If you have ever taken a course or read a book on medieval philosophy, you are likely well acquainted with the very useful Latin modifier, qua, meaning “in the capacity of.” One uses qua when one wishes to treat a certain aspect of a complex thing. Take, for example, a man. We proverbially say that a man wears many hats. Our hypothetical John Smith is a human, an American citizen, a resident of Idaho, a carpenter, a husband, a contributor to the Shriners’ hospitals, an avid racing enthusiast, a member of the local school board, and so on. Not all of these aspects of John Smith are relevant to various inspections of Mr. Smith. If we wanted to have John Smith build a new garage for us, we would not care about his interest in the races. If we served on an Idahoan county elections board, we would be concerned about Mr. Smith’s residency. The philosophical shorthand of such designation and limitation is to note John Smith qua resident of Idaho or John Smith qua father of young children.
You may think that the power of qua is not very important, but I emphatically disagree. Distinctions help us to understand the world. Acknowledging the complexity of the objects of our inquiries and distinguishing among the relevant aspects of those objects for particular purposes are extremely important.
I thought of the importance of qua recently when I overheard some media personalities arguing about whether Michael Vick ought to be allowed to play again in the N.F.L. Had these folks employed the power of qua, they would have clarified their position to each other, and they would have been able to discover their underlying point of disagreement instead of speaking past each other, as people usually do.
As I see it, Michael Vick’s relationship to the N.F.L. mainly deals with Michael Vick qua football player—not Michael Vick qua man or Michael Vick qua released jailbird. Of course, the N.F.L. is a business, and businesses do not wish to upset the gentle tastes of their patrons. Commerce readily understands the public’s inability to use qua. I think that this is unfortunate—and unfairly inconsistent. If the N.F.L. really required all of its players to be virtuous men rather than just the most talented football players, then how many men would be eligible to play? Let those without sin make the first down.
Of course, what about the children? Little Bobby idolizes professional athletes. What sort of example is Michael Vick for Little Bobby?
Well, Little Bobby’s parents, and our society in general, ought to provide more suitable role models for the young—starting with parents themselves. What makes a professional athlete a professional athlete is not an outstanding character but rather outstanding athletic ability. Certainly, such ability implies admirable aspects of character such as the necessary discipline to hone skills. However, the ability to excel in a sport does not entail moral rectitude. It is obscene that the immature souls of teenage Olympians should be held up as paragons of human virtue and role models for the masses. Like anyone else, I marvel and admire those athletes. They are fearfully and wondrously made, but their beautiful bodies, athletic discipline, and emotional stability (for competition, at least) do not necessarily accompany developed practical wisdom. To assume such is to be a fool, and the whole world showed itself to be so idiotic in its reaction to Michael Phelps’ bong photograph. We should expect moral superiority in our politicians who lead us rather than in our athletes who wow us with their athleticism. For good political leadership requires an excellent character, whereas being a good swimmer—or a good quarterback—does not. People do not want Vick to play, but Kennedy remains a senator. We are a very confused society.