Will conventionalist philosophy solve the moral conflict over the meaning of sport?

Shawn E. Klein
Arizona State University

William J. Morgan
Sport and Moral Conflict: A Conventionalist Theory
280 pages, paperback.
Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press 2020
ISBN 978-1-4399-1540-0

William Morgan is one of the leading thinkers in philosophy of sport. He is the author of several books, including widely-used textbooks, and many seminal journal articles. The publication of a new book by Morgan is thus significant. And his newest book, Sport and Moral Conflict, is a significant book: it is a must for any philosopher of sport to have on his or her shelf.

While it can be dense and turgid at times, overall it is intellectually engrossing. It is a book I know I will return again and again for its trenchant analysis and thoughtful insight. Indeed, though I disagree with important aspects of Morgan’s argument, I am already making use of it to supplement my current teaching and writing.

It is a deeply philosophical work. Not only does Morgan call on and discuss a vast array of philosophers, a veritable who’s who of 20th century philosophy: John Searle, W.V. Quine, Richard Rorty, Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, and Ludwig Wittgenstein to name but a few; the analysis that Morgan engages in gets to fundamental and important philosophical issues about the contested visions of what sport is and ought to be about. As a philosopher I regard this as a wonderful feature of the book; though I can imagine those not familiar with philosophical writing could struggle. (Though of course, that struggling is an essential part of the philosophical project!)

The Conflict

The main theme of the book is the historical clash of amateur and professional sport over their contested visions of the meaning of sport. Most modern sports in the West started in the 19th century as gentlemanly, amateur affairs. Spawning out of the English public schools, the norms and purposes of sport were defined by a blend of aristocratic and middle class values (Morgan 11). Pleasure, joy, and playfulness were prized above seriousness, specialization, or pursuit of victory. Money and other instrumental purposes for engaging in a sport were regarded with suspicion. The professional, according to the amateur, was too instrumental, too serious, and too concerned about winning and thus missed the ‘true’ essence of sport.

Around the same time, professional sport developed alongside the professionalization of the middle class. This change helped to emphasize the value of taking things seriously, developing specializations, and pursuing one’s goals wholeheartedly and doggedly. From this point of view, the amateurs were viewed as “dabblers in sport” (19). They didn’t take it seriously enough or work hard to improve. It was the professionals, on this conception, who were able to push for true athletic excellence and achievement.

William J. Morgan

Morgan’s point in developing these two conceptions of sport is to highlight the fundamental conflicts of vision between amateur and professional sport. The two sides argue over many aspects of sport, but all of these disputes are secondary to the core disagreement over the point and meaning of sport. And this core dispute seems intractable: each side’s viewpoint is ultimately grounded by their sense of the point and meaning of sport but has no way to convince the other side of their vision.

Morgan then uses this fundamental conflict as a sort of test for the major philosophical theories of sport. Can they make sense of the conflict? Can they find a way through it? Going even deeper, Morgan argues that this fundamental conflict of visions shows the limits of rational, moral argumentation. Can reason touch and affect these core visions? And if not, how can we make or explain moral progress?

The Theories

After laying out the historical conflict and its meaning, Morgan dives into the presentation and analysis of the major theories of sport. He first focuses on formalism and Bernard Suits’ influential account of sport. Formalism is, essentially, the idea that sport is wholly constituted by its formal features, such as the rules. Much of the chapter focuses on nature of these rules: the different kind of rules, the role they play in defining the sport, and the interpretation of rules.  Next, Morgan analyzes two popular varieties of broad internalism. In its most general formulation, broad internalism is the view that sport has, in addition to its formal rules, internal principles and values that are used to evaluate and understand sport. The varieties of broad internalism divide over how they identify and understand these internal principles. Morgan first looks at what he calls the metaphysical version through the work of John Russell. Russell’s view derives these principles from intrinsic, belief-independent features of sport (hence, it’s characterization as metaphysical). Morgan then turns to Robert Simon and Nick Dixon’s ‘discourse version’ of broad internalism which gets these principles through a “rational dialogical process open to all” (98).

So while I don’t agree, philosophically, with many of Morgan’s arguments, I am greatly enriched by his book.

In each chapter, Morgan presents the strongest, clearest version of the theory. He then discusses the main criticism and problems, particularly in terms of what the theory can say about the contested visions of sport. Though he finds value in each theory, his judgment of each is that they ultimately fail to explain accurately the conflict, resolve it, or tell us how to proceed.

There might be more detail in these chapters than a non-philosopher might care to get into, but Morgan’s clear presentation and thoughtful analysis are worth the effort and useful to newcomers and scholars alike. Familiar though I am with each of these theories, my understanding was deepened by the Morgan’s analysis and discussion of these views and their criticisms.

Morgan’s view

Before getting to his own conventionalist account, Morgan does some ground clearing by discussing other accounts of conventionalism. Since Morgan’s view is grounded on ethical conventions, he needs to distinguish his view from other theories of conventions (from the likes of David Lewis and Andrei Marmor). This chapter is primarily here to head off potential objections to Morgan’s own account of conventionalism.

Morgan’s conventionalist account is rooted in the contingent, local histories of each sporting community. The conventional beliefs and norms of each community provide the basis for description, evaluation, and assessment of the purpose and value of the activity. It is, as Morgan says, an “intra-mural, intra-community affair” (195). Drawing heavily on the ideas of Richard Rorty, Morgan’s last chapter explains how these conventionalist norms work to provide the normative ground for the sporting practice, both in terms of providing ethical guidance and the capacity to self-criticize. Though I am not persuaded, primarily for reasons of differences in epistemology, that conventionalism is workable, Morgan’s account defies easy refutation. His analysis demonstrates the theory’s robustness as Morgan is able to parry the criticisms directed its way.

The epilogue may well be my favorite part of the book. This concluding chapter provides Morgan’s ‘solution’ to the fundamental conflict of visions. It is not, he argues, resolved through rational engagement and discussion. The visions are too deeply rooted, too local, and too tied to the perspective of the community itself to be subject to a rational inquiry that somehow stands above or independent of these communities. Rather than despairing, Morgan suggests that moral progress is still possible through moral entrepreneurs who are able to provide “an imaginative redescription of the point and purpose of sport” (195). These entrepreneurs, through subversive rule-breaking, creative innovations of new sports or competitions, or otherwise, open up the imagination to new and different ways of thinking about sport. With the imagination opened to new possibilities, the conventional beliefs and norms are challenged and potentially changed. Though I am more sanguine about the fruits of rational dialogue and moral argument, the role of imagination in moral and practical reasoning is too often ignored or downplayed. I am hopeful that Morgan’s discussion of the imagination and moral entrepreneurship injects these concepts into the philosophy of sport for further thought and development.


It would be boring and intellectually stultifying to only read books by those with whom one is in agreement. So while I don’t agree, philosophically, with many of Morgan’s arguments, I am greatly enriched by his book. Like any good work in philosophy, it deepens your understanding of the subject while also giving you many more questions to think about.

Copyright © Shawn E. Klein 2020

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