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This October’s Pardubice in the Czech Republic and the forthcoming British Grand National in the spring are two of the most famous sporting events in the calendar.

Both races attract crowds in their tens of thousands and television audiences in their millions. Both races involve enormous jumps that are famous in their own right – Becher’s Brook, The Chair and Taxisuv Prikop, or Taxis Ditch. Every running sees new arguments as to the ethical merits – or otherwise – of these famously popular occasions.

by    Paolo Camera  

It’s a question that depends in part on the degree to which you are prepared to extend the concept of ethics. Here’s one definition, “rules of conduct recognised in respect of a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture etc.” And here’s another: “that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions”. There are countless alternatives – let’s stop at two.

The first definition clearly ends at the limits of human interaction. What humans do with animals is beyond the terms of the discussion. But the second one is more interesting. There are plenty of passionate – if perhaps somewhat extreme – advocates who would argue that the concepts of rightness and wrongness extend beyond our own species.

They would argue that exploiting another sentient being is simply ‘wrong’. Irrespective of a formal definition of ‘wrongness’ these people might be inclined to invoke our second definition to decry events like the Pardubice and the Grand National. Both races have attracted their share of interventionist protesters over the years.

The contrary position is adopted by those directly involved; those who love their horses and want only the best for them. The animals involved are bred to run and jump – which is another way to say that their DNA represents a genetic blueprint for a running and jumping racing animal. Horse racing is as old as civilization itself. It is, in a profound historical sense, part of what makes us who we are today.

Such considerations clearly do not disturb those happy consumers considering Grand National tips or celebrating the athletic bravery of  those involved in the Pardubice. That level of popular acceptance may speak of the cultural acceptance of these events but that is not the same as a consideration of their ethical merits. In the great steeplechase of popular opinion, philosophical merit falls at the first every time.

Of course the Pardubice and the Grand National are at the extreme end of the spectrum. Most horse racing is less controversial. But that is what makes those two famous races such useful examples. If their running can be justified then the case is made.

But this logic of extrapolation can quickly run away from us. Is it ethical to fix a plough or a carriage to a horse? Is it even ethical to farm animals for meat? We quickly find we have run away from sport in any form and are discussing the very basis of our own civilization.

It is in the nature of ethics that we must examine the very nature of the questions we ask. On that basis, our definitions of ethics quickly become more brittle than viable. It seems that there is no universal recourse to any absolute ethical determination, there are only contingent and relative ongoing judgements to be made moment by moment. Picking the one that applies in any one instance is a matter of requiring careful a detailed consideration.

Some would say the same underlying principle applies to picking the winner of the Pardubice or the Grand National. In the English idiom they call it ‘horses for courses’.


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