Is it ethical to favour one soccer team over another?

The answer is surely no: it's not unethical or wrong or immoral to favor one team over another. But there's an interesting issue in the background. At least some views of what morality calls for say that we should be impartial. If I'm a utilitarian, then everyone's pleasure and pain count equally. If I'm a Kantian, then I should act only on maxims that I could will to be universal laws. But in that case, it seems, they can't favor particular people—or particular sports teams.

Whether this is really what utilitarianism or Kantianism call for, this would be crazy. It's also an issue that comes up in an important essay by the British philosopher Bernard Williams ("Persons, Character and Morality," 1976.) Toward the end of the essay, he considers a hypothetical raised by another philosopher, Charles Fried. Fried imagines a man who is in a position to save one of two people, one of whom is his wife. Fried is clear that it should be acceptable for the man to save his wife instead of the stranger. But Williams isn't happy with the way that Fried makes the case. He adduces considerations meant to show that perhaps somehow, in this case, the man isn't actually being unfair.

Williams thinks that going about things in this way would leave the man "with one thought too many." Williams writes: might have been hoped by some (for instance, by his wife) that his motivating thought, fully spelled out, would be the thought that it was his wife, not that it was his wife and that in situations of this kind it is permissible to save one's wife.

What is Williams' point? It is that deep attachments are part of any life that has "substance," in Williams' word, even if deep attachments risk offending against "the impartial view." Williams thinks that there is always a potential conflict between life's having depth and substance, and the requirements of our system of morality.

What about soccer? Saving one's spouse and rooting for one's team seem pretty different. And they are. But what they might have in common from Williams' point of view is that a life infused through and through by the demands of system of impartial morality would not be a good life, even if the rules of that system have a legitimate claim on us.

There are lots of issues here, and doing them justice would call for a very long essay or, more likely, a book. But extrapolating from what Williams says, if someone convinces herself that it's wrong to root for her hometown team, something is indeed wrong, but it's not the rooting. It's that in a way not altogether easy to articulate, morality has become, if not a tyrant, then something less than human.

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