollars in the collectors’ markets. I don’t recall much condemnation in the popular press of those sellers for cashing in on their good fortune. And I’m glad there wasn’t.

In sum:

1) Dr. Peikoff is correct that not all values can be reduced to money.

2) For an egoist, returning the baseball could be a sacrifice (in which case it would be wrong), or could be a rational non-sacrifice (in which case it would be proper). I personally think the second possibility is possible, but relatively unlikely for most people. (For what it’s worth, Diana and I diverge somewhat on this point — she regards it is much less likely than I do, closer to “nearly inconceivable”.)

3) We should reject the altruist code praising the return of the ball as “the right thing” because it was “selfless”.

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