Thanks to Jim Prouty for sharing this article with me:
The article (posted yesterday) is the response to “A Moral Critique of Mixed Martial Arts” by Nicholas Dixon in a publication called, Public Affairs Quarterly.
You need to read the original piece and rebuttal (please do so before commenting), but the essential argument for the immorality of MMA (and full contact combat sports generally) is that the aim of the sport is to intentionally cause physical harm to another person. It is argued it is inherently wrong to have these kinds of harmful intentions toward another human being, and it is also wrong to enact those intentions where there is no justification (i.e. not in self-defence). He also argues it is immoral to treat another human beings as a means to an end. He argues that in MMA one’s opponent is reduced to a means to an end i.e. something that needs harmed (“violated” and “degraded” too) to achieve the goal of victory.
To me, the arguments made in support of the notion that MMA is inherently immoral fall apart once consent is factored in. Nicholas Dixon does try to address this by comparing MMA to prostitution (among other things) and does state that, “We should, though, temper our moral criticism of professional cage fighters themselves to the extent that de facto economic coercion influences them to engage in this morally problematic practice in the first place.” It’s a very poor argument. Most fighters are not engaged in MMA due to prior abuse, threats of violence if they don’t, people trafficking, financial desperation or drug addiction (as with prostitution). They are competing in MMA because they legitimately want to!
Nicholas Dixon, obviously a non-fighter, fails to get this and he does need to accept that the consent to fight is legitimate and not at all coerced.
Putting that aside there are other failings in the argument too.
Let’s start by looking at the pivotal idea of “harm”. Harm is defined as:
Physical or mental damage or injury: something that causes someone or something to be hurt, broken, made less valuable or successful, etc.
If you prevent an individual from doing an activity that they feel enriches their lives and gives them a positive challenge, then it could be said you are making them “less valuable or successful” (by the individual’s own definitions). The removal of the freedom to pursue such activities is therefore harmful. The fact that two fighters consent to fight means that there is no “harm” in the greater sense because their mutual consent gives each other the opportunity to fight. This is something they both want. There is a willing trade from both parties i.e. the mutual risk of injury for the mutual ability to compete in combat sports.
The aim of MMA is also not “to harm others” but to win in accordance with the rules. MMA fighters don’t hit low, bite, drive thumbs in to eyes, because to do so would see them lose the fight. Those things would harm the other person, but they are not done because causing harm is not the aim. The aim is to win.
Nicholas Dixon assertion that MMA’s “explicit goal is to hurt and incapacitate opponents” is therefore false from the off. The aim is to win; and to win one needs to abide by the safety rules of MMA.
As an obvious hole in his argument, a skilfully applied submission neither hurts nor incapacitates as the opponent taps out. The recipient taps out, the applier gets the victory, and the recipient is neither hurt nor incapacitated. Again, the aim is to win.
Other aims of MMA are to engage in an intense physical challenge, to enjoy the adrenaline rush, to entertain others, to test oneself, to earn money, and on and on. Is it inherently morally wrong to want to entertain? Is it inherently morally wrong to want to test oneself? Is it inherently morally wrong to enjoy an activity with someone else who also enjoys the same activity? Is it inherently morally wrong to earn money doing something you love, you freely engage in, and others love too? I would say not.
So the proposition that the aim of MMA is to physically harms others falls flat. The aims of MMA are to entertain, allow people to test themselves, to make money, to give people a safe and enjoyable way to enjoy their passion with other fighters, and so on. The notion that MMA is inherently immoral therefore also falls flat because the stated aim is not correct.
The notion that one’s opponent is treated as a “means to an end” is also wrong. As we have discussed, the opponent is a willing partner who is making a trade with fellow fighter.
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.
The burden of proof, then, is on defenders of MMA to show why the practice is not a prime instance of treating opponents as worthless objects rather than as intrinsically valuable ends in themselves.
Allow me :-)
The link to MMA does not hold water because the opponent is not simply an object upon which to inflict one’s desire to harm others. The opponent is, above all else, a person who can provide a challenge. And this implys intrinsic worth.
No fighter wants to simply harm others. If they did, their aims would be best served by fighting people they can easily beat. We don’t see this. Everyone wants to fight people deemed their equals or betters. It is the challenge from an equal they want! The MMA fighter does not want a person they can hurt (“a worthless object”); they want a person who can challenge them.
Inherent in the acknowledgement that the opponent is a challenge is acknowledgement that they also have value as a fellow fighter. Distasteful “trash talk” and promotional press conference antics aside, it is obvious they value their opponent as a fellow fighter otherwise they would not want to fight them.
No champion wants to fight a relative novice (which they would do all the time if hurting a fellow human was what they were seeking). The opponent is therefore not a “worthless object to be hurt” solely for the enjoyment of hurting, but fellow fighter who has many of the attributes the fighter admires and desires in themselves.
The fact they are a mutual challenge also shows they see a comparable level of these attributes in each other. They are alike! A fighter does not see themselves as an “object to be harmed” and therefore they obviously don’t see their opponent in that way either.
While cage fighters clearly do intend to hurt and incapacitate opponents, they do not want to cause serious, permanent injury. On the contrary, just like boxers, cage fighters form a close-knit fraternity with genuine mutual respect for the courage and prowess that rivals display in their fights. This is exemplified in post-fight embraces and complimentary comments in post-fight interviews … Professional respect among cage fighters, in contrast, cannot transform violent acts into anything more than attempts to hurt and injure.
There’s a bit of contradiction here. MMA is not “violent acts that are nothing more than attempts to hurt and injure.” To the fighter, it is an intense challenge provided by a fellow fighter. If the aim was just to harm and injure others, then MMA fighters would not choose challenging opponents. Which they do. All the time.
The voluntary informed consent of autonomous adults normally blocks any moral criticism of their mutually consensual activities with other autonomous adults, as long as they do not harm any non-consenting parties. However, when the activity involves degrading a person, no amount of consent can erase its inherently problematic nature. Since the intent is to hurt and injure, the consent of participants is not, therefore, a moral get-out-of-jail-free card for MMA fighters, their enablers, or their spectators.
Where is the degrading of the opponent? As argued before, the very act of wishing to fight each other inherently infers the other person is deemed an equal or better. Fighters are respected by each other and spectators alike.
Nicholas Dixon does make some very tenuous comparisons to “dwarf tossing” and a fictitious gameshow where racist slurs are shouted at willing players. These are perfect examples of reductio ad absurdum!
In both of those activities little respect is show for the participants, even though they are willing participants. In MMA however, both participants are willing, and the fact of agreeing to fight each other shows respect.
As I say, put the “trash talk” to one side and it’s obvious that no fighter advances their standing by beating someone of a much lower skill level. They all want to fight people perceived as either a potential threat, an equal or a better. There is no disrespect at all. The fighter sees in the opponent the attributes they themselves admire and wish to show to the world.
MMA is not comparable with “dwarf tossing” or a fictitious racist game shows which are / would be much more one sided affairs showing obvious disrespect.
It’s a terrible paper written by a person who has no idea of what motivates fighters to fight and, instead of finding out, he has seemingly made many false assumptions to justify his own moral objection to combat sports; which are in turn based on other false assumptions.
I hope the paper is read by many people interested in MMA because – to even those with a casual interest like myself – is it so far off the mark as to be laughable.
The aim of MMA is not to harm people. And the fighters don’t see their opponents as objects to be degraded and harmed. Any notion that MMA is inherently immoral based on these two proposition is therefore without foundation.
All the best,
NOTE: I’d like to keep this tread on topic. Is MMA inherently immoral based on the arguments put forth by Nicholas Dixon? What do we think of Thomas Nadelhoffer’s rebuttal? What do you think of mine? Generic MMA discussions belong in other threads. Thanks.