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Should We Have Boycotted Brazil’s World Cup? Contemporary Social Issues and the Fragmentation of Agency

July 7th, 2014 by Elijah Weber · 2 Comments

The World Cup is coming to a close soon, and by all accounts, soccer fans have largely enjoyed it.  However, just prior to its start, there were national protests all over Brazil, part of a concerted effort to draw international attention to the fact that this World Cup has come at an extremely high cost for Brazil’s citizens.

Brazil’s economy is in shambles, and it stands in dire need of improvements in health care, education, and transportation infrastructure.  While the Brazilian government spent billions of dollars building soccer stadiums, and will soon spend billions more on Olympic venues, a significant number of Brazil’s citizens engage in a daily struggle to simply survive.

Brazil’s World Cup raises a familiar problem in moral philosophy:  What is the moral significance of actions that are not themselves morally wrong, but that indirectly contribute, though in causally negligible ways, to morally wrong actions or morally bad situations?

Lots of contemporary social issues are like this.  For example, no one person is responsible for the negative effects of global climate change.  In fact, even if huge numbers of people made drastic changes to their ways of life, very little would change at the level of global climate.  There’s a sense in which no one is responsible for these effects, and no one person can do anything about it.

And yet, it’s nearly indisputable that human actions cause these effects.  We all contribute to the effects of global climate change, but in a way that is both indirect and causally insignificant.  The negative effects of global climate change create a morally bad situation that no individual is responsible for causing, and that no individual can do much about.

These features, referred to by philosopher Stephen Gardiner as the “fragmentation of agency,” make it difficult to support definitive moral claims about what ought to be done.  For example, some might say “you should get a hybrid car to reduce emissions, because climate change has morally bad effects.”  But it’s not unreasonable to say that since my driving a hybrid car will make no measurable difference to global climate change, but be much more expensive for me, really what I should do is NOT buy a hybrid car.

Further, it’s not as though I’m responsible for the negative effects of climate change, such that I’m obligated to purchase a hybrid car. These effects are the result of billions of morally permissible actions that have almost no causal significance in themselves.  In the absence of any causal powers, it’s very difficult to make the case that such actions can give rise to moral obligations.

Traditional ways of thinking about morality are ill-suited for addressing contemporary social issues of this kind.  Some have argued that what’s required is a “new” way of thinking about morality.  But it’s not yet clear what that new way might look like, nor how we integrate it into our current moral thinking.

As I watched portions of the World Cup, and thought about the protests in Brazil that preceded it, I found myself wondering if doing so amounted to the same sort of problem.  Is there something morally bad about watching the World Cup, knowing the social circumstances surrounding it?  Am I contributing, however indirectly or insignificantly, to problems of social justice in places like Brazil?

Or, like climate change, is this another example of the limitations of our traditional ways of thinking about the moral aspects of contemporary social issues?

What do others think of these sorts of questions?  Do we need a “new” way of thinking about morality?  What would that new way look like?  Are these contemporary social issues as morally significant as they seem?  Post a comment and let’s talk about it.

About the Author

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Eli Weber is a PhD student at Bowling Green State University, working primarily in ethics and philosophy of the emotions. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy from Bowling Green and Colorado State University. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.

© 2008 Elijah Weber

Tags: Applied Ethics · Social Ethics

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lois Stopple // Jul 8, 2014 at 12:25 am

    *I received this comment via email, so I’m sharing it here*

    It is shameful indeed that the Brazilian government will spend billions of dollars on a male sports game, while ignoring the Brazilian citizens’ dire poverty, their diseases, their unwanted children, their poor medical care, the scanty education offered them, just for the egotistical gratification of those who allow their minds to be swept away by the pointless energies of these games. These actions typify the lowest of human morals, or lack thereof.
    The World Cup Organization should demand that governments match the money spent on their games with money spent to help those in need- then EveryOne would win.

  • 2 Elijah Weber // Jul 8, 2014 at 12:31 am

    Hi Lois,

    Thanks for the comment. I totally agree with most of what you said, there’s clearly something morally troubling about the Brazilian government’s decision to fund a World Cup and an Olympics, while neglecting the most basic needs of its own citizens.

    But what about the moral significance of something like watching the World Cup? Are we morally culpable in some respect, just in virtue of this activity? Or are we so far removed from this morally bad outcome that such actions have no moral significance? That’s what I’m thinking about here.

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