Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Very Short Introduction to the Philosophy of Sport (Part 2)

Part II: Ethical, Social, and Political Issues


Not surprisingly, ethical issues have drawn the most scholarly debate within the field. Aside from the general debate about the role of movement, sport, and play in “the good life,” the field provides a variety of issues that can be examined in a variety of ways. For example, the morality of doping may be approached from the perspective of traditional virtue ethics by developing a conception of a good person within sport (sometimes called sportsmanship or sportspersonship), then asking whether this person would use dope. From the perspective of Kantian-style duty ethics, one may point out that doping violates a promise made to a competitor. And from a consequentialist utilitarian perspective, one may argue that doping has negative health consequences. In recent years, Alisdair MacIntyre’s social practice theory (After Virtue, 1981) has been applied frequently to sport. On this view, sports are seen as group activities in which practitioners seek certain internal goods and uphold particular standards of virtue. From this perspective the question about doping is whether it interferes with the pursuit of those internal goods or group-defined virtues.

Of course the most basic ethical question in sport is cheating: is it ever morally permissible to intentionally break a rule? The most controversial example is fouling to stop the clock in basketball. A strict perspective on this practice is Warren Fraleigh’s “logical incompatibility thesis,” which says you can’t break a rule and play the game at the same time. Insofar as games just are sets of rules, violating rules amounts to not playing the game. A softer approach views breaking rules as unethical when it interferes with the game’s purpose of testing a prescribed set of skills. A third perspective views games as cultures rather than rule sets and defines sport ethics in terms of what’s accepted by the community of practitioners. The clock-stopping foul in basketball, on this view, is morally permissible because it’s accepted and even expected within the culture of the game. It’s not clear, however, that acceptance of a practice amounts to moral rectitude. Unwritten rules might also carry moral obligations—as with the soccer custom of kicking the ball out of play when a player is injured. If a player is somehow unaware of this custom, and therefore fails to do it, has she done something immoral?

Morality in sports competition involves more than rule-obedience. The interpersonal nature of competition itself implies certain moral obligations. In Fair Play: Sport, Values, and Society (1991) Robert Simon defines athletic competition as a “mutual quest for excellence” that is ultimately cooperative and therefore carries the obligation to provide a good test for one’s opponent. Violence, defined as the intent to harm or disable one’s opponent, is unethical on this model because it interferes with the cooperative quest for excellence. Aggressive but clean checking in hockey may be part of the game, but preventing a competitor from being able to test his skills is not acceptable. This is a problem for the sport of boxing insofar as its lusory goal—the knock out—just is the violent disabling of ones opponent.

Ethical issues in sport also examine actions in terms of what is good for the sport generally. The use of high-tech equipment, such as hydrodynamic swimsuits, is a good topic for debate. Robert Butcher and Angela Schneider define fair play as “respect for the game,” which they describe in terms of preserving what MacIntyre called the internal goods of a particular sport. Hi-tech equipment may interfere with these goods if, for example, it makes the sport too expensive for many to participate, or if it replaces one of the sport’s important skills with a mechanical advantage. On the other hand, high-tech equipment can be good for the game if it preserves or increases access to internal goods. Many would argue that the advent of the fiberglass vaulting pole made the sport safer and more accessible to athletes of all sizes and genders. Sports ethics does not always cohere with conventional athletic wisdom, but it does apply disciplined ethical thinking to practices which too often view themselves as “beyond” ethical scrutiny.

The Social and Political Functions of Sport

The third big area of philosophical speculation in sport has to do with sport’s social and political functions. Foremost among these is the use of sport in education. Many sport philosophers are also physical educators and the role and purpose of PE is a popular topic. R. Scott Kretchmar’s Practical Philosophy of Sport (1994) promotes a reflective approach to physical education that emphasizes finding meaning in movement. Sport is also discussed as a means of moral education, with special attention paid to its ability to reveal or perhaps cultivate “character.” Heather L. Reid’s The Philosophical Athlete (2002) focuses on what athletes can learn from participating in competitive sport. Finally, sport is discussed as a means of social education—a way of teaching the cooperation and teamwork necessary to succeed in modern society.

Philosophers of sport also debate issues of sport and social access. Sport, like society, has a history of exclusion by class, race, and gender. A hot topic in recent years has been the relationship of women with sport. In the USA a law called Title IX guarantees equal access for males and females to all educational programs—including sport. Educators note that sport helps females to compensate for social discrimination, and there are quantifiable data showing that athletic teenagers are less likely to become pregnant or use drugs. Nevertheless, Title IX preserves sex segregation in sport, which begs the question of whether separate can really be equal (and whether equal is really appropriate) for males and females in sport.

Sport is often discussed in terms of political concepts such as the social contract. Is accepting the rules of a game akin to entering a social contract? The political ideal of justice can be compared to the sport-specific concept of fair play. Principles such as equal opportunity seem to be reflected in sports by common starting lines and level playing fields, but they are also challenged by inequities of natural ability, coaching resources, equipment, and poverty. Sports sometimes compensate for competitive advantages by providing various “handicaps,” but are these always just? Issues of liberty and authority are frequently discussed in issues revolving around personal risk and safety, as well as social control issues, such as the excessive celebration rule in American Football.

Broader cultural issues are also examined in their relationship to sport. Prominent among these are questions about commercialization and commodification. Big-time college sport in the USA seems driven by business interests even while it applies the strictest amateur regulations to its athletes. Does professionalization make sport more work than play? Has sport lost the qualities of autotelicity (i.e. being an end in itself) and gratuitousness (i.e. being unnecessary for survival) that set it off from ordinary life and—at least to the ancient Hellenes—made it noble? William J. Morgan believes that the relationship between sport and culture teaches us as much about society as it does about athletes. In Why Sports Morally Matter (2006) he recounts the damage done to sport by so-called free-market values, illuminating at the same time sport’s potential to cultivate constructive social skills and values that challenge the dominant ideology. On an international level as well, sport has demonstrated its ability to encourage peaceful dialogue among diverse cultures—indeed this is a philosophical foundation of the Olympic Games.

Questions for the Future

By any standard, philosophy of sport must be regarded as a nascent academic field with a vast unexplored frontier. Important texts and ideas from the history of philosophy have been profitably applied to sport and there is still much ground to cover. Non-western philosophy offers many opportunities in this area; Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, is the only major work to date. The analysis of additional ethical and political issues is also ripe for development, particularly as sport plays a larger role in commercial society and international politics. Philosophy, ultimately, is about the desire to know—there is much to know about sport and our journey has just begun.


Carl Thomen said...

Heather, thank you very much for this post. I have thought about a lot of the issues you discuss, but without knowing where to look for direction. So thanks for the pointers. You mention that sport has a history of exclusion - I submit that this is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in my country, South Africa, where apartheid policies meant that non-white sportspeople where discriminated against for many years. To combat this, our government has a policy of "Transformation"; my research aims to evaluate this policy. Is it a legitimate attempt to create a level playing field for all, or is it merely apartheid in reverse? If you know of any literature on affirmative action in sport, please let me know!

Jan Boxill said...

Heather, this is an excellent introduction to the subject. In discussing sport and education, I would like to recommend an essay by Janice Moulton, "Why Everyone Deserves a Sporting Chance: Education, Justice and School Sports" In this essay, she argues that access to sport is like access to education; that sports, like education, is an important means for participating in our civilization; "that knowledge and interest and basic ability in sports are as important for getting along in daily life in our society as knowledge and interest and basic ability in many academic subjects." The article can be found in my Sports Ethics: An Anthology.