The end justifies the means. That’s what Niccolò Machiavelli believed. Or at least he believed it in relation to the preservation of the city-state. In The Prince, his handy guide for new rulers on how to get and cling to power, he advised deception, double-crossing, and even murder if that yielded the requisite outcome: state security and control of the people. Cesare Borgia was Machiavelli’s hero because he used extreme cruelty effectively in Romagna and elsewhere. Everyone was terrified of him, and only an unfortunate illness stopped him holding on to power for longer.
Machiavelli is exceptional in the history of philosophy in his open scorn at setting limits on what you can do to other people to get what you want. It would be no surprise if Vladimir Putin turned out to be a fan. He has no qualms about hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions left without heat for the winter, as collateral in the pursuit of conquering Ukraine. The lives of Ukrainians and Russian soldiers alike are a means to his end. Anything is permitted, anything at all, perhaps even the use of nuclear weapons.
Putin isn’t alone in treating other people merely as a means to an end. Since 2010 when Fifa awarded Qatar the World Cup, numerous migrant workers, possibly thousands, have died building venues there. Few of their deaths appear in official Qatar statistics because if after working long hours in intense heat a previously healthy worker has a fatal heart attack or respiratory failure, that is deemed death by natural causes.
The Qatar government has failed to protect these people adequately and has failed to compensate their families. Many have been exploited, some underpaid, and some not paid at all. Human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, have identified instances of forced labour. Although labour reforms have been brought in to protect workers, including a minimum wage, it’s not clear these have been enforced, nor that they’ll continue to operate once the World Cup caravan departs. It’s likely they won’t.
Sepp Blatter, the ex-Fifa president, recently admitted the Qatar World Cup decision had been a mistake. He was surely right. A country where homosexual acts are illegal and women do not have equal rights should always have been a non-starter. That aside, a fundamental issue is that migrant workers there have been denied not just legal recourse but also basic respect, the sort of respect every human being merits. They have been used: treated like a renewable resource. Immanuel Kant’s philosophy gives a perspective on what is so fundamentally immoral about this approach.
A hypothetical imperative takes the form “if you want x, do y”. “If you want to build a stadium quickly and very cheaply, keep your workers in fear, make them work in dangerous conditions, and pay them very little” is an example of a hypothetical imperative. Kant maintained that morality isn’t a matter of hypothetical imperatives, but rather a system of unconditional imperatives, categorical imperatives.
And in one famous formulation of this, he argued that morality consists in the categorical imperative to respect one another’s humanity by not ever treating anyone else (or even ourselves) as merely a means to achieving a particular result. That could be rephrased as “Treat others and yourself with respect”. For Kant, any action that merely uses another human being, then, is morally culpable.
Obviously we sometimes treat other people partly as means to an end. If you get an Uber to the stadium to watch a match, you treat your driver as a means to get there. When you buy a coffee from the snack bar you treat the person who serves you partly as a means to get your drink. But if you only do that, if you fail to treat these people as autonomous human beings with their own desires, wishes, and reasons for acting, then for Kant you are behaving immorally, not respecting their humanity.
This respect isn’t the kind of respect that has to be earned. The greater respect that a Messi or a Ronaldo deserves as a footballer is different from the respect due to them and to everyone else simply because they are human beings.
The current Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, recently wrote a letter urging participating nations to “focus on the football” now. But many of us won’t play along with that. The human cost has been far too high. These matches will be played on the corpses of migrant stadium workers. It would be disrespectful to pretend otherwise.