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The morality of practice: the case of the disabled golf player

June 16, 2009

In this morning’s 2009 Reith lecture on BBC Radio 4, the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel discussed the question of morality in public and political life through examples such as same-sex marriage, surrogate mothers, the fair distribution of flutes, and whether a professional golfer with a disability should be allowed to ride a cart. This latter example concerned the golfer Casey Martin whose case reached America’s highest court of justice. Despite strong resistance from the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) and some of the world’s top golfers, the jurors decided in favour of Martin. According to CNN:

Martin has a circulatory disease that affects his ability to walk and he had sued the PGA tour for the ability to use a golf cart to get from tee to green. There is no question that Casey Martin make the golf shots, but what the court has said is that riding in the cart does not fundamentally alter the game of golf, the essence of which, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, is still shot-making.

To explain what went on here, Sandel brings in Aristotle who argued that to understand the moral nature of a given practice we need to understand its purpose. Thus to decide how to distribute a set of flutes amongst a population we must first know what flutes are for. Aristotle’s solution was as follows. Because flutes are made to create beautiful music, the best flutes should go to the most accomplished flute players.

Yet not all cases are as straightforward, says Sandel. In the golfing dispute, the jurors had to first establish the purpose of the game of golf, and then whether moving about the golf course in a cart would give Martin an unfair advantage over his rivals. They came to the conclusion that the essence of golf is to put a ball in a small hole and that reaching the ball on wheels did not alter the game in any fundamental way. However, this is not how the PGA or the professional players see the practice of golf. In the wider societal context of athletics and sports, argues Sandel, golfers have to contend with the commonly held perception of golf as a game that does not require physical fitness or sporting prowess. The ruling in favour of Martin undermined their sustained efforts to portray golf as an athletic endeavour. It diminished, in other words, the societal standing of their practice.

From a practice-theoretical perspective, I find this case fascinating. Until now I have been mostly concerned with the rewards of practice (Warde 2005), particularly of media-related practices, but this lecture raises new questions for me that I will have to address elsewhere. For one thing, it sends me to a passage in Boellstorff’s (2008) monograph Coming of Age in Second Life in which he discusses how ‘residents’ of the virtual world Second Life (SL) who are disabled in their first lives find that they can do things in SL that they are unable to do offline. Thus there has been organised resistance in SL to introduce voice technology as many residents, including those with certain disabilities, felt it would radically alter the nature of their SL sociality.


Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Warde, A. (2005) `Consumption and Theories of Practice’, Journal of Consumer Culture 5(2),  pp. 131-54.

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