The value of an Olympic medal

The Royal Canadian Mint has a neat website about the medals from the Vancouver games.  It helps drive home the huge variety of perspectives from which an Olympic medal can be valued.  Wacky goldbugs are focused on the exchange value of the underlying metals.  For the artists who designed them, they’re the fruits of creative labor.  For the mint workers who solved a series of technical problems to realize the artists’ vision, they represent the height of their craft.  For the athletes who win them, the enduring proof that grueling years of training left them the best in the world at what they do.  For people who attended the games, a short-hand reminder of a rare experience.

Quickly and crudely, anti-realist views about value are a family of views that maintain that, at the end of the day, things are valuable just because we value them.  Contrast with realism about value, which holds that when we value something appropriately, we are responding to something valuable– valuableness is something that exists independently of us.

Back to gold, silver, and bronze medals:  the huge variety of ways to value Olympic medals makes them a nice illustration of the kinds of intuitions that drive anti-realists about value.  It sure looks like the artist, the minter, the athlete, the spectator, and the goldbug are projecting different values onto the same object.

Related articles:

Four Faces of Moral Realism
By Stephen Finlay, USC (October 2007)
Philosophy Compass

The competitive spirit

Christopher Hitchens takes to the pages of Newsweek to publish a glorious anti-Olympics rant.  The subtitle is the thesis:  “How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature.”

Hitchens is too quick to declare the issue settled, but he’s on to something interesting.  What should moral philosophers– especially virtue ethicists– say about the character trait of competitiveness?  Hitchens is making the “vice” case:  excessive competitiveness can, indeed, bring out the worst in us.

There’s no doubt that the competitive spirit, allowed or encouraged to run amok, can have the terrible consequences Hitchens catalogs.  But the same can be said of uncontroversial virtues.  Generosity, allowed or encouraged to run amok, can lead to terrible outcomes.  Consider the excessively (or exclusively) generous person who might help a jonesing addict buy his next dose of heroin, or help a struggling thief carry a heavy painting away from a museum.

But what of a competitive spirit bounded by virtues like kindness, generosity, and perspective?  It seems to me that, bounded by other virtues, a competitive spirit might be revealed as a virtue.  It is, or can be, a major driver of self-improvement.  It is, or can be, the competitive spirit that drives the violinist to stay up late practicing in hopes of winning first chair.  It is, or can be, the competitive spirit that drives the inspiring sorts of achievement we sometimes see in events like the Olympics.

Related articles:

Kantian Virtue
By Anne Margaret Baxley, Washington University in St. Louis
(April 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Contemporary virtue ethics
By Karen Stohr, Georgetown University
(February 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Should Golf Be an Olympic Sport?

olympic flagThe International Olympic Committee recently recommended that golf be added to the roster of Olympic sports beginning in 2016. What may have seemed like an uncontroversial recommendation, however, has inspired a variety of objections that question whether the ethics of golf are consistent with Olympic standards and ideals. For instance, in his August 18th “Moral of the Story” column, Randy Cohen lays out a litany of reasons why golf should not be added to the Olympic roster: (1) golf is a rich man’s sport, (2) professional golfers are by-and-large politically conservative, (3) professional golfers refuse to resist the sexist policies of prominent golf clubs, and (4) golf courses do untold damage to the environment. Continue reading “Should Golf Be an Olympic Sport?”

Sex Verification Test

Gender_neutralIn the weeks to follow, the International Association of Athletic Federations, IAAF, will decide whether South African runner Caster Semenya will be stripped of the gold medal, after winning the women 800-meter race last Wednesday in Berlin at the World Championships in Athletics. Semenya is not guilty of the usual: doping. What is at issue, instead, is whether Semenya was eligible to race as a woman. Continue reading “Sex Verification Test”