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William J. Morgan

Dec 10, 2021

Sport and Moral Conflict

A Conventionalist Theory

Temple University Press 2020

Today we are joined by William J. Morgan, Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, and the author of Sport and Moral Conflict: A Conventionalist Theory (Temple University Press, 2020). In our conversation, we discussed three theories of sports ethics (formalism, internalism/interpretivism, and conventionalism.) We looked at how sports philosophers use historical controversies as test cases for their philosophical theories, but also applied those philosophical approaches to contemporary sports issues including the use of performance enhancing drugs and the payment of college athletes.

Sport and Moral Conflict takes sport as a moral laboratory and Morgan wrote it as an extended conversation between theories of sports ethics. Each chapter addresses a different sports philosophical theory: formalism, a broad internalism that centres metaphysical methods, a broad internalism that uses a discourse method, and finally a conventionalist ethical theory of sport. He also outlines what he calls the two duelling conceptions of sport in the early 20th century, an amateur world guided by British public school athletes and a professional world of American scientific sportsmen. These two different sporting conceptions, according to Morgan, shape much of the athletic debate the age. Understanding the different world views of these two schools provides for conventionalists a way of comprehending contemporary moral controversy in sport.

The bulk of Morgan’s book is an extensive and fairhanded analysis of alternative theories of sports ethics; the depth of his investigation defies easy summary. He looks closely at formalism and internalism, offering appraisals of these theories that highlight both their successes and their failures. For example, formalists like Bernard Suits not only succeeded in developing very plausible definitions of sports, but in their emphasis on the written rules of sport, also failed to appropriately consider the rules beyond the written rules that guide competitive performances.

A close look at a range of test cases allow Morgan to interrogate the different sports philosophy approaches. In 1887, a baserunner that crossed home plate, tackled and held down the catcher which allowed two other runners to score. Was this behaviour permissible, even if it was technically not a rule violation? A formalist approach would have difficulty in dealing with these kinds of rules violation; by contrast, internalists and conventionalists stress the subtextual rules that shape athletes’ behaviours. The baserunners in 1887 were called out.

Morgan saves his interpretative innovation – a conventionalist ethic of sport – for the final chapter. Unlike formalism and internalism, Morgan’s conventionalist approach eschews looking only at the written rules, nor does it search for a universal ethic of sports, but instead identifies for the meanings of sport in the past, using a historicist/Hegelian methodology, and applies those historically situated conventions to the issues of the time.

His chapter on conventionalism also deals with major critiques to his theory: namely that it is morally relativistic and reifies the power relations of sport rather than challenges them. His notion of the moral entrepreneurs, noted in his epilogue, allows Morgan to explain how sports ethics change over time.

Sport and Moral Conflict is an incisive and useful examination of the three major philosophical approaches to sports ethics. It will be of general interest to people to sports philosophers, but also for scholars working broadly in sports history and sociology.

Keith Rathbone is a senior lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history. His book, entitled Sport and physical culture in Occupied France: Authoritarianism, agency, and everyday life, (Manchester University Press, 2022) examines physical education and sports in order to better understand civic life under the dual authoritarian systems of the German Occupation and the Vichy Regime. If you have a title to suggest for this podcast, please contact him at keith.rathbone@mq.edu.au and follow him at @keithrathbone on twitter.

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Keith Rathbone

Keith Rathbone is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history.

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