Reflections on the Case of Oscar Pistorius

Update September 12, 2014: Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of culpable homicide. This is a lesser offense than premeditated murder, but it still carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison (but as little no jail time). Pistorius has not been sentenced yet.

As has been widely reported, Oscar Pistorius is accused of murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, in his home on February 14. Currently, he is out on bail awaiting trial. He asserts his innocence, claiming that it was tragic case of mistaking her for a home intruder. (The Guardian’s dedicated page for news regarding the case)

Pistorius’ fame reached a pinnacle during the 2012 London Olympics when he became the first Paralympic running in the Olympic Games. Like many Olympic athletes, Pistorius’ path to the Olympics was a challenging road filled with multiple obstacles. Unlike most Olympians, however, Pistorius faced legal challenges and public opinion battles regarding his right to compete as a double amputee against able-bodied athletes. This made Pistorius a story of inspiration, hope, perseverance, and justice. (My earlier blog on Oscar Pistorius) He inspired disabled and able-bodied athletes and spectators across the globe. This admiration and respect was concretized by Grenada’s Kirana James exchanging his bib numbers with Pistorius after the 400-meter semifinal. He seemed to be the most popular South African athlete, period.

Then came the news of the murder: a young woman dead at the hands of a national hero. Images, ideals, and idols shattered. Hope and goodwill turned to anger and outrage.

So what does this have to do with Sports Ethics or Philosophy of Sport? As tragic as it is, it doesn’t raise any special or novel issues for sport as such. Nevertheless, this case has led me to think about an issue that does somewhat relate to Sports Ethics. For several years, I have used Pistorius’ push to race in the Olympics as a part of my Sports Ethic course. We spend several classes examining the questions that arise in his case: issues of disabled athletes generally; should disabled athletes compete against able-bodied athletes; does running on the blades as Pistorius does, count as running; etc. It also connects nicely with the class’s discussion of doping and PEDs. Should arguments against PEDs apply to the technical aids used by a disabled athlete to compete? The case of Oscar Pistorius frames the whole discussion of these questions. I am hardly alone in this. Much of the literature that focuses on these questions is framed by Pistorius’ case.

After processing the shock of the news of Pistorius’ arrest and his girlfriend’s murder, I started to wonder: should I (or any teachers) continue to use Pistorius as the main case-study for my classes?

I am reluctant to do so. Historically, Pistorius racing at the Olympics is still an important and inspirational event. All the ethical and philosophical questions that it brings forward remain worthy of inquiry. But I am not comfortable using a murderer (assuming he is guilty) as the case to bring these issues up for discussion. Moreover, I am not sure my view would change if he is ultimately acquitted. Why?

  1. Part of what makes Pistorius’ case so powerful is Pistorius himself. We feel sympathy for him because he is a normal-seeming guy who just wants to compete. His story pulls at our sense of fairness: it is easy for us to imagine being him and in his situation. But if he is found guilty of murder, this doesn’t work anymore. Maybe this just requires a re-framing of the narrative, but it is hard to imagine that one can frame the story in a way that wouldn’t downplay the murder and do further injustice to the memory of Steenkamp.
  2. A practical concern is that trying to use Pistorius as a central figure here creates a huge distraction. Students will want to focus on the murder, not the issues.
  3. Even if he is acquitted, he is no longer the sympathetic figure he was. The practical concern would remain because students would likely be more familiar with him as someone charged with and associated with a murder. Moreover, even if acquitted of a murder charge, he still seems, based on released evidence and testimony, morally culpable for her death (more on this in the appendix below).

I do not expect nor demand that the figures discussed in class be moral saints or ideals. That is unrealistic, unnecessary, and contrary to the goals of education. However, Pistorius’ case raises a special problem because so much of the narrative of the disabled athlete triumphing in the quest of fairness is celebratory.

Innocent or guilty, I do not think Pistorius should be ignored in sports history. He was the first to do something significant in sport. He has helped and inspired countless athletes and others to overcome their own obstacles. (In this way, his situation is similar to another fallen sport hero: Lance Armstrong.) But now this narrative includes murder, and that forever changes it.

Whether I continue to use Pistorius or not in my class (I have not decided yet), he can no longer be an inspiration or story of hope and triumph. The loss of an inspirational figure to talk about in Sports Ethics does not even rise to the level of a tiny, micro-tragedy. A woman is dead. Her family and loved ones have suffered an incalculable loss. Obviously, that is rightfully where most of our focus and concern should be.

Appendix: What I think about the case itself
I admit I find Pistorius’ account, as reported, of Steenkamp’s killing unconvincing and even if true not exculpatory. On the other hand, the bail hearing revealed what looks like police negligence and incompetence in handling the investigation. Such mishandling might lead to, and if extensive demand, an acquittal. Nevertheless, it looks to me like he is still morally on the hook for her death.

This is what has been reported as Pistorius’ account: that he thought there was an intruder locked in the bathroom, and given both the crime rate in South Africa and past threats against Pistorius, he feared enough for his safety to fire his weapon four times through the closed door. (Graphic representation of Pistorius’ testimony).

The use of deadly force is justifiable in self-defense, but not without conditions. What these conditions would be and how they are justified is a complicated matter of social and legal philosophy. For that reason, I’ll assert, without argument, what I take to be at least two essential conditions for the justified use of force (deadly or not). (These are likely not equivalent to the South African legal requirements for the use of deadly force)

  1. There is the use of or imminent threat of use of force against one’s person or property (and by extension persons who in some way one is responsible for: children, loved ones).
  2. There are no reasonable or effective alternatives to defend one’s person or property (and extensions).

I think he fails to meet these conditions. Counterfactual, if he was right that the person in the bathroom was an intruder and not his girlfriend, this intruder would be initiating force against Pistorius by trespassing. This trespass, then, might meet the first condition. However, before using force, one has a responsibility to confirm (or try to confirm) one’s suspicion (at least as much as one can in a given set of circumstances). Nothing in Pistorius’ account so far suggests that he attempted to confirm that the person in the bathroom was indeed an intruder or a threat.

But even if he meets the first condition; he fails utterly on the second. At least based on the testimony so far reported, there seems to have been several alternatives Pistorius could have used to protect himself and his property instead of force. He could have removed himself from the perceived immediate danger from the intruder behind the door, called security and/or the police, and waited with his weapon in case the supposed intruder came out of the bathroom. Shooting blindly through a closed door hardly seems like the only (or more strongly, even a) reasonable and effective option for self-defense in this case.

This doesn’t establish that Pistorius is guilty of murdering Steenkamp. There are many legal hurdles and standards that need to be met to establish that. Moreover, I suppose evidence could come out that would show Pistorius was facing at least a perceived imminent threat with no reasonable or effective alternatives. Still, nothing like that seems forthcoming at this point even from Pistorius himself. My point is, guilty of premeditated murder or not, Pistorius is morally culpable for Steenkamp’s death.

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Filed under Oscar Pistorius, Sports Ethics, Sports Studies

One response to “Reflections on the Case of Oscar Pistorius

  1. Pingback: Kaizen Weekly Review » Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship

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