Axiology and the Race for MVP

Ever since Magic edged out Barkley and Jordan for the 1990 Most Valuable Player award, people have debated the methods by which the MVP is chosen.  Prior to 1980, players chose the MVP themselves through popular vote.  Since then the MVP has been chosen by a group of sportswriters through a point system. The league has never given the “voters” any guidelines by which to make their selections.  The result has been a yearly debate, multiple controversies, and only one unanimous choice (Olajuwon, 1994). 

The problem that fans have had with the MVP award stems from the ambiguity around the term “value” and how it is being applied.  The current model for choosing the MVP, allowing a random group of writers to arbitrarily select someone based on their own individual criteria of what is “valuable,” is a perfect example of the Austrian School’s subjective theory of value.  The result begs the question: he is the most valuable player because, according to most of us, he meets our standard of “valuable.” There is no intrinsic value to the player, no value in and of itself, independent of our personal value systems. 

Given that the Austrian School fails to meet Negative Dunkalectic’s high standards of serious academic research, today we will examine other models for determining value and who those models may offer us as this year’s Most Valuable Player. 

Labor Theory of Value

If our starting point is the subjective theory, a decidedly libertarian view, then perhaps we should take a look at its historical antagonist.  Classical economist David Ricardo suggested that a thing’s value was determined by the amount of labor required in its production.  Both he and Marx believed that things had intrinsic value separate from their exchange value (their price) or their use value (their necessity).  This intrinsic value was, according to the labor theory of value, entirely dependent on the amount of abstract labor embodied in the commodity.

Perhaps they would agree on Monta Ellis as the league’s MVP this season.  The hardest working player in the NBA, Ellis has played 67 games, 2719 minutes, and averages 40.6 minutes per game. 

Intrinsic Value

While the labor theory of value is arguably as controversial as the subjective theory among economists, the idea of an object having intrinsic value is less so among philosophers.   That isn’t to say there isn’t debate, though. 

Intrinsic value is commonly defined as value that a thing has “in and of itself,” as opposed to value that is related to other things.  Philosophers tend to approach this distincition dialectically, as a question of means and ends.  Some things have value because they are instruments that allow us to arrive at another thing which has value.  For example, if I value listening to hip hop music, then Ghostface has instrumental value, whereas the record “Supreme Clientele” has instrinsic value

The philosopher G.E. Moore, skeptical that one could truly arrive at anything with intrinsic value, offered us this experiment:  consider a thing such that in its complete and total isolation from the world we would still judge it to be good, or of value.  Applying his experiment to an NBA player seems simple enough. Consider a player such that in the absence of his team he would still be as good.

One could just take the best player on the worst team and award them the MVP based on their intrinsic value.  Using efficiency ratings as a yardstick, that award would go to Baron Davis on the Cleveland Cavaliers.  That’s unfair, though, because Davis only recently joined the Cavs.  The player on the Cavs with the most minutes and highest EFF is Antwan Jamison.

Kevin Love, on the other hand, has the highest EFF in the entire league.  He doesn’t play for the league’s worst team, but the Timberwolves are truly bad, in the bottom five of the league.  There is no better example of a player in complete and total isolation, stripped of any extrinsic or instrumental qualities, than Kevin Love. 

Instrumental Value

What of the aforementioned instrumental value?  Could someone choose an MVP based solely on that alone?  Pragmatists such as John Dewey would argue yes.  In fact, they would have argued that there is no such thing as intrinsic value at all.  Value, according to Dewey, is all instrumental.  The ends constantly evolve based on the means (experience and results).  The value that any action or thing has is in its relationship to the collective good.  The notion of something having intrinsic value is flawed since value requires experience and results, nothing can have value in a vaccum.

The instrumentalist would likely take the inverse approach of the previous example.  The best player on the worst team may be a good player, but obviously has little or no value given that their team is so bad. Who is the most contributory player on the best team? 

The adjusted +/- stat tells us how well a team is doing with and without a particular player on the floor.  So far this season Steve Nash has the highest APM.  But he plays on a team that is terrible, so even though he is making an impact, that impact isn’t leading to wins.  Dewey may take issue with this and argue that the ends doesn’t affect the value of the means.  

Be that as it may, the player with the second highest APM this season is Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets, who are currently 6th in the Western Conference.  The third highest APM belongs to Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, who are 2nd.  Perhaps the instrumentalist gives the MVP to Dirk.

The Categorical Imperative

Kant believed in intrinsic value, but only believed there was one type: good will.  All other things had only extrinsic value relative to the good will they brought about.  He saw good will as something “to be esteemed beyond comparison as far higher than anything it could ever bring about.” 

To that end he developed a framework by which human actors could judge their own actions to determine whether or not they had value.  The categorical imperative helped us arrive at things that had absolute and a priori instrinsic value, and were therefore examples of good will.  It was our imperative to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”

Kant would likely look to players who have engendered the most good will as having the most intrinsic value to themselves and to the game.  Perhaps he would look at the fouls column of the box score for evidence. 

The team in the NBA that commits the lowest number of fouls is the San Antonio Spurs.  And among that team’s starters, Tim Duncan scores the least number of fouls among all the regular starters.  A scholar and a gentleman to be sure, Duncan would earn Kant’s MVP.  

You may not agree that any of these players deserve the MVP this year.  But this is an examination of process, not necessarily of results.  While each of these candidates are debatable, so too will be the eventual winner of this season's award.  What is needed is an unambiguous process that informs us all what it is that we should expect and value from NBA players.  Beyond winning a ring, of course.

David Hill is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. He took a few philosophy classes in college but can't be held responsible for any inaccuracies in this post.  He can be found on twitter here. 

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heller said...

You fail to understand why Austrian Economics can't tell us what the MVP is. Austrian Economics' subjective theory is that individuals decide for themselves the value of certain items or services, based on whatever criteria they choose (including the philosophical analyses you describe). Each individual has their own opinion of which player is most valuable, but there is no objective MVP.

Unless you're willing to argue that there is one true criteria or process for picking the MVP, you are necessarily in agreement with the Austrians.

Kirk Krack said...

austrian economics sucks

Anonymous said...

shut up nerds

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