The Ethics Of… FIFA and drowning small children in ponds

You know, for what is essentially a game where people kick a ball around, people sure do get excited about soccer (or football for anywhere other than Australia and the USA). With all the high-stakes corruption, internal politicking, international incidents and general drama surrounding the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) recently, it’s funny to think that the core of this entire complex, sinister mess is actually one of the simpler sports humanity has ever come up with; ‘kick the ball through the goal, no hands’. Yet here we are nonetheless.

But football is popular, popularity means money, money equals power, and (lacking accountability) power leads to corruption. And so we now find ourselves facing an international incident involving massive human rights violations, multiple arrests, information and property seizures, $150 million of alleged corruption, and over 500 hundred worker deaths so far… all over who gets to host the World Cup – a game about kicking a ball through goals.

When you think about it this sort of corruption scandal is nothing too surprising; FIFA is a corporation after all and football is their product. And just like any other corporation working on an international scale where laws and their enforcement start to get rather blurry, corruption isn’t so much the exception as it is a standard part of doing business. The fact that the USA is now pursuing prosecutions against FIFA is very similar to Lance Armstrong being hung up to dry on doping charges – notable for someone actually being caught rather than the crime itself. After all, China got the Olympics in 2008 despite extremely dodgy working conditions, let alone the government’s horrifying human rights record, and only last year Russia hosted the Winter Olympics, half a year after banning talking about gay people in case it was infectious.

Nah, from an ethics perspective there is a far more interesting question to ask about the whole FIFA scandal, and one that famously makes people very very VERY uncomfortable: is there any real difference between committing a crime and just watching one occur?

Seinfeld has very clear views on the subject at least

Here’s a fun question for you: how many human lives would you personally be willing to sacrifice for a game of football? And I’m not talking metaphorically here either; I am handing you a gun and a crate of ammo, leading you over to a limitless queue of people, and asking you to shoot as many as you think a game of soccer is worth. How many would you murder right then and there? One? Ten? 500? Or would you throw the gun at me and absolutely refuse to shoot anyone, perhaps on the basis that “a sporting event is not worth murdering someone, you mad bastard”.

But what if the game was big? Like really really big? What if the very best players were going to be there and millions of people were going to watch it around the world? Would that change your answer? Would you maybe shoot just one or two at least? Take the gun, point it at their pleading, tear-stained faces and pull the trigger, sending blood and brain matter all over the place, all to a nice background of their family and friends sobbing?

But what if the soccer game was also really valuable? What if it would bring in millions of dollars to the hosting country, provide jobs for hundreds and income to thousands? And what if it also came with a rather nice stack of cash for you personally, say $500,000, not to mention all the wining, dining, travel and gifts that would be offered to someone who secured such a prestigious, important event! How many lives would that be worth? Wouldn’t you be even slightly tempted to pull the trigger?

Apart from the very small portion of psychopaths, megalomaniacs and economists out there, I’m fairly confident that most of us would refuse to pull the trigger even once. Sure we’d likely all be tempted what with the huge amount of money, prestige and enjoyment the soccer game would provide, but confronted face-to-face with the cost we would have to pay for all of it, I very much doubt many of us could go through with it – at least not without turning away and trying to pretend we weren’t.

But what if someone else was to pull the trigger? What if some foreign government, in the course of building all the stadiums for the World Cup, was causing the deaths of one worker every two days and showed no signs of stopping? Because that is precisely what Qatar is doing in preparation for the 2022 World Cup.

Based on estimates by some commentators, the eventual total death toll is likely to be 4000 people, not including injuries and abuses – this apparently being the number of people the Qatar government is willing to shoot for a game of football.

Now I’m sure we all agree this is very terrible, but where it all becomes interesting is whether any of this is our problem. Are we, as people who aren’t committing any of these crimes but are just trying to watch the soccer from our couch on another continent, in any way guilty for these deaths? Can you be responsible for something someone else does? Is there any such thing as a guilty bystander?

Naturally the first reaction nearly everyone has to this question is a blunt “No”. But after a bit more thought, their second reaction is usually something more along the lines of “Fuck no!”. How could we ever be held responsible for the actions of total strangers? It’s not like you have any control over what other people do, hell, before reading this article a lot of you likely didn’t even know about the problem. What do you want from us, to overthrow a foreign government? To fly our arses over there, kick down the door and give the Qatar government a good telling off? Or maybe we should kidnap a few hundred thousand abused workers and smuggle them to a refugee camp?

Yeah yeah, watching the World Cup drives demand and could be argued to reward and/or endorse what Qatar did in the lead-up to the event, but you’re seriously going to try to hold soccer fans responsible for worker abuses they never asked for or committed? And besides, even if you did what share of responsibility would each of us end up with? I think we can all deal with 0.000001% of the blame each. For 4000 deaths that’s like a fingernail per viewer.

Get in early, choice cuts going fast.

Unsurprisingly this topic is a pretty popular one for philosophers to dick around with, and for ethicists to actually attempt to solve. One of the more spirited efforts in getting an answer comes from Australian ethicists Peter Singer, in the form of his rather morbid ‘drowning child’ theory;

Say you’re walking through a park past a pond and you see a child in it, clearly drowning. You know that you could easily wade into the pond and save the kid (slightly ruining your clothes in the process), but instead you choose to sit down, grab a snack and watch as the child struggles, weakens, goes under and drowns.

There’s no question here that you have done the wrong thing – choosing to avoid a tiny cost to yourself at the expense of a child’s life is pretty evil, yeah? Quite apart from the lopsided cost/benefit mathematics, failing to do anything to help breaks so many social norms that you’re liable to be lynched if anyone ever finds out. But is this sort of passive manslaughter-by-neglect the same as murder? Is sitting calmly by, watching someone drown equally as bad as deliberately finding that kid on the playground, hauling them over to the pond and then putting your foot on their head until they quit squirming?

Sure the two are different legally, but the one-size-fits-all rule of law is about setting minimum standards of behaviour, not whether something is ethically right or wrong. In both situations you could easily have saved the child’s life. In both situations the cost to you would have been virtually nothing. And in both cases the outcome is exactly the same: one dead kid. Sure there’s an element of intent if you actively drown them, whereas sitting and watching is simply opportunistic, but so what? In both cases it was obvious what the outcome was going to be, so your intent in both cases pretty much ends at ‘drowned child’.

Just… just figured I should say that at this point.

The conclusion we’re forced to draw from this hypothetical then is that, as far as responsibility for something goes it doesn’t matter whether it’s an action or an inaction – if you understand the consequences of either then you are responsible for those consequences. And given that I’ve kindly just told you that the 2022 Qatar World Cup will likely come at the cost of 4000 human lives – lives which you personally would never take for the sake of a football game – well guess what sunshine? You just became responsible for those deaths. The fact that you’re not the one forcing these workers into virtual slavery is no more important than the fact that you didn’t push the child into the pond; in both cases you clearly understood the consequences of inaction, as so you become responsible for not stopping them.

But hold up, what about all the other people watching? Didn’t we agree that if a million people watch the World Cup (and that’s a gross underestimate) then the most you can blame on any given individual is like 0.01 grams of dead guy? And doesn’t blaming the spectators like that actually reduce the amount of responsibility on the people who are working these labourers to death in the first place? How the hell is that ethical?

Once again Singer’s pond hypothetical is relevant here: if you’re sitting and watching a child drown while definitely being able to save it, that is clearly unjustifiable. But if you’re in a crowd of 10 people, all equally able to save the kid and all of you just sit there and do nothing, does that really change anything? As far as your ability to save the kid goes, nothing at all has changed; you still understand the consequences of inaction and you’re still able to assist. What does it matter what anyone else is doing? And say you were part of a crowd watching someone else actively drown a child – sure that person is totally responsible for what is happening, but provided you can easily intervene and make them stop then once again, what does it matter what anyone else is doing?

The point here is that responsibility for any given situation cannot be divided – instead it must be calculated entirely separately for each individual involved. Despite how we tend to think when something goes wrong, responsibility for any given situation is not a pie that we can slice up and distribute out of 100%, because all too often those slices overlap massively. Let’s say we ignore the viewers entirely; who then is responsible for the human rights abuses in preparation for the World Cup? The Qatar government that set the policy? The enforcers who actually send the workers into the terrible conditions? Or FIFA for giving Qatar the event in the first place and then letting them keep it when these facts came to light? The suffering would not be possible without any of these three parties; any one of them could end it all immediately and so each individually are 100% responsible for the suffering involved. The fact that either of the other two could also stop it isn’t relevant, because each party’s responsibility must be calculated separately.

But hang on, can we get a quick reality check here? Am I seriously arguing that each of the individuals who merely watch the World Cup in 2022 is equally responsible for worker deaths as the people who are actually hurting them? Am I actually suggesting that watching someone get shot is the exact same as shooting that person myself? Because that would be insane! By extension that would mean that everybody is responsible for everything that happens everywhere! Are we also responsible for the Syrian War? Or famines in Somalia? Or how about the crimes of the North Korean Government?

Well obviously not. But if the old ‘dividing blame out of 100%’ method doesn’t work, and there’s no real difference between an action and an inaction, then clearly we need a better method of deciding who is responsible for what and to what degree. We as viewers of the World Cup are now aware that it will come at a terrible cost in human lives. We know that just because it is not us pulling the trigger, doesn’t mean we get to dodge responsibility for this harm. We also know that while millions of other people are in the same situation as us, and some people are far more responsible for the suffering of the workers, what other people do is not important when it comes to determining what we should be doing. So the question we are really asking here isn’t ‘should we act’, but rather ‘what should we do’. And the answer to that depends pretty heavily on what we are capable of doing.

As should be clear by now, I live in Australia and don’t even really know that much about soccer. as such my capacity to intervene in this situation is a hell of a lot smaller than if I was part of FIFA, the Qatar government or any of the enforcement groups brutalizing workers – all I would need to do then was stop being an arsehole and things would substantially improve. But as mere viewers of the World Cup, our capacity to intervene is a lot smaller. We can sign petitions, we can join protests, or if we’re truly desperate (and slightly narcissistic) we can write articles on the internet, but as I suggested before, even if we went all-out, flew to Qatar, forced our way into parliament house and gave the government a stern tongue-lashing, how much do you reckon this would actually achieve? Probably somewhat less that sweet bugger all.

The accent likely wouldn’t help matters.

But fortunately for all us concerned and responsible viewers all over the world, there is one thing you can do that will make a significant impact on the conditions of the workers in Qatar and it costs you absolutely nothing! You can do it from home, from work, even from the pub and if we all start right now then it is guaranteed to prevent the 3500 deaths yet to happen in Qatar. All you have to do is one simple thing:

Don’t watch the Cup.

Football is popular, popularity means money, money means power and power means corruption – but cut the popularity out of that equation and the entire concept falls apart. And why abuse workers if it’s not only not making you cash, but actually loses you money?

Yeah sure, everyone else might not do it and your efforts might not count for squat, but perhaps you will find some consolation in the fact that, when asked how many people you would kill for a game of football, you at least were among the few that honestly answered “Zero”.


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