The Bold Voice of J&K

Sports and ethics

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Vivek Koul
Among the different sub disciplines of philosophy that are worked by philosophers of sport, in the last decade there is little doubt that the sub field “ethics of sports” has seen the most growth and activity. Typically the confusion surrounds the precise nature and scope of the concept “sports ethics” itself. While it is both undesirable and difficult to police language and to prescribe usage that dissipates conceptual confusion effectively. It may be helpful to observe some important distinctions before describing the work of philosophers in the area of “ethics of sports”. In the first instance ethics and morality are used interchangeably in everyday language. Many mainstream philosophers have come to question the concept morality as a peculiarly western convention whose ambitions to universalise guides to right conduct were overly ambitious in scope. Along with the project of modernity, philosophers were looking to universalise ethics along the lines that scientists had so powerfully done in discovering natural laws and thereby mastering the world. A number of traditions of moral thinking emerged which shared certain features in their development of systems of thought that ought to guide the conduct the citizens of the globe wherever they existed. In this modern philosophical vein, ethics was used to refer to study the systematic study of morals that is universal codes or principles of right conduct. The distinction between rules, guidelines, morals or principles of living (“morality”) that exist in time and space and systematic reflection upon them (“ethics”) is still worth observing. The idea that morality refers to what all reasonable persons will conform to, requires much more careful attention. In the sports related literatures, most of what is called “ethics” is simply social science by another name. It is better, perhaps, to call it social scientific descriptions of ethically problematic practices, persons or policies. The older label “descriptive ethics” was designed to capture precisely such operations. Here researchers seek to describe that portion of the world that is ethically problematic by the received methods of social science; observation, ethnography, interview, questionnaire and the like. The most common examples of “ethics” in sport that spring up in casual conversations, as well as the academic literature, are matters of equity (i.e. social justice in terms of unequal pay for male and female sports stars) and/or of access (for example, with respect to racism or disability), deviant sub-cultures and practices (for example, so-called football “hooliganism” and cheating, sexual-abuse/harassment or doping, the prevalence of sport as a site of child abuse and exploitation, homophobia, and so forth.
In the recent past, there has been a revival of virtue theory in mainstream and applied ethics. This has usually taken the form of a resuscitation of Aristotle’s work. Here ethics is based upon good character, and the good life will be lived by those who are in possession of a range of virtues such as courage, co-cooperativeness, sympathy, honesty, justice, reliability, and so on and the absence of vices such as cowardice, egoism, dishonesty, and so on. Sports’ traditional function as role modeler for youth is premised upon virtue theory. Russell Gough’s (1997) admirable book is a user-friendly application of virtue ethics in sports. This language has an immediate application in the contexts of sports in theory but in practice, spitefulness, violence, greed, and the like often characterise elite sports. Moreover, we often question the integrity of certain coaches or officials just as we chastise players who deceive the officials.
This sketch of underlying ethical theory and its application to sports is not merely suggestive; it is also a rather traditional one. Scholars have more recently been questioning an exciting array of issues: the use of genetic engineering in sports; the place of adventurous activities in a risk avoiding culture; the role of sports in sustaining and subverting communities, identities and sexualities; environmentalist ethics for sports in a global world; ethical audits of sports organisations and
cultures; and much more.

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