Sporting virtue and its development

Authored by: Michael McNamee

The Handbook of Virtue Ethics

Print publication date:  November  2013
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9781844656394
eBook ISBN: 9781315729053
Adobe ISBN: 9781317544777


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In Medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was the dominant social and political institution as well as the seat of higher learning. The vast majority of the populace, however, were illiterate and so the possibility of their following or even understanding its principal ceremony, Holy Mass, conducted in Latin was unthinkable. One fairly widespread way of reducing the mysteriousness of religious morality was the enactment of morality plays. Around this time, travelling circuses not only brought entertainment to the masses, but typically included in their show a morality play where good and evil were played out on a stage and where what was at stake was the very soul of the principal character: everyman. In such a way, the dramatic mode brought the expectations of good conduct – and the wages of sin – into sharp and simple relief. Though crudely analogous, it is my contention that sports, among other things, now fulfil this role or function on a global scale. In a world where the enlightenment myth of shared morality is assaulted by anthropologists, cultural commentators and philosophers alike, sports offer a cognitively simple canvas of good and evil writ large in the everyday contexts of the arena, the court, the field and, of course, the back pages of our newspapers and the screens of our televisions. Just as the moralizing point of the medieval plays was not dramatically dense, one does not need complex cognitive or moral vocabularies to understand cheating and courage, or fair and foul play, in the varied forms of sport. Sports thus offer a valuable vehicle for ethical development in the light of the clash of moral cultures that the present world throws up (McNamee 2008). In this chapter I shall review briefly the idea that both virtues and vices may be developed and ramified in and through the practices of sports, and consider some paradigm examples of virtuous and vicious sport.

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