Chairman's Blog

To walk or not to walk, that is the question. What would Aristotle, Plato and Kant have done had they felt a nick?

By Anthony McGowan for The Nightwatchman and re-published in The Guardian on 4th December 2019

It has been a frustrating season. You’ve managed a scratchy 30, a couple of awkward teens and more ducks than a farmyard pond in a children’s picture book.  Thoughts of retirement float into your mind, along with the existential terror of what might take the place of these long days on a green field under greying skies.  Golf?  God, no.

Then, finally, it seems like you’re in.  Blue sky, no swing, flat track, friendly bowlers.  You’ve done the hard work, wafting and missing outside off, surviving the early run-out opportunity.  You’re starting to think the new socks might be just the talisman you needed.  You allow yourself the luxury of hope.  Along comes an innocuous delivery down the leg side.  You flick at it, hoping for a glanced boundary, expecting the airy miss.

And then you feel it.  A barely perceptible touch.  Almost like the little electric tingle you get from a tooth that will soon need root canal work.  The bowler begins to go up but has a change of heart.  Was there really a noise?  He decides to keep on the umpire’s side for now, saving one in the bank for the nip-backer that might just clip leg.  Then he’ll give his lungs a workout.  The young keeper was a little more convinced but stifled his shout when he saw the bowler’s lack of conviction.  But the keeper is suspicious.  He looks at you as if to say: “Did you? I think you might have…”

What do you do?  Had you stroked your way to a nice 60, you might well nod, stick your bat under your arm and walk off, garnering goodwill and praise from all.  But it’s not been that kind of season.  You keep your head down and you ponder.  I’m not sure any other sport has anything quite like this.  There are plenty of opportunities for cheating in other sports and you can choose to reject them.  Nudging your ball so it lies a little easier in the rough.  Feigning assassination in the 18-yard box to win a penalty, then adding a flamboyant roll and clutching the face for the bonus of a sending-off.  Calling “out” when your opponent’s backhand hits the line.

But walking is different.  It isn’t cheating to stand your ground.  There is nothing in the laws of cricket that says you can’t wait for the umpire to make a decision.  But there are moral aspects to this case.  The fact that the laws are silent on walking means it is – almost uniquely in sport – a purely moral issue.  One for the philosophers, rather than the third umpire.

Let us imagine that the batter has felt that sickening click.  He wants to do the right thing and is in a meditative, philosophical frame of mind.  So, he quickly reviews the history of Western moral philosophy to find some guidance from the greatest minds to have pondered the question of right and wrong.


Ethics really gets going with Socrates, who changed the central question of philosophy from “what kind of stuff is there?” to “how should I live?”.  His method was simple.  He would find a person who claimed to be an expert in some area of ethical concern – the nature of, say, courage or piety or justice – and he would show them that everything they knew was wrong.  But Socrates never actually answers the question of how we should live. The dialogues always end in a vaguely unsatisfactory way – not so much a hard-fought draw as match abandoned due to fog.

But a few linked ethical principles emerge.  The first is that the pursuit of virtue is the only worthwhile goal in life.  The second is that virtue is the only real good.  Other things that may appear good – wealth, power, beauty – are illusory and will never bring happiness.  Living a virtuous life is the only path to happiness.  And the third is that every person does, in fact, want to be good.  Only ignorance stands in our way.

Would Socrates have walked? The manner of his death tells us much. When he was put on trial for denying the gods and corrupting the young, he was found guilty and condemned to death.  Although his friends offered to spirit him away, Socrates argued that it was only right for him to obey the laws of his city.  He calmly took the hemlock and shuffled off to the great pavilion in the sky.  So, we can be sure that he would never question the umpire’s decision.

He would have walked. To do otherwise, to stay at the wicket to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of not being out, would be to betray his life’s work.


Socrates never gave a full account of what virtue actually is.  That was left to his pupil, Plato.  For Plato the world we perceive around us is an insubstantial shadow realm, a pale reflection or copy of the “real” world.  This real world is made up of “ideas” or “forms” that act as a kind of template for the stuff we find around us in our world.  As well as the original forms of material things such as triangles and beds, more exalted concepts such as beauty, virtue and justice also live in the world of the forms.

How do we know every vaguely triangular thing is a triangle, or that a blue object is really blue?  It’s because, says Plato, we have the ideas of a perfect triangle and perfect blueness already in our minds, and we use this template to judge whether or not these shapes before us are blue triangles.  The same applies to virtue.  If we want to judge any act – for example, walking when we’ve nicked off – we simply compare it to the idea of virtue in our minds.  The ideas of triangle and blue are already in our mind because, argues Plato, before we were born our soul lived in that world of the perfect forms and has a vague memory of what it knew there.

This last part is clearly nuts, but many philosophers still say ideas or forms do exist separately from their material embodiments, and that goodness or virtue must be one of these entities, and any act of virtue is such because it in some way copies or partakes in that form.  Does this help us to decide whether or not to trudge back to the pavilion?  The problem is that we still don’t know what this vague cloud of goodness is and how precisely it applies to our current dilemma.

In his most famous dialogue, The Republic, Plato argues that injustice comes when the separate sections of the soul or the state get ideas above their station – your opening bowler trying to convince the skipper that he’s actually a perfect fit for the No 4 berth.  There are three parts to the state: the rulers, warriors and workers (or skipper, batters and bowlers).  The subdivisions of the soul are: the rational part, which uses reason to guide our action; the appetitive, which keeps us alive by driving us to eat and drink; and the spirited, which gives us courage and urges us on towards honour and victory.

But how does this theory of justice apply to our dilemma?  It’s hard to know.  And – cards on the table here – although Plato is perhaps the most revered of all philosophers, I think he’s wrong on almost every important issue.  But in general terms he, like Socrates, believed we should follow the laws of our particular state – anything else leads to chaos.  I think Plato would have walked.  However, he was also opposed to most forms of entertainment.  He would have banned poetry, plays and any kind of music other than military marches, so he would probably have done away with cricket altogether.  Wanker.

The Cynics

The word “cynic” – which derives from the Greek term for “dog-like” – has come to mean someone who “disbelieves in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms.”  It’s not an attractive picture: the thin-lipped misanthrope, mocking good intentions, forever pulling away the mask of virtue to reveal the hypocrite behind.  Perhaps you’ve played with a Cynic, witnessed that sneer of cold contempt, the assumption of superiority, the presumption that all decency and honour are merely a sham.

The Cynics lived simply, disdaining the trappings of wealth and worldly success, dressing in rags, sleeping rough, railing against the greed and materialism of the affluent.  No convention was sacrosanct; no moral or religious tradition left unmocked.  They believed in doing openly those things most of us reserve for the privacy of the bedroom or bathroom.  But Cynicism was, above all, a creed devoted to achieving a virtuous life and their critique was a necessary, if destructive, first step to enlightenment.

What would the Cynics have said about walking?  I’m afraid that they would have regarded the game itself as a ludicrous artifice.  Diogenes (412-323 BC), the founder of the group, would have marched out to the wicket and defecated on the pitch, just short of a good length.  No help there.

The Epicureans

These are one of the more misunderstood groups of Ancient philosophers. “Epicurean” has come to mean something similar to “hedonist” – someone who lives purely for pleasure.  There’s something in that – the group’s leader, Epicurus (341-270 BC), did argue that the ultimate good is pleasure (as opposed to virtue, favoured by rival Platonists and Stoics).

However, it wasn’t the crude pleasures of the flesh he had in mind, but instead calm contemplation and philosophical speculation.  And his main concern wasn’t with actively finding physical delights but with eradicating things that cause us mental or physical pain.  Retreat from the hurly burly, find a quiet garden to cultivate.  Fend off hunger by all means but live modestly and keep your desires in line with your ability to achieve them.

Epicurus would have been most concerned about the mental consequences of not walking – the guilt, the anxiety, the fear of a confrontation with that angry bowler after the game.  He probably would have walked and advised you to do the same.

The Cyrenaics

There was one group of ancient philosophers who were straightforwardly hedonistic.  The Cyrenaic school, founded by Aristippus (435–356 BC), believed that the one thing you could know for certain was whether you were enjoying pleasure or suffering pain.  The only good or virtuous things are pleasant sensations.  The only bad things are unpleasant sensations.  The past is gone forever, and the future is unknowable.  So, live for this moment, eat, drink, and be as merry as you can.  Frequent the pub and the bawdy house.

Aristippus and the Cyrenaics would say do not walk.  Enjoy your time out there.  Do anything you can to maximise the pleasure of batting.  Lie, cheat, whatever you like.  Because there is nothing else – no greater goods, no higher power.

The Sceptics

The Sceptics, a school that began with Pyrrho of Elis (360-270 BC), maintained that knowledge was impossible.  Our senses are fallible, and our intellect can lead us astray.  For any issue, you can argue equally persuasively on both sides.  Therefore, the only rational option is to withhold your judgment.  Decide nothing.  Did you edge the ball?  Impossible to say.  To walk would mean that you knew that you touched it.  You can’t know that, or anything else for that matter.  So, don’t walk.

The Stoics

The Stoics believed that everything is determined by an all-knowing, all-powerful god-like entity.  Nothing happens by chance and nothing can be changed by human will.  We are like dogs tied to a cart rolling uncontrollably down a hill.  A foolish dog will whine and pull and skid and writhe; a clever dog will understand that the cart cannot be resisted and trot along beside it.  Knowledge and wisdom can only help us understand the direction that fate is taking us and to conform our will to that outcome.

The Stoic virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – are designed to help us endure the suffering that is inevitable in life.  But we should take comfort from the fact that the ultimate destination is a good one.  These are immensely useful thoughts for cricketers.  Our sporting lives are full of woe.  Yet we must, somehow, endure.

And walking?  The Stoic’s belief that the universe is a well-ordered place, guided in the right direction by a benign god, means they trust in fate.  If the umpire hasn’t given it, that must be the right thing.  To interfere would be like the dog resisting the pull of the cart.  The Stoic does not walk.


Aristotle (384-322 BC) argued that every virtue is at the midpoint between two extremes represented by vices.  For example, the virtue of courage is at the midpoint between the vices of recklessness and cowardice.  Think of the quaking batsman backing away to square leg as one extreme, and the fool who goes out without wearing a box as the other.  Or take generosity, which is at the midpoint between meanness and showy prodigality.  Picture the skulking miser who never gets his round in after the game, and the show-off who flashes his Amex card and buys drinks for the whole bar.  And then the modest fellow who buys a modest round for his mates and, in the rare event of a fifty, gets his jug in uncomplainingly.

Applied to walking, I’d suggest that the two extremes are the player who will stand his ground even when given out and the player who is fairly sure he has missed it but walks to be on the safe side.  Aristotle would have walked only if he was pretty sure the umpire was about to give him anyway.  Otherwise I think he’d stay.

As evidence, we can look at what happened when he, like Socrates, was threatened with prosecution for impiety.  Rather than stay and take his punishment, Aristotle lifted up his skirts and fled.  He’s a runner, not a walker.


We’re leaping forward a couple of thousand years to the 18th century and the greatest of all philosophers, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Kant strove to find a moral principle that any rational person would agree on.  He hits on his “categorical imperative”, a rule that says: “Act always in such a way that your action could become a universal law.”

The example he gives is breaking a contract.  If you agree to a contract and then break it, the categorical imperative asks that you imagine a world where it was a law of nature that all contracts were broken.  In that world, nobody would ever enter into a contract and the whole institution of contracts would collapse.  Your goal – to benefit by breaking your contract – would end in failure.

Or take lying.  Lying is a useful strategy only in a world in which most people tell the truth.  If everyone always lied, there would be no point in your lies.  The categorical imperative says your actions must be checked against the following principle: what would happen if everyone did what you do?  Even if lying were to bring some great benefit to lots of other people, you shouldn’t do it.

At this point people always come up with a counter example that makes the categorical imperative sound absurd.  And the example they give is nearly always the mad axe murderer who knocks on their door and asks for the whereabouts of their intended victim, your best friend.  The categorical imperative informs us that we must never lie and yet who could in conscience reveal the hiding place?

Rather beautifully, Kant anticipates this precise example and his answer helps to explain why he thought you cannot base a moral system on looking at the consequences of your actions.  The trouble with consequences is that they are, by definition, in the future, and the future is unpredictable.  You might lie to the axeman, telling him that your friend isn’t at home when you know he is.  But, seeing the axeman at the door, the friend might already have slipped out the back.  And now the axeman encounters him in the street.

In Kant’s view you can never be held responsible for the consequences of telling the truth, though you are responsible for the bad consequences of a lie.  And there’s always the option of simply refusing to answer the axeman’s question or slamming the door in his face and calling the police.  Refusing to walk could be seen as a type of lying.  And lying breaks categorical imperative, so you have to walk.

But Kant gives another formulation to the categorical imperative: “Act always in such a way that you treat other people as an end in themselves, and not as a means to an end”.  We should not view our fellow cricketers as the means to our own pleasure.  They also have hopes, dreams and fears.  You owe them the truth.  Walk.


Utilitarianism is another type of hedonism.  It declares that the only good is happiness and that happiness is a measure of the pleasure and pain we feel. The goal of life should be to maximise pleasure and minimise pain in any society.

Now, there are problems here.  What counts as pleasure?  Is there a hierarchy in which some pleasures (such as cricket) get more points than others (such as golf)?  How do we measure these pleasures?  Can we impose our judgments on others?  Can we force people to be happy in accordance with our own conceptions of happiness?

Despite these problems, utilitarianism is the best hope we have for finding a genuinely rational way to think about morality.  In any given situation we have a duty to ponder seriously on the likely consequences and to do our best to minimise harm and promote wellbeing.  One possible advantage of Kant’s system is that we don’t have to think: we just apply the rule that says never lie.  With utilitarianism, we have to continually assess the outcomes of our actions.

I’m not sure that this is a bad thing.  To be a moral person we must constantly engage with these problems.  And so, the utilitarian would, on feeling that edge, quickly assess various factors: the state of the game, the nature of the opposition, their own mental condition, as well as that of the other 21 players.  And he or she will then decide which choice will lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

It’s not entirely straightforward but, there is something that may help in the decision-making process.  As someone who has batted and bowled, I can confirm that the pain of being out is greater than the pleasure of taking a wicket.  So, in most circumstances, the utilitarian does not walk.


Anyone who thinks about morality these days does so in the shadow of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).  Nietzsche argued with great force and panache that morality is always a matter of power, a way of asserting your will.  What is right is what those in charge, or those who want to be in charge, say to preserve or enhance their own position in society.  So, morality, specifically Christian morality – all that talk about gentleness and cheek-turning – was a weapon forged by slaves and cowards and weaklings to combat the natural aristocracy of the bold and strong.

Nietzsche says we all have to forge our own morality.  In this view there is nothing to stop the strong and the brave trampling over the weak and the dim.  Nietzsche would not have walked.

So, where does all this leave our poor batter, still suspended in that moment of judgment?  I favour the utilitarians, but philosophy isn’t like maths or physics.  The answers are always provisional.  The argument never concludes. It’s a timeless Test.  But to live a fully human life, a life that engages with the complexity and difficulty of our moral universe, you need to think through the options.  So, make a choice.  What are you – Platonist? Cynic? Sceptic? Stoic? Aristotelian? Kantian? Utilitarian? Nietzschean?  Come to think of it, those sound like a perfect set of franchise names for a new cricket tournament…