It is a very common opinion in my circles to either hate sports or invalidate it as a form of entertainment. None of them play sports, and those who do/did don't/didn't enjoy the experience. Now I've been keeping up with and watching rowing recently, and I must say that I find it quite entertaining (I was on a rowing team for a time).

However, my peers think otherwise. They object that all sports are meaningless activities of movement of matter (getting a ball in a basket, kicking it back and forth across the field) for a goal with no ultimate value (finishing 1st, new best time, etc.), and therefore liking/doing sports is irrational or even a waste of time. I don't find this criticism particularly worrying, because all things considered, every act is reducible to absurd atomic descriptions, and the goal of watching sports is to provide entertainment, and my goal for doing sports is to improve my physical condition and work ethic: two things that I doubt anyone would discount as wastes of time. Even if you're some absurdist/nihilistic physicalist, all actions are brought to the same level of pointlessness; this would defeat the same criticism.

The more worrying objection regards the justification of (specifically) watching sports. I've thought at one moment that my liking to watch rowing was justified because, as it was a form of entertainment, I was being entertained. However, you likely would not call someone who finds entertainment value in slowly squeezing people's lungs until they die justified for their proclivity. Thus liking to watch a sport on the grounds that it's entertaining alone doesn't seem to be a sufficient justification.

Let's say that Bob enjoys reading, specifically encyclopedias. His justification for liking to read is that he gets to increase and fine-tune his knowledge base. Now this instance seems to me to not really be about the activity. It's about the ends of the activity (e.g. expanding one's knowledge base). You're not reading for reading's sake; you're reading for the sake of the attainment of knowledge. However, this makes the unfortunate distinction between liking something for what it is in virtue of itself and liking something for what its consequences. I don't think there's really any activity that's done for its own sake, and fundamentally, all forms of entertainment act as vehicles for happiness/fulfillment of desire: the ultimate bottom-line(s). So the only things that differentiate Bob's justifications and a sports-watcher's justifications are the "in-between" attitudes and reasons. Why might the expansion of one's knowledge base be a better justification for an action than the suspense of competition in sport?

Now let's change scenarios to something that a friend of mine would likely endorse: Bob enjoys watching movies because he is fascinated and inspired by the motifs and symbols used. The problem with this seems to me that Bob is justifying his affinity for movies by appealing to his affinity for something else. It begs the question as to why Bob is "fascinated and inspired by the motifs and symbols used." The original statement can be reduced to something like "The reason Bob likes to watch movies is because he likes clever storytelling devices." It's not much of a justification.

Perhaps sports are intrinsically fun for some of us the same way apples are intrinsically desirable for apple-lovers. If this is the case, then there's really no significant justification to be given for watching sports. However, I doubt that this is the case for anyone, and this might seem to fall back to the example with the sadist who finds entertainment value in choking people to death.

Anyway, that was a long-winded path to ask:

  • Are people justified in watching sports? If so, how?
  • Are people justified in partaking of organized entertainment? If so, how?
  • What makes an action justified? The answer is a lot clearer when the question asks about justified belief (like the "J" in JTB), but how are actions justified in ethics?
  • Is it rational to enjoy watching a sport for the sole reason that the sport is fun to watch?
  • Is it possible for the desirability of sports for some people to be a brute fact? Can sports be intrinsically fun?

The answers to the questions are easy, but rather boring.

  • Are people justified in watching sports? Sure. Many codes of ethics permit activities for enjoyment.
  • Are people justified in partaking of organized entertainment? Why not. I don't see why the organized bit of it should make it unjustified.
  • What makes an action justified? The fact that it has a justification. Justification in ethics is simply a justification that relies on the axioms of such a ethics system.
  • Is it rational to enjoy watching the sport for the sole reason that sport is fun to watch? Sure. If you use Rational Choice Theory's definition, "At its most basic level, behavior is rational if it is goal-oriented, reflective (evaluative), and consistent (across time and different choice situations)." (Wikipedia)
  • Is it possible the desirabiltiy of sports is a brute fact? Sure. Can you think of any reason why it couldn't be?

As you may notice, without picking a particular code of ethics from which one can draw conclusions, the answers to these kinds of questions are decidedly wishy-washy.

I think the real question regarding watching sports (and many other things) is that the watching itself is hard to justify. However, if you like the effect that watching has on your mind, body, or otherwise, then the justification is found in that effect. If you cannot determine precisely what that effect is, it may be hard to verbalize a justification, even if, in fact, the effect on your mind or body is "good."

I find the most useful line of reasoning to take in these situations is pointing out how frustratingly difficult it is to tell the difference between intrinsic value and extrinsic value which simply has not yet been identified. Its hard to tell if the watching of sports is intrinsically good, or if it simply has many extrinsic features which as a whole are good.

I have a personal theory that watching sports exercises parts of the mind which are deemed essential by the watcher, but are remarkably hard to exercise in real life (such as the ability to deal with high stress situations). However, it would be nearly impossible to develop a controlled experiment to separate the possibility that it is intrinsically good from these mental exercises, so I am left with the possibility that watching sports is intrinsically good.

If your friends continue to mock you for engaging in activities that they insist you should not do, one approach may be to find new friends. Another approach may be to challenge them to justify every single action they do, including justifying why they are justifying their actions to you. Recursion has a tendency to show the insanity of these sorts of arguments. There really is more to life than simply justifying it.


They object that all sports are meaningless activities of movement of matter (getting a ball in a basket, kicking it back and forth across the field) for a goal with no ultimate value (finishing 1st, new best time, etc.), and therefore liking/doing sports is irrational or even a waste of time.

That's an absurd view. Sports, in general, are great exercise. They can also serve as social activities.

Watching sports, of course, isn't the best exercise. But some people obviously enjoy watching sports for one reason or another.

Again, there's the social aspect, with groups of people often gathering to watch a game on TV. There's also the fan aspect, with people rooting for a team they feel somehow represents them.

The importance of sports in human culture can be seen by the importance propagandists place on them. What would a baseball or football game without the national anthem and a half-time show celebrating America's military prowess? The sheer number of people who watch the Super Bowl, the Olympics or the World Cup speaks volumes.

Entertainment is pretty much the same story.

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