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  • The Moral Equivalent of Football
  • Erin C. Tarver

in 2017, a study of the brains of former football players returned some of the most damning evidence to date of the inherent dangers of the game. Of 111 former NFL players' brains examined post-mortem, 110 were found to have the damage associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease causing serious emotional and behavioral problems—and, often, premature death (Mez et al. 360). That football is physically risky has been known virtually since its advent; what the newest studies suggest is that its dangers are much more extensive than previously imagined, and much harder to avoid than had been hoped.

Such findings add urgency to the ethical problems that football raises: How can one justify watching, much less supporting or enjoying, such a violent game? Shouldn't Americans be concerned that this enjoyment comes at the price of permanent damage to the bodies of its athletes, who are disproportionately young black men? Even bracketing the physical dangers of football, ethical questions about it remain: Doesn't it matter that so much is culturally invested in an exclusively masculine and violent space—especially in the intercollegiate context?

There are ample reasons to be concerned about football. Yet from a pragmatic perspective, the declaration that football is morally indefensible is less than helpful. Football in the United States is a major industry, intertwined with community life, educational institutions, broadcasting, and manufacturing. Its rituals and calendar are observed by houses of worship and integrated into the most intimate celebrations of family life. In short, even if philosophers could prove that football was irredeemably evil, it is unlikely that this would change anything. More than this, as pragmatists who value both epistemic humility and the importance of taking seriously perspectives other than our own, there is something decidedly unsettling about the prospect [End Page 91] of professional intellectuals making derisive moral pronouncements about the acceptability of something so widely beloved. Football simply means too much today for our response to end with a declaration about its moral acceptability. If we want to actually do something about it—if, in other words, we want to approach moral philosophy as pragmatists who take seriously both the ideas and perspectives of others and the need for our own philosophical contributions to actually make a difference in the world—we need a different ethical approach.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, William James and his pacifist compatriots found themselves similarly stuck. Despite war's undeniable destructiveness and humanity's general recognition that it brings misery, we continue to find ourselves embroiled in violent conflict. This is no accident, James argued in an address entitled "The Moral Equivalent of War": humans are continually drawn into wars because there is something about them to which we are genuinely attached, and not just out of romantic delusion. We should take the attachment to war seriously as a moral issue, James suggests, because it is indicative of the fact that, despite war's deleterious effects on humanity, it also has morally positive consequences insofar as it allows for the development of virtues and sentiments that are increasingly rare in the modern world. It is no wonder, from this view, that people cannot seem to give up on war; doing so would mean sacrificing their access to genuine moral goods. Thus, rather than argue that war is evil, rather than believe that the humans attached to it are stupid or incontinent, philosophers should search for a "moral equivalent" through which humans can gain the moral goods of war (James calls them "the martial virtues") without succumbing to its obvious evils.

In this paper I will argue that we should approach the problem of football using James's general approach to war—with one important modification. I follow James's strategy by distinguishing between football's deleterious and positive moral effects, and by advocating for new methods to produce the latter. However, I suggest that we ought to reject James's specific assessment of which moral effects are in fact positive. Whereas James sees traits like "contempt of softness" and "obedience to command" as obvious "martial virtues" to be celebrated and encouraged...


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pp. 91-109
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