The Lesson Of The Pete Rose Saga: It’s Hard Being Ethical When You’re Stupid

Rose rejected

Pete Rose’s final appeal to have his ban from Major League Baseball lifted was rejected, as Commissioner Rob Manfred delivered a stinging rebuke. (You can read his letter here.) The very first ethics post I ever wrote was about Pete, and I have posted about his character and plight several times since. Rose, the all-time leader in hits and undeniably a great player, was banned from the game in 1989. An investigation concluded that he had bet on baseball games while a manager of the Cincinnati Reds, a violation of MLB’s famous “third rail” no-gambling rule, which makes it an automatic expulsion from the profession to place bets on baseball games as a manager, coach or player. This is regarded as an existential rule for baseball, which was nearly ruined when gamblers fixed the 1919 World Series.

Rose maintained his innocence of the allegations for decades, then admitted(to sell a book) that he had been lying, and did gamble. Just a few months ago, evidence surfaced that he had also bet on baseball while a player, which Rose has always denied.

In his letter rejecting Rose’s appeal, Commissioner Manfred noted that one of the conditions that had long been set for Rose to have any chance of reinstatement—though Rule 21 has no exceptions, MLB was willing to do almost anything not to have the holder of the record for lifetime hits on its blacklist—Rose would have to earn a pardon by showing he had turned his life around, meaning that Pete was no longer a sleazeball.

Manfred wrote that Rose, who had, among other black marks, served time in prison for tax evasion, asserted in his latest appeal that he indeed was a new and better man. Nevertheless, Rose…

1. Refused to admit that he had bet on baseball as a player, when the evidence was incontrovertible, and

2. Revealed that he still gambles on horse racing and professional sports, including baseball.

Manfred came to the obvious conclusion that “Charlie Hustle,” who pretty clearly has a gambling addiction, has taken no positive steps toward addressing it, is still a risk to gamble on baseball games or get himself in debt to gamblers if he returned to the sport, and  can’t be trusted.

All of the above could be more concisely summarized by six words: Pete Rose is a stupid man. As comedian Ron White says, “You can’t fix stupid.” Manfred, in his letter telling Pete that he can forget about any future employment in baseball, noted more than once that Rose does not appear to understand the import and purpose of the rule he violated, which exists  to protect the integrity of the game. Indeed,  Pete Rose wouldn’t know what integrity was if it sat on his face.

This final chapter (I hope) in the sad Rose gambling saga drives home a fact that is under-appreciated in the ethics world. Ethics is hard, and requires attention, critical thinking, and a modicum of intelligence. Ethics involves choosing among competing options in difficult situations, often under pressure; it involves recognizing when non-ethical considerations are threatening to overwhelm ethical principles; it involves being able to understand why an ethical society is preferable to a corrupt one, and the difference between rationalizations and ethical valiues.

When tying your shoes is a challenge, most of this is out of the question. Or to put it in Pete Rose terms, if you are seeking forgiveness for  placing bets on baseball when you knew that baseball bans anyone who does that, and can’t figure out that continuing to gamble on baseball isn’t going to help your case, the chances that you are going to be able to figure out whether a particular situation requires an application of the Rule of Universality or not are those of Frosty the Snowman bumpety-bump-bumping safely through Hell.

This is why the smug efforts of intellectuals to discredit religion are a mistake. Ethical problem solving is beyond people with the brain power of Pete Rose, and such people are probably in the majority. They need someone or something to tell them what’s right, and to enforce rules they may not understand with credible threats of unavoidable consequences. They won’t get training in determining right from wrong in the schools, which stopped teaching ethics long ago (and whose teachers, in many cases, aren’t smart enough to teach it anyway.) Law is a moral code, but a lot of ethical decisions aren’t covered by laws.

When an authority dictates what’s right, that’s morality, and as a means of social control when ethics are too complicated, nothing is better. Religion establishes a powerful authority possessing presumed virtue and superior knowledge that lesser minds can rely upon and, as a bonus, feel good about following. For people like Pete, it may be their only chance to stay out of trouble, or maybe jail.

The problem is that morality and its lazy approach to complex issues is seductive for those who are capable of ethics. In my legal ethics courses, I concentrate on ethics rather than rules (the legal ethics rules are another moral code), and sometimes, after citing a rule, ask an audience why a rule exists, saying,”Why is this prohibited conduct unethical?” In most cases, I am greeted by dead silence: they haven’t thought about it. It’s a rule, that’s all. With some prodding, they will find the answer, because they are smart enough to find the ethical principles that led to the rule.  Moral authorities often don’t go beyond “Because I said so, that’s why. And if you defy me, you’ll be sorry,”  however.

This is why I get frustrated when commenters here default to morality on what have to be ethical issues. Gay marriage is a prime example. It is immoral in most religions, but the prohibition of it has no valid ethical basis at all. For intelligent people, and everyone who comments here is intelligent or they don’t last very long, morality becomes a dodge, as well as a source of a serious conflict.   Intelligent religious people have to learn to use both morality and ethics to resolve those conflicts when they arise without surrendering their faith. In my experience, they are usually up to the task. If you are incapable of critical thinking like Pete Rose is, however, there is no conflict. It’s morality or nothing.

If Pete Rose were a sincere and devout religious man, he would be in baseball’s Hall of Fame by now, idiot that he is. He wouldn’t have lied all these years, because the Ten Commandments says it’s wrong. He wouldn’t have broken an anti-gambling rule he pledged to obey, and depending on which religion he followed, he might never have gambled at all. Religion and the moral codes it enforces are godsends (literally!) for people like Pete Rose, who are otherwise governed by their desires and faulty reasoning.

Ethics is just too hard for many people. Morality is relatively easy: just do what you’re told, and don’t ask questions. For people who are intelligent enough to wrestle with ethics to set out to discredit moral authorities because they personally don’t need them is irresponsible, if their objective is to encourage ethical conduct. If their objective is to use the less astute as their pawns, however, by giving millions of Pete Roses a rigid ideology to guide them when morality is gone—they need something, you know, as we all do— it can be an effective strategy. It’s also one that has caused immeasurable destruction through human history.



40 thoughts on “The Lesson Of The Pete Rose Saga: It’s Hard Being Ethical When You’re Stupid

  1. For a moment there I thought that I would never have to explain Pete Rose and Rule 21 again to anyone, but after reading the commissioner’s letter, he did his job, and well, but effectively told Rose to go talk to the Hall of Fame separately. So I suppose that debate will be around until he’s in.
    Your point on morality find’s an excellent example in Rose. As an idiot and a sleazeball, having a(ny) simple moral code would have saved him from attempting to make sense of his ethical failures, which must be like a 7-year-old trying to grasp Bio-Chemistry. i.e. Everyone keeps telling him he’s wrong, and he can’t understand what is being talked about.

  2. You have a point, but I think religion/morality is much more than you are allowing for here. My personal religious philosophy using your definitions embraces both ethics and morality, plus a great deal more having to do with what goes on before and after mortality. I agree that blind obedience is the lowest level of morality.

  3. So, in a nutshell, would you say he is being banned from the baseball because he is stupid?

    If stupid is what got him into trouble, and his trouble is keeping him out of baseball, and stupid can’t be fixed, it sounds like he is being punished for being stupid.


    • Though I feel your comment is in semi jest, it does open an interesting side bar.

      I don’t think the saying “stupid can’t be fixed” is an absolute, but rather a hyperbolic observation of just how hard it is to fix stupid.

      But, supposing it is an absolute statement, your gripe would carry weight, if being stupid had been a perpetual state. I’d submit, in his upbringing, he had every opportunity to become and learn how not to be cripplingly stupid. That he didn’t is no one’s fault but his own. So yes punishing him for “being stupid” is really punishing him for not bothering to learn some simple basics. To which I say, so what?

      All punishment has two targets: the offender and anyone following on that can learn a lesson from the offender’s punishment.

      • Yep. And if the world is fully deterministic, then you have two options:

        Do not punish anyone because it’s no one’s “fault” that at the end of the day, all your actions are ultimately the result of chemistry and physics.


        Accept that in a fully deterministic nature assume the entire universe is a huge self-correcting system and you must punish people anyway, as though free will existed, because we’ve learned that the visible actions of punishment may elicit the right deterministic reactions in the rest of mankind so as to dissuade (read as initiate chemical reactions in their brains) other “individuals” from “bad behavior”.

        • No you don’t. It looks like you have two options, but the universe has already determined which one you will choose.

          That road lies madness (actually, nihilism… almost as bad).

          • No doubt that is the flaw in absolutist determinism…

            However, there cannot be absolutist free-will either. Nature (internal and external) and circumstance and context limit your options to a pitiful few options before you even have a chance to “make a choice”.

            Inside that small slice of the continuum of determinism – freewill (which does skew to the deterministic side), you have some leeway to argue that we are much much much more constrained in our choices and therefore can argue to “absolve” ourselves of those choices. That perhaps is the stance the Darrow espouses. But either way, the argument would still be there that I made above about the 2 routes to follow.

            I heard a guy on Dennis Prager make the deterministic argument fairly well. Once you slice down a period of time to an infinitesimal duration, and evaluate the “choice” you make…you can in turn evaluate what *influenced* that choice. Each of these influences, aggregated, ultimately showed that, by the time you “made the choice”, the choice had already been made for you…even if some of those influences were internal to your person – such as taste or attitude. He then went on to show that the arguments for choice then, must ultimately boil down to “being random”.

            Dennis Prager was very skeptical, as am I. Though his argument seemed unassailable…and I’ve been resolving it in my head. It’s philosopher stuff.

            • Douglas Hofstadter has an interesting analogy as to whether the small parts of a system control it (say cells in the brain) or the bigger system instructs the small parts on how to behave (brain structure guiding the electrical impulses that control the neurons). His take is that you can’t think of them as separate entities, but part of a system. Why do I bring this up? Free will is in some way that small cell that can act autonomously regardless of the system’s inputs to it. It will not change the system by itself and in many cases its work is futile… but if it changes the system a bit, and the next one does, and so does the next at some point you have a new system, much more amenable to being affected these free will particles. My take is that exercising free will encourages more of it, so it’s the way to keep growing.

              (Previous paragraph is full of analogies, I don’t think that we have free will neurons in our head. Y’all are smart and can figure it out)

              • “Free will is in some way that small cell that can act autonomously regardless of the system’s inputs to it.”

                Do the train of thought from that statement though. The small cell acting autonomously & INDEPENDENT OF ALL OTHER INPUTS, cannot be acting of “free will” but of “randomness”. Which, on it’s face seems problematical. But I think randomness & how one reacts when a random choice is made, leads maybe not to unfettered freewill, but to an expansion of future inputs that guide BETTER “decisions”. But then, the argument regarding “how one reacts” boils down to wondering if that reaction isn’t somehow determined by factors external to that reaction…

                • In my model I treat randomness as another system input… but for the sake of this discussion let’s assume the rabbit hole of modeling ends there. 🙂

                  This “randomness”, if taken from a physics point of view as something that cannot be modeled/predicted, cannot ‘by definition’ come from the system itself. (This is where treating it as real randomness fails, as that can be statistically modeled). Either it acts on its own volition, or there is an external non-physical force guiding it. I like to think as that external non-physical force being a part of me (call it soul or spirit, if you want, but that does not really map exactly in my view) that can affect the world undetected and independent of it while still being constrained by physical reality.

                  It does (did) get very metaphysical at this point.

                  I know this is informal, and I’m not completely satisfied by it, but other philosophical/metaphysical approaches to the problem of free will have not worked for me either.

  4. Even if they the HOF changes the rules and allows him to be eligible. He would have to get voted in by the veteran’s committee and that is not ever going to happen.


    There’s something about Pete Rose and Southern Ohio and Pete Rose fans and Reds fans. It’s the most irrational collection of over-lapping groups I’ve ever seen. A huge dumpster fire of a Venn diagram. Entertaining, but just a huge collection of dumb.

    I hated watching Charlie Hustle play. Compared to Roberto Clemente or Frank Robinson or Hank Aron or Willie Mays, he was just plain ugly. And seems to be as ugly a human being as, ironically enough, Ty Cobb.

    Great discussion on morality and ethics, Jack. A very worthwhile point. there’s a great deal to be said for just shutting up and following the rules.

  6. There is a utilitarian argument here that goes along the lines that those capable of ethical reasoning should be openly religious as an example to those who are unable of that. I do not think the benefit is worth the deceit, but I’ve had hours of fun trying to convert atheists with this argument (all in jest, but very stimulating intellectually).

    • You can also argue that all truth ultimately leads back to a Supreme Being. If we understood the nature of God we’d see that truth cannot exist without Him at the center as the creator.

      • That is a much better argument and closer to my personal beliefs (Catholic here). That plus a number of personal experiences and the mere fact that we are conscious of our existence.

        I had my crisis of faith early on (around 13) and, man, was it hard to figure it out by myself with no access to the Internet or even a decent library back then. The fact that my local priest was not exactly approachable did not help.

  7. Over the years I have wasted large volumes of air trying to explain to Pete Rose fans why he should never be allowed in the Hall of Fame. The defense of Rose by otherwise sensible (even moral) people baffles me; much of it seems to be based on an attitude of “sports is a different world where only achievement counts” that I frankly don’t understand at all. I wish that Pete would just buy a piece of property around the corner from the Hall of Fame and build his own ego museum, then leave the rest of out it. It’s as close as he should ever get.

    • I wouldn’t think so…not necessarily.

      As long as they individually aren’t engaging in the gambling themselves and wagering money on winners and losers, they aren’t creating a conflict of interest that could lead to *determining* winners and losers.

      Owning and running the apparatus would seem to make money regardless of winners and losers and odds…though I can see where conflicts of interest could arise.

      The gambling I don’t think is the issue in and of itself…I think it’s the conflict of interest and temptation to play games dishonestly that forces gambling to be the issue.

    • It was a mistake. The league will soon extract itself from it, I’m pretty sure. Since the activity wasn’t treated as gambling by the law, the sports leagues fell for The Compliance Dodge.

      But it’s still not related to Rule 21. Fans are gambling, not MLB personel.

  8. I’ve never been a Pete Rose fan, but have respect for the way he played the game. Not exactly my style, but i wouldn’t mind a guy like that in my clubhouse. He most certainly should not ever be in the hall of fame, from an ethical and moral perspective. I see the issue as ethics being absolute, and morality allowing for growth, change and ultimately forgiveness. Unfortunately, Rose has never exhibited any growth or change. If he would do so, and in a sincere manner, he’d get into the hall of fame. And it would still be wrong, but perhaps in an ethical lapse, one I could live with as long as a serious stipulation is made. I would give him one shot to privately come clean, or publicly if he chose to. If he finally stopped the lying and admitted to his transgressions, I would allow him to enter the HOF posthumously. Ironically, I don’t believe that if this offer was made today, that he’d accept it. The ego in him wants the ceremony, and the trappings associated with entrance to the hall. He forfeited that right long ago. His quiet entrance to the hall without the usual pomp and circumstance would quiet the baseball purists (or so they think) and allow baseball to appear ethical, moral, and forgiving. And this from a long suffering Indians fan….

  9. You assume that moral codes have more than a coincidental correspondence with ethical bases. That they are almost always formulated entirely on an ethical basis.

    YMMV on that one. Some are mostly OK, but all have serious flaws, and in some cases they’re almost nothing but flaws.

    I’m pretty bright. OK, not pretty, but smarter than the average bear. Rocket Scientist etc etc, I have the runs on the board there.

    I do not consider myself to have the moral authority to institute a code of moral conduct for others to follow, and be assured that that is 100% ethically correct in every way. It is entirely possible that someone less intelligent than myself will point out an error in my thinking. It’s happened before now, and will no doubt happen again.

    I’m a monster of Ego and arrogance – but there are limits!

    A code which is formulated by a large group tends to be better than one formulated by an elite. I find that vexing, it shouldn’t be true, the Great and the Good (like me.. HA!) should be able to do better than a mob of morons.

    We don’t though. Utopian idealists like me include Lenin, Pol Pot, Mussolini, Hitler….and for that matter Calvin. It would be hard to find a worse system than aristocratic oligarchical or dictatorial meritocracy.

    So I distrust codes that are imposed on others without consulting them.

    Finally… you can’t make something foolproof, as fools are so ingenious. Any person so thick as to require a moral code to be imposed on them is also thick enough to misconstrue it, or ignore it entirely. Conversely, anyone bright enough not to misunderstand it and to implement it is fully capable of ethical thinking.

    • All technically true, but in reality, human beings who lack the skills and interests and time to work out ethical choices and develop ethics problem solving skills are better off with moral codes, flawed but sincere, than they are without them. Happier too.

    • Regarding your last paragraph, that’s a great example of the fallacy of the exlcluded middle. I contend that there are large numbers of people who can’t generate a workable code of ethics, even given hints, but who can live within a structure that’s handed to them, and can even evaluate existing ones. Only up to a point, since I also am convinced that Goedel’s incompleteness theorem is just as accurate for systems of ethics as it is for number systems (Jack, your reference to that is part of what drew me to this blog, since prior to that I was the only person I was aware of who had noticed the parallel.)

      For the CS geeks: Ethics are in NP. 🙂

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