Are You a Bad Person for Watching the Olympics?

The Olympic Games in Tokyo have been even more fraught than usual with ethical issues. Alarm over the rising number of Covid-19 cases and the Games’ deep unpopularity with Japanese people sit atop perennial concerns about corruption, cheating, the abuse of athletes and the environmental impact of mounting such an enormous event. These problems have fueled debate, hand-wringing and even demands to end the Olympics altogether.

Despite all that, the Games are underway, and for most of the world’s population, there is only one moral decision left to make: To watch or not to watch? If you are one of the many who view the actions of the International Olympic Committee, the television stations and sponsors, and the nations competing as morally wrong, is it ethical for you to tune in?

Of course, viewers aren’t watching the Games to intentionally endorse a corrupt system or the idea of profit over public health. They’re watching to celebrate our common humanity, to be awed by athletic excellence and to witness the drama of Olympic dreams being dashed or realized. But by opting to watch the Olympics, do we give a tacit thumbs-up to the entire spectacle, ethical problems and all?

At the heart of this worry is the idea that merely by choosing to be entertained by something that involves wrongdoing, we become complicit in it. But just how worried should we be? To answer this question, the idea of complicity needs unpacking.

When one person directly harms another, we have a simple case of wrongdoing. A person is complicit when causing harm indirectly by being involved in the wrongdoing of others. One way to be involved is through participating. Participation complicity, as we might call it, typically involves small contributions to collective wrongdoing that brings about big harms. This is what we mean when we say that the globally affluent are complicit in climate change. My eating meat does not by itself directly cause the harms associated with a warming planet, but it contributes to a pattern of collective behavior that does.

When we watch the 400-meter freestyle or the pole vault competition on TV, do we become complicit in this way? Here, happily, the average viewer is off the hook. No matter how many billions of us tune in, each act of viewing taken together does not add up to more Covid-19 infections in Japan or to acts of cheating, abuse or waste.

But there is a different kind of complicity we might worry about. Let’s call it tolerance complicity. It does not involve participating in wrongdoing with others. Instead, it involves tolerating their wrongdoing by seeming to endorse or failing to denounce it. One way to do this is by watching the fruits of it as entertainment: We tolerate, normalize or even celebrate wrongdoing through taking pleasure in its results.

Consider an extreme example: the gladiatorial slaughter in ancient Rome. While the murder of humans for sport is morally reprehensible in a way that the Olympic Games clearly are not, it shows how tolerance complicity through viewership can be morally wrong. It implicitly condones the evil acts, joins others in a morally reprehensible attitude and desensitizes viewers to such acts. It also rewards the purveyors of slaughter, rather than condemning or punishing them, and incentivizes the future provision of murder as entertainment. For all these reasons it seems to us now that ordinary Romans were wrong to watch the gore. By doing so, the audience became complicit in a moral culture that sanctioned murder as spectacle.

Versions of these worries arise in a variety of contemporary contexts. Learning about the long-term brain damage that football can inflict on players doesn’t seem to have diminished our appetite for watching it, but some worry that doing so supports a system that leads predictably to this serious harm. Most agree that watching pornography online becomes morally reprehensible when the viewed images are known to depict real acts of sexual assault and exploitation.

So where does this leave those of us excited to tune in to the events in Tokyo? What can turning off your one television do in the scheme of things?

Collective action, in the form of boycotts, can be an effective tool for registering moral disapproval and avoiding tolerance complicity. With nearly 75 percent of the International Olympic Committee’s budget coming from broadcasting rights, the survival of this multibillion-dollar industry depends on large-scale viewership. However difficult to pull off, a mass viewing boycott would put enormous pressure on the entire Olympics machinery.

But no such boycott has been organized, and we, ordinary viewers, exhausted by 18 months of surges and lockdowns, are eager to watch the show! Aren’t we entitled to a little viewing pleasure?

I would argue yes. Not all wrongdoing is tantamount to murder. And however mired in wrongdoing they may be, the Olympics also inspire billions, celebrate and incentivize outstanding achievement, foster global friendship, create jobs, spur public investment and much more.

Whether ordinary viewers should resist watching the Olympics turns on how serious they consider the harms involved and whether they take them to outweigh the clear good the Olympics also do. Watching the Games can be a way to endorse these positive values they stand for. By doing so, we express our esteem for the athletes and for the idea of the Olympics themselves, however messy and morally objectionable they may be in their present execution. In any case, in the absence of a mass boycott, for an individual to watch or not watch sends no clear moral message at all.

Those who are in a position to send a clear message are governments, advertisers, corporate sponsors and, of course, the athletes themselves. They can raise a fist or take a knee, and many are.

In an unjust world, there is often no way to act without harming or being complicit in harm. But just because all complicity is bad does not mean that it is always morally criticizable. This is especially true in modern societies, where mass consumption links us in global networks, telegraphing both harm and benefit on a vast scale. Making it one’s goal to avoid all complicity sets the bar impossibly high, demanding a life of radical asceticism.

A more reasonable but still taxing aim is to avoid individual wrongdoing and to minimize our complicity through collective action where it counts most. After all, moral energy is yet another finite resource that must be used wisely.

Olympic athletes offer us an ideal of achievement and determination in the face of adversity. Knowledge that we are always, in some measure, complicit offers us a kind of moral adversity that we overcome not through the pursuit of an impossible moral purity, but through renewed efforts to engage in our deeply flawed world. Choosing to watch the Games, for all their faults, is perfectly compatible with these efforts.

Watch away.

Sasha Mudd is an assistant professor of philosophy at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

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