As a self-professed addict of BJJ-related history and philosophy and an academic philosopher (who works on moral psychology as part of my day job), it is rare that my dual identities coincide. For while there are plenty of people who work on the philosophy of martial arts, this research rarely focuses on the martial arts I prefer. Then, one of our guest bloggers--Daniel Mosely--sent me the following gem: Nicholas Dixon, "A Moral Critique of Mixed Martial Arts," Public Affairs Quarterly, 29:4 (2015), pp. 365-384. I have attached a copy of the article to the bottom of this post for those who can't get past the paywall.
Since this is just a blog post, I won't have time to write a thorough criticism here. But I nevertheless do think that that the argument offered by Dixon merits a response if for no other reason than if his argument were successful--and luckily, it is not--then it would also stand in as a moral objection to other combat "sports"—which is something he readily admits. Indeed, he has argued that blows to the head shouldn’t be allowed in boxing owing to the negative, long-term health affects (much the same as the data on concussions in football and soccer problematize both sports). In this respect, Dixon thinks there is a paternalistic argument to be made for forbidding certain types of contact sports. But that is not the argument he mounts against MMA. Rather than focusing on the potential negative effects on the participants or society at large, he focuses on the inherent morality (or immorality as the case may be) of MMA and other combat sports.
In order to be in the position to assess his argument, some terminological machinery must be highlighted and explained. For starters, there is an important distinction in moral philosophy between practices that are inherently or intrinsically valuable (or disvaluable) and practices that are merely instrumentally or extrinsically valuable (or disvaluable). Take the value of money. In and of itself, money has no inherent value. It is merely instrumentally valuable--that is, it is only valuable because of what you're able to do with it. If someone were already worth $100 billion and you asked them why they wanted more money, this would be a sensible question. Contrast this with happiness--which is often taken to be valuable "in itself." If someone told you they wanted to be happy, it wouldn't make sense to ask why. This is because happiness, unlike money, is inherently or intrinsically valuable--that is, its value doesn't depend on something else. Rather, the value of happiness is internal to happiness itself. Arguably, the same can be said about health. If someone told you they wanted to be healthier, it wouldn't make much sense to ask why. Health is the sort of thing we value for its own take--not for the sake of something else.
I say all this as a preliminary way of highlighting how radical Dixon's claim about MMA is. In short, he thinks that MMA is intrinsically (and not merely instrumentally) immoral. It's not that MMA brings about morally unsavory or problematic consequences for participants, the audience, or society more generally (although those might be additional reasons to prohibit MMA on moral grounds). Rather, the practice of MMA is morally suspicious regardless of the consequences. Why? In short: The goal of the sport is to intentionally cause physical harm to another person (as either an end itself or as a means to an end such as winning). Because it is allegedly inherently wrong to have these kinds of harmful intentions and perform these kind of harmful actions on purpose (unless one has an excuse such as duress or justification such as self-defense), MMA is deemed to be intrinsically immoral.
It is the alleged viciousness of the participants in MMA (and other combat sports) that raises the moral red flag. Here is a representative remark from philosopher Paul Davis talking about boxing (which applies to MMA as well):
[T]he face of at least one boxer will suggest an attitude of unbridled ferocity toward the opponent. A snapshot of the face of a fighter on the offensive is liable to reveal an attitude toward the opponent that, in any other context might be fairly described as vicious.
It is the sometimes unbridled ferocity with which MMA fighters go after one another that morally problematizes the practice according to Dixon. The charge here is that MMA fighters treat one as mere objects to be harmed in the name of victory—that is, one’s opponent is reduced to a violent and sometimes brutal means to an end (winning the fight). Here are other instances where it is normally deemed inappropriate to reduce someone else to a mere means to one’s ends:
A man treats a woman as a sex object if he regards her merely as a source of sexual gratification, without regard for her own desires or interests. Muggers treat their victims solely as objects from which to obtain money. Sycophants treat their rich acquaintances in the same way, albeit in a slightly more subtle manner. Ruthless politicians treat rivals and colleagues alike merely as stepping stones—objects to be manipulated—to their own accumulation of power.
But is this analogy apt? As we will see below, I don’t think that it is. But setting that aside for now, I simply want to point out that if sound, Dixon's argument would also call into moral question a number of other martial arts and combat sports as well such as Muay Thai fighting, boxing, and kick boxing (to name just a few). Other sports that involve harm and danger—e.g., hockey or football—may get a pass because the harming of others is not intrinsic to the practice or necessary for victory. The same could be said for wrestling and sport jiu jitsu. While people do occasionally get hurt, hurting them is not necessary to win and isn’t the goal of the practice. Some combat sports, on the other hand, are allegedly intrinsically violent and vicious and hence intrinsically immoral.
But the question of the day is: Should we accept Dixon's argument? I think the answer is "No," and I think that the most important issue is going to be consent.
See my reply below the fold!
There is a long-standing tradition in moral and political philosophy that gives consenting adults very wide latitude when it comes to what they are allowed to do to one another. On this view, so long as the only people two individuals will harm are themselves and so long as they are freely consenting adults of right mind and body, then two people can and should be able to do damn near anything they want with one another--even fight to the death if that's what tickles their fancy. The default here is to grant wide moral latitude to consent here unless extenuating circumstances apply that trump or outweigh the usual concessions we make to the consenting. Given that I don't think any extenuating circumstances arise in the context of combat sports--here again, so long as the participants are consenting adults of sound body and mind--I don't think MMA is an exception to the moral deference we give to consenting adults. So, while I might think that dueling to the death is a silly or rash idea, I am happy to allow to that two people have the moral right to consensually engage in this behavior so long as they harm only themselves. So, if I am willing to bite the proverbial bullet even in cases like dueling, I clearly think combat sports are morally permissible.
If two consenting adults of sound body and mind want to step inside of a cage and beat the snot out of one another--whether for fame and fortune or just for the so-called "thrill of the fight"--it is morally permissible so long as certain conditions are satisfied (e.g., informed consent). That is to say, it is morally permissible (a) to *intend* to harm someone else in the name of sport so long as the person who is one's target has agreed to engage in combat, and (b) to *actually* harm someone during a match or fight.
Dixon captures this response to his argument in the following way:
This mutual consent, so the defense of MMA under consideration goes, overrides the prima facie wrongness of hurting and injuring others. The legal maxim volenti non fit injuria (a person is not wronged by that to which he or she consents) seems equally sound as a defense against the charge of moral wrongdoing. To refuse to grant moral force to the consent of competent adults seems to fail to recognize their status as autonomous moral agents.
Contrary to what Dixon suggestions, I believe that consent does indeed help justify mutual and voluntary violence. Moreover, this consensual violence becomes all the more acceptable when the two individuals respect one another both before and after the fight (as is very often the case in combat sports). Moreover, despite the common moniker (and despite appearances), practitioners of MMA are not gladiators. The former, unlike the many of the latter, have a choice when it comes to whether or not to fight in the first place. So long as two people freely chose to fight (and are aware of the potential consequences of doing so), I see no reason to find it morally questionable--here again, so long as the aforementioned conditions are met (that is, the fighters are of sound body and mind, they are not being coerced, they are well informed about the risks, etc.). When these latter conditions are not met, the practice of MMA will be morally questionable (e.g., when children practice MMA with their parents' consent). Moreover, if it could be shown that MMA had negative effects on children, viewers, and societies, then this might change my opinion about MMA (and other combat sports). But as things stand, given what we know and given that fighting is deeply embedded in our biological past, so long as two consenting adults want to fight, the moral dictates of liberty demand that they be allowed to fight (under appropriate conditions, of course!).
For a related discussion of some of these issues, you can also see this piece from Bleacher Report entitled, "Is Mixed Martial Arts Simply Violence for the Sake of Violence?" There the author suggests that MMA is indeed inherently violent but morally acceptable nonetheless. As he says:
In terms of general usage, if you're hitting someone in the face, that's violence. If you're slamming someone to the ground, that's violence. If you're cutting off the supply of air to someone's brain or trying to snap his arm or ruin the tendons in her knee, that's violence. Those are the component parts of MMA.
Yet, despite the fact that violence is an inherent part of MMA, the author denies that MMA is simply an instance of “violence for the sake of violence.” Rather, violence is a means to an end—victory, moving up the rankings, making more money, becoming a contender or champion, etc. So, while violence is an essential part of MMA, it is not the raison d’etre. As Damian Maia has pointed out, one of the reasons he uses jiu jitsu (far more than strikes) is so he can secure victory without causing undue harm to his opponents. This does not sound like the kind of blood sport envisioned by Dixon. That said, the piece from Bleacher Report contains a helpful discussion of the history of this very argument as it has been applied to boxing—going back hundreds of years. On my view, the argument wasn’t convincing in the mid-1800s and it’s no more convincing now.
p.s. I hope it's clear how the arguments above can and should be used against the charge that MMA is akin to "human cock fighting" (a la Senator John McCain). Cock fighting is not consensual in the right sort of way. The same can be said for dog fighting. Finally, the same can be said for forcing children to fight in MMA. In these contexts, because it's not clear whether consent is in place, these violent practices are prima facie unacceptable.
p.p.s. As promised, here is the paper by Dixon--which is otherwise stuck behind a godforsaken pay wall: