First FIFA, then athletics doping claims: we are right to be outraged, but only up to a point

Slack for Sepp? Adam Davy/PA

There has been much moral outrage against FIFA officials over bribery and corruption allegations and over the possible use of performance-enhancing drugs among elite athletes. Although sport draws much public attention, it is not usually treated with such ethical seriousness. Why are we so morally outraged? And is the level of outrage appropriate?

To answer such questions, it is useful to delve into the morality behind what we do. One view is that actions should be judged solely on the consequences. According to utilitarianism, for instance, good actions produce happiness or pleasure, while bad actions produce opposite consequences such as pain or misery.

Jeremy Bentham famously made the claim that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. If so, it is difficult to see why the alleged actions in question should be taken so seriously – particularly by people who are not very interested in sport.

What differences could the bribery and doping have made that profoundly affected the happiness of a great many people? What does it matter who won and who lost particular athletic contests? What does it matter where the venues for the World Cup finals were? Some might even suggest that FIFA has produced good consequences by spreading an enthusiasm for playing and watching football throughout the world, thereby increasing general human welfare and happiness.

Not all about consequences

Yet it seems more reasonable to suggest that it also matters what people do and how they do it. For instance, suppose someone installed a camera in someone else’s bedroom or toilet. Such voyeurism would surely be wrong because of the nature of the action, even if it were never detected and never caused any distress to anyone. Wrongfulness is clearly not the same as harmfulness.

Kant be serious. Wikimedia

According to Immanuel Kant, we ought to do our moral duty because it is our moral duty regardless of the consequences. He argues that, as the foundation of ethics, individuals are so important that we should respect everyone as moral ends in themselves, and never treat them as solely a means to our own ends. We ought only to do that which one could rationally will might be done by everyone, as Kant puts it. This is similar to the idea that we should do unto other as we would have them do unto us.

This rule seems to be particularly useful for judging the doping. If it is against the rules to take particular drugs when you compete in particular competitions, Kant would argue that it is morally wrong to do so because you couldn’t rationally have everyone in the competition taking the drugs. It undermines the whole competition. Or at least it does if the athletes are cheating to gain an advantage – that’s like the burglar who is enraged at the end of a long night of burgling to discover that his stereo has been stolen.

Not all about Kant

But what if the justification is that everyone else is cheating and it’s the only way to maintain a level playing field? This is where Kant begins to fall down. He is not interested in why someone took a certain course of action. And the law would disagree with him too. For instance in the UK Bribery Act, the essence of the offence is the intention to induce improper conduct. More fundamentally, both he and the utilitarians assume you can come up with one rule to judge all morality. A better albeit less satisfying answer is that it depends on the circumstances.

But which circumstances? Inevitably the consequences make something of a comeback here. We judge murder more seriously than attempted murder, for example, even though the perpetrator’s intention might be exactly the same. On this basis, the FIFA corruption involved one of the biggest regular events in the world, affecting billions of people. This makes it more serious than if it was corruption at the heart of caber tossing, say.

The perpetrator’s seniority also often comes into play. Senior-ranking officials are likely to attract more censure because they have a greater responsibility to fulfil their duties. They have more experience, earn more money and so forth. In the same way, top athletes will attract more censure because they affect the biggest competitions at the highest level.

Yet another important factor is the forum in which the action occurs. If it involves showing contempt for an instrument of state, such as a politician taking a bribe, I would argue that that is perhaps the most serious of all – if you accept that we need the instruments of state to be sacrosanct more than almost more than anything else. To a lesser extent, you would say the same about bribes within other important social settings, such as a student to a teacher.

Bribes that affect the world of commerce are serious too, of course, perhaps because the commercial world depends on a level playing field for competition to function properly. But arguably they come further down the pecking order. The obvious impact on commerce is perhaps why the FIFA actions are potentially punishable under the criminal law, while doping is not.

Then again, perhaps doping should be for the same reason. After all, aren’t both actions holding a competition in contempt – one to win on the sports field, the other to determine where the sports field will be? It is not as if doping exists outside commerce. There are sponsors to think of, paying customers, broadcast rights holders and so forth. It becomes difficult to see why we draw a distinction between the two. The law is often curiously inconsistent and apparently unfathomable over what it considers to be properly criminalised.

But perhaps we need to keep the bribery and doping in perspective. We are not talking about people’s lives and liberty here. After all, no matter how high-ranking the officials, no matter how big the sport, how many spectators, it’s only a game.