Are More Important Goals Better Goals?

In the 64th minute of yesterday’s Champions League final, Gareth Bale scored an outrageous bicycle kick to give eventual winners Real Madrid the lead over Liverpool. Here it is.

During the BBC’s Radio 5 Live coverage (at 1:25:33), commentators Mark Lawrenson and Chris Waddle debated whether it was a greater goal than Cristiano Ronaldo’s very similar effort in a quarter final of the same competition. Here’s that goal.

Lawrenson suggested that Bale’s goal was superior on the grounds that it was scored on a more important occasion—to take the lead in the final of the world’s most prestigious club tournament. Waddle disagreed, suggesting that the occasion was irrelevant: goals should be assessed, as it were, on their own intrinsic merits.

One can feel the tug of both intuitions. With Lawrenson, if I score a spectacular goal to win the World Cup final, this seems a better goal than an otherwise identical one scored during a friendly kickabout. Yet, with Waddle, if the goals are move-for-move and atom-for-atom identical, then it also seems strange to think one is better, since they are identical.

One could just call the question ambiguous. Lawrenson, one might claim, understands ‘better’ in the question ‘which goal is better?’ as including the occasion as a consideration. Waddle understands ‘better’ as excluding the occasion. If so, perhaps they’re not disagreeing, but just using the word ‘better’ differently and talking past each other.

But regardless whether this ambiguity is true of Lawrenson and Waddle’s dispute, we might still wonder which way to understand the term ‘better’ in this context is (no pun intended) better. After all, we might want to just figure out whether Bale’s goal is better than Ronaldo’s without the answer to that question following uninterestingly from what we’ve stipulated ‘better’ to mean in the question. I could, for instance, stipulate that ‘better’ means ‘scored by Nils Stear’ in which case all of my goals are ‘better’ than Ronaldo’s and Bale’s, but this is unhelpful and uninteresting.

Treating the question as serious and unambiguous, it is similar to a longstanding problem in aesthetics concerning the relevance of an artwork’s ethical properties to its aesthetic ones. Instead of asking whether an important occasion can make a goal better, aestheticians have been asking whether an artwork’s being moral (or immoral) can make it aesthetically better (or worse).

There is a difficult version of this question and an easy one. The difficult version asks whether an artwork’s immorality, say, can ever itself be an aesthetic property like gracefulness, garishness, or unity. The question is difficult because answering it requires determining which are and aren’t the aesthetic properties and identifying some satisfactory theory to make these metaphysical determinations. For similar reasons, if we were to ask whether the occasion on which someone scores a goal is as such among the good-goal-making considerations, this might be difficult.

The easy version of the question, however, simply asks whether an artwork’s immorality can make it aesthetically better or worse, regardless of whether the immorality is itself aesthetic. Why is this easier? Well, because now we don’t have to make any difficult determinations about the metaphysics of aesthetic and ethical values; we just have to figure out whether it’s ever the case that being immoral brings about aesthetic changes in an artwork. And it’s clear that it does. This is because just about any property of an artwork can affect its aesthetic properties (think about how altering a single note or colour can transform the mood of a song or painting).

For an unethical case, consider the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. One thing multiple writers agree upon is that the film’s aesthetic and ethical threads are tightly woven together. It’s not a just a film that celebrates fascism; it’s a film that celebrates fascism through its fascist aesthetic style—what Daniel Jacobson, echoing Susan Sontag, calls the ‘unity of the film’s political and aesthetic ideals’. Given this fact, if one were to remove the film’s immorality by purging its Nazism, one would be left with a morally superior, but arguably aesthetically inferior, film. At minimum, the altered version would be aesthetically different because less unified since, as Berys Gaut puts it, the film ‘is held together thematically by its offensive celebration of Nazism’.

We can apply this same idea to Bale’s goal. We might be unsure whether the occasion on which someone scores is as such a good-goal-making consideration. Yet we know that an important occasion makes performing well more difficult. Just as the immorality of Triumph of the Will affects the work’s unity, then, the fact that Bale scored his goal in the Champions League final affects the goal’s difficulty. And if anything is a good-goal-making consideration, it’s difficulty—the trickier the better.

Which goal is better then, Bale’s or Ronaldo’s? Well, though they’re similar, they’re not identical. Bale’s goal seems to me better on occasion-independent grounds. He strikes the ball more crisply than Ronaldo. And whereas Ronaldo sends a moderately paced ball into the opposite side of the goal, Bale pings a gracefully curved ball over the keeper and into the top corner. But putting those differences aside, our discussion shows that, all else equal, Bale’s is the superior goal for the occasion on which he scored it. And this is because of the difficulty this posed, whether or not the occasion matters as such.



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