Fighting the Good Fight

Toward a theory of honor in the octagon
By DAN DEMETRIOU  |  August 25, 2010


Back in graduate school, my colleagues and I — busy with such manly enterprises as writing ethics dissertations on forgiveness, apologies, and immigrant rights — would routinely gather to watch that most unforgiving of spectacles: the UFC. Like any other fight fans, we exclaimed at Oleg Taktarov's knockout roundhouses, laughed at "Rampage" Jackson's postfight declamations, and calculated how many seconds we'd last against Brock Lesnar. But is it hypocritical to be an ethicist and a fan of mixed-martial-arts bloodbaths? After all, Western philosophers and spiritual thinkers have typically seen the "ethical" as being about kindness or cooperation or a fundamental moral order they called "natural law." And, y'know, they're not exactly quoting Kant and Hegel on the blood-soaked canvas of the UFC octagon.

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Nevertheless, most philosophers today would defend the moral permissibility of fighting competitions like the UFC. Their argument would almost certainly be based on the moral right of consenting adults to engage in distasteful and even dangerous activities, as long as that danger was limited to themselves. But that boilerplate "classical liberal" argument doesn't defend the morality of fighting sports in particular: it can apply equally to skydiving or kinky sex. We can go further: we can defend not only the moral permissibility, but the positive moral goodness, of MMA competitions in particular. To do so, we have to go back to square one, and question our assumptions of what ethics is all about.

When you think about ethics, your brain likely gestures in the direction of the cooperation-and-compassion ethos taught by schoolteachers, ethicists, and religious moralists. But there stands an older and still relevant, if subterranean, ethic of honor — call it the warrior code. This ethic is being unearthed and rehabilitated, slowly, by writers and thinkers as diverse as the anthropologist Frank Henderson Stewart (Honor), the political scientist Sharon Krause (Liberalism with Honor), and the law professor William Ian Miller (The Mystery of Courage).

In cultures where an honor code holds sway, fighting for fun is a laudable pastime and fighting for fame a noble profession. Which isn't to tout brawling and barbarism, however. Just as the nascent UFC's gloves-off, groin-kicking, no-holds-barred bludgeoning eventually gave way to a civilized, cross-disciplinary tournament, the honor ethic encourages conflict but has very strict rules about how conflict can be morally conducted. Its precepts are familiar to us from Westerns, fairy tales, and professional wrestling scripts: you don't attack the weak, but you may aggress upon the strong. (Pick on someone your own size — or bigger). You must not duck legitimate challenges, which are those coming from slightly lower-ranked or equally ranked peers.

You must also fight fair — and not because you care about the so-called rights of your opponent, but because winning (or losing) a fair fight is the only way to learn how good you are. Calling someone out is perfectly acceptable and laudable, and the ensuing fight is carried out without ill-will. (Presuming, of course, that Dana White sanctions the match. If not, your best bet is probably coaching a season on The Ultimate Fighter.) But when you think a higher-ranked party enjoys an undeserved and bloated reputation, you may insult him by saying so publicly. The catch is you must be prepared to prove your insult true. If you win this "trial by combat," you're universally admired for helping the apparent ranking better match the true ranking. If you lose, you're humiliated.

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