Philosophy and the Badminton Scandal
I was emailed by a journalist yesterday from Bloomberg for a comment on the Badminton expulsion scandal. Several teams have been expelled for deliberately losing to gain better places in the draw to increase their chances of winning.
Here is the story that came out in Bloomberg
Here is the actual quote I sent the journalist:
“The players were ejected for violating the Players’ Code of Conduct, Sections 4.5 and 4.6, for “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”
However, many competitors fail for various psychological reasons to use their best efforts to win a match. Having a temper tantrum is hardly using your best efforts. And since when is strategy abusive to sport. If there is a problem, then the rules for the draw should be changed. This is typical of the puritanical moralism that is infecting sport. First it was a war on performance enhancement because it was against the spirit of sport – nonsense, it is the spirit of sport. Now we see the same moralists trying to define a good sport and enforce some anachronistic account of the spirit of sport. Boo them by all means, but don’t disqualify them if they have not broken clear rules. This kind of subjective code of conduct belongs to Victorian times. It is absurd to have a rule that you have to try to win in competitive sport. It’s like having a law that you have to try to love someone in a marriage. Of course you should do it, but it’s absurd to have rules that require it. You can get dropped from the team, or booed, or divorced, for not trying hard enough – but this is not the place for these kinds of rules or laws.”
One thing I did not write was that there is another philosophical diagnosis of this scandal. That is, attachment on the part of Olympic officials to the so-called “intention-foresight” distinction that also grounds the famous Catholic Doctrine of Double Effect. According to the intention-foresight distinction, there is a moral distinction between the effects of our actions that we intend and those that we foresee, but don’t directly intend.
In the most famous philosophical example of the distinction, there is supposedly a moral difference between strategic bombing in war and terror bombing. Now most people would think there is a moral difference. But the philosophical version of the case is this:
Terror bombing: Country A deliberately drops a nuclear bomb on a civilian population which is certain to the end the war and kills 100, 000 people.
Strategic bombing: Country B considers dropping a nuclear bomb on a nuclear facility which is being developed in the heart of a civilian population. Destruction of the facility is certain to end the war and certain to kill 100 000 people. Country B deliberately drops the bomb.
In both cases, it is certain before the action is performed that 100 000 people will die. However, in A, the deaths of the civilians are intended. In B, they are foreseen, but not intended. What is intended is the destruction of the nuclear facility.
Many people claim that what country A does is worse than what country B does because A intends the deaths of civilians while B does not.
I disagree. What both countries intend is the end of the war and both know that their action to achieve this will kill 100, 000 people. There is a huge literature on the intention-foresight distinction but many top philosophers argue we should reject it (though some still defend it).
What has this got to do with badminton? Clearly what the Koreans and Chinese did was to intentionally increase their chances of losing. Their direct intention was to try to lose. But many athletes do things which foreseeably increase their chances of losing. I gave the example in my quote of temper tantrums. You might think that these are beyond control but anger management might be able to curb this. I understand Andy Murray has tried to modify is psychological dispositions to increase his chances of winning, with good effect.
Another famous example I remember was Alberto Tomba the great skier. I think it was when he won 1 Gold and 1 Silver at Albertville in 1992 that he said,
“I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m., but I am getting older. In the Olympic Village here, I will live it up with five women, but only until 3 a.m.”
Staying up until 3am with 5 women will foreseeably and reliably reduce the performance of anyone in a top sporting competition (though “La Bomba” might deny this).
Should La Bomba Tomba have been disqualified for not taking the Olympics seriously enough? Should he have been stripped of his medals for doing things that foreseeably reduced his chances of winning a gold medal? Was he guilty of “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”
It would be absurd to eject someone for doing something that foreseeably reduces their chances of winning. So, the only way to defend ejecting someone for intentionally reducing their chances of winning is to appeal to the intention-foresight distinction. But that distinction is now widely discredited.
Smith is duck shooting with Jones. Jones inadvertently walks in front of Smith’s barrel. Smith sees him but continues his shot anyway. He doesn’t intend to kill Jones, though he foresees he will. He just wants to get a prize duck.
In law, this is not murder but manslaughter. But ethically, is it any different to murder?
If we reject the intention-foresight distinction, the Olympic Committee should not have ejected the East Asian teams from the Badminton.