Dwight Richie. Patrick Day. Maxim Dadashev. Hugo Santillan. Boris Stanchov. That’s the list of newsmaking boxing deaths this year, and it’s nothing but tragic and awful, no matter the circumstances. I say that upfront because I’m about to perform a trepidatious high wire act where I try to defend the sport that produced those fatalities, from a moral standpoint. It feels icky event typing it. But we have to frankly acknowledge what it is, and what it isn’t, to be able to come out anywhere at the end.
Defending boxing feels harder all the time, especially when deaths come in quick succession. Every occasion where I read or hear about one, I contemplate, sincerely: How can I justify watching this? Why don’t I just walk away?
And I usually come back to a few reasons.
The first sounds the most callous, but a grim accounting is required. An average of 13 people die a year from boxing. Ideally, the number would be zero. But it is an inherently dangerous thing to punch people in the head and get punched back.
Given that there is risk at all, by some measurements boxing is less risky than other sports. As of 2014, auto racing averaged 20 deaths a year. The numbers on horse riding are hard to pin down, but perhaps far larger. Football averages 12 a year. We could also do an accounting of other kinds of misery, like various kinds of injuries, but that gets harder still. And dividing it per capita is likewise harder; what matters is, the total amount of deaths boxing is responsible for is fewer than some others.
That doesn’t make any of this fundamentally morally acceptable. It is merely a comparison. Auto racing and horse riding rarely require defenses of their ethics. And here is where we split into other arguments.
Insofar as football has suffered in popularity — and maybe it hasn’t, by some measures — it has done so for many reasons. Among them is growing concern from its viewers about the human toll. From a moral standpoint, we as human tend to place more of a burden on those who commit deliberate acts of violence against others.
That is, to a certain degree, fair. But an auto racer might spin out of control and kill members of the crowd. One accident in 1955 killed about 80 spectators. That leads to the next argument.
Boxers are knowing participants in an act that can kill or injure them. If you value individual liberty as a virtue, that, too, matters in this calculus. Surely, the spectators who go to an auto racing event and are killed by a crash know they also are taking a risk. But it’s not exactly the same kind of choice. Which is to say, by one measure, the people who make a choice to put themselves in harm’s way as participants are making a much more direct decision to place themselves in jeopardy than mere spectators who are aware of freak possibilities. The equation of “value of individual liberty” to “being placed in harm’s way as a non-participant” is hard to resolve; it’s only that this consideration puts matters on more even footing than it might initially seem.
That doesn’t mean individual liberty is everything. But in our society, and rightly so, consenting adults in their right minds are able to do just about anything they like with one another. The key is “consenting adults.” Adults aren’t allowed to have sex with children, nor should they be.
A common answer to this question of individual liberty is a question about how much choice many boxers really had to enter the ring. Their liberty is compromised, goes the line of thinking, by desperation born of poverty. There are instances where this is clearly not the case. Day had a bachelor’s and associate’s degree. He had choices. Boxing is the choice he made.
This brings us, though, to the next argument. Even in cases where one might see a boxer as “forced” into the profession, boxing is better than the alternatives for many of the people who are desperately poor or from otherwise rough upbringings — because make no mistake, there are alternatives. “Boxing saved my life” is a common refrain of many professionals, including among them one of the top fighters today, Terence Crawford. There’s no way to quantify the number of people for whom boxing was a safer form of violence they might have visited upon (or been visited upon them by) the streets, or those who said boxing gave them the discipline they needed to survive. Anecdotally, the number is enormous. And that includes the non-celebrities, the ones who didn’t get rich and so obviously transform their lives from the dreadful. The guy who makes a modest paycheck in the boxing ring losing is, in most cases, going to better for himself and society than if he’s instead mugging innocents or going to jail for beating someone to death outside the ring.
Primarily, I consider myself a utilitarian, philosophically speaking: Most simply stated, that is the idea that which is good is that which causes the most happiness for the greatest number, and that which is bad is that which causes the greatest suffering for the largest number. One counterargument to utilitarianism is whether things like gladiator battles induce suffering from few for the vaster happiness given to those who watch it. And that’s why I only say “primarily” — another school of thinking about morality holds that certain values should be upheld more than something so base as a “hedonistic calculus.” My view is that whereas certain values tend to produce happiness, they have value. And, when there’s a decision to be made between maximizing happiness or minimizing pain, the emphasis should be placed on minimizing pain. Gladiator battles are a violation of all that — most were slaves or people otherwise unwilling to enter battle, made to suffer pain against their individual liberties. I’m uncomfortable with people deliberately trying to kill one another when both are consenting and in a universe where that would be legally sanctioned, but it’s a rare edge case that doesn’t factor into this so significantly so as to make it something we need to delve into here.
But: There are ways in which boxing produces happiness for others in a way that matters. Say what you will of Manny Pacquiao’s political career and whether it’s produced positive moral outcomes, but the money he has earned boxing hasn’t been just for him. He estimated in 2016 that he’d given away $200 million, and that doesn’t sound like too absurd a number considering how much money he’s made in his career. What’s more, for some, spectating itself is a cathartic release that might stifle their own violent impulses. This is only for some, sadly, as I have met the kind of boxing fans who are violent and enjoy boxing even when and sometimes because of horrendous injury or death. I don’t know how many receive catharsis vs those whose worst impulses are reinforced, so this particular calculus is difficult. It’s only to say it’s not all negative.
Relatedly, there is the case of boxing as ennobling and thereby good for non-participants. The TQBR crew discussed this here. But there have obviously been times where individual boxing matches inspired like every time an underdog overcomes, or where they eased discrimination like Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling II.
On a personal level, as something of an indirect participant in boxing by writing about it, I do campaign for making the sport as safe as possible. I am in favor of safety regulations being more strictly enforced. I rarely criticize referees who stop a fight early rather than late. My voice is but one. Still, where I have it, I use it.
If none of these “if/whens” and various caveats and “we can’t measure it” satisfy you, well, welcome to my world. I’m not entirely sure we’d not be better off in a world where boxing didn’t exist. Maybe the street kid who chose boxing wouldn’t have done so if there was no market for spectating violence; maybe we, as a society, might spend money currently devoted to boxing tickets instead to programs that would educate that street kid.
That’s utopian talk, not that I find the exercise useless. We do need to be at least somewhat realistic when discussing moral matters, however. Boxing exists. It’s not going away anytime soon, despite the perpetual since-the-dawn-of-boxing “boxing is dying” pablum.
When I was much younger, I found boxing reprehensible. But there are plausible defenses for boxing. I don’t know if I’ll ever be truly comfortable with the sport, or with my enjoyment of it. Perhaps one day the moral cons will outweigh the pros for me, in toto, instead of just on the days when a boxer dies, and I’ll leave it forever. This is where I am today, and how I got here. It’s not an academic paper. It’s one person’s answer to a question.
(Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, clearly sporting a boxing-related hematoma; via)