Ethics of dwarf-tossing

16th July, 2005

Dear Economist,
My girlfriend and I have diametrically opposed views on the ethics of dwarf-tossing – the sport where very large men compete to see who can throw a very small man the furthest. She says that the tossed are forced into it because of their limited employment options, like prostitutes. I think these men have made a conscious, free decision to do what they do and are compensated for it. Can we get a referee’s call?
— J. Cheng, Stanford, California

Dear Mr Cheng,
I recognise the parallel between a “tossee” and a prostitute, but hardly imagine that this resolves your argument. As for being “forced” into the job by limited options, I imagine this is true in the sense that both prostitutes and tossees would prefer to be movie stars, given the choice. So what?
Yet you may find another comparison instructive. Think of workers in developing-world sweatshops, struggling to make cheap products for our enjoyment. In all three cases, the situation is discomfiting to the sensitive observer. In all three cases, we should respect those doing these horrible jobs enough to see that they are likely to be choosing the best of the alternatives available. Banning sweatshop labour or prostitution is an ethical luxury that can, and does, damage the interests of the supposed victims. (I cannot speak with authority about bans on dwarf-tossing.)
But I am disturbed by the equanimity with which you seem to view dwarf-tossing. The right response is to improve the alternatives. Sweatshops tend to produce their own alternatives as productivity and education grow. It is not clear how dwarf-tossing contributes to better alternatives for very small men; perhaps you and your girlfriend could abandon your squabbling in favour of finding some practical solution?

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