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Joe Morgan and the categorical imperative

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What would Kant say about steroids?

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Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Last week, Joe Morgan appealed to voters for the Baseball Hall of Fame on whether known PED-users should be allowed into the museum. With his letter, Morgan managed to rekindle the debate on whether players like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens are deserving of a plaque in Cooperstown.

Keeping such players out of the Hall seems counterintuitive for two reasons. First, the Hall is a museum and, as such, should house the entirety of baseball history, both the good and the bad. If history is censored, then what are we safeguarding? Should we slowly begin to accept the ideals of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984?

The second reason is that there already is a known PED user enshrined in the Hall: Mike Piazza. Piazza admitted to taking the drug androstenedione in his autobiography; a substance which MLB banned in 2004. If voters disregarded this information when Piazza was elected then keeping players like Bonds and Clemens out is sheer hypocrisy.

Despite all this, Morgan seems to be both correct and incorrect. Steroids — and other drugs — have no place in the current iteration of the game, but this should not bar players who [might] have used them from being enshrined. In Immanuel Kant’s The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), he presents the Categorical Imperative (CI), an argument that can be used to describe whether an action is purely moral or not. With this argument, we can make a case for accepting and rejecting steroids.

Simply put, the CI states that a person should act only in accordance with a maxim which he can will it to become a universal law while maintaining rationality. In other words, the only actions a person should be ready to accept are those he considers as universally moral. For example, taking a life is morally wrong and should always be rejected.

Morgan is correct, then, if we talk about steroids within the game. By accepting Kant’s CI, steroids should be avoided as they can give a player an unfair advantage over his competition. Thus no player should use PEDs. Therefore, if a player knows that he -– and others -- will gain an immoral advantage, he should reject them absolutely.

Then again, suppose a player is thinking beyond the scope of the game; he is thinking about his legacy, paycheck, and team success. If steroids help him gain all these, and he is willing to accept other players using them, then he could posit that PED-usage is morally acceptable and he and every other player should (and probably must) use them.

Players should then be ready to police themselves, readily accepting or rejecting, as a group, whether steroids should be a part of the game. Then again, this leads to a who watches the watchmen scenario which brings us right back to where we started.

Assuming Morgan is thinking solely of the first part, then he is right – albeit from his perspective. However, with regards to history, he is incorrect. PEDs are already an infamous part of the game and, like it or not, should be accepted.

The key part of Kant’s CI is rationality when accepting a universal maxim otherwise, we end up debating non-stop over where to draw a line regarding morality -- which can actually be a fun debate. Currently, the Hall is fighting a bout of irrationality. By inducting Piazza, it would be irrational to neglect other alleged steroid users into the Hall. Why should one be admitted while others are rejected?

Furthermore, the Hall already houses other morally questionable people. By documenting the exploits of players who were known racists, misogynists, or hardcore-drug users, keeping PED users out seems like drawing an arbitrary line in the sand. Why embrace players who have participated in other immoral acts while rejecting PED users? This does not seem in accord with what museums should stand for.

It is illogical for an entity to reject part of its history while readily accepting other murkier aspects of it. No one likes to deal with their skeletons, but they’re there and if we are to move on from them, we must be more than willing to show them and state that though these errors happened – and mentioning the context in which they happened -- they are now rejected, and only celebrated as part of a larger picture.

Whether Kant would agree with this eludes me. By taking his CI, we can argue that PED users should have a place in the Hall while establishing that MLB and the Players Association – and writers, fans, et al – reject their use.

Martin Alonso writes for Beyond the Box Score and BP Bronx and is constantly geeking out over baseball and Star Wars. You can find him on Twitter at @martnar.