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This cage-fighting philosopher has an important message for young men

Unthinkable: The good life is not a saccharine, Christmas Day joyful experience. It’s the well-balanced life, lived with rationality and virtue, argues lecturer and MMA fighter Gaven Kerr

An Irish philosopher and cage fighter has an important message for young men. No, it’s not Conor McGregor, though The Notorious might fancy himself as a man of wisdom. Gaven Kerr has a beard but is an actual philosopher. He lectures at St Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth, and this time last year he was recovering from his first bout at a Clan Wars mixed martial arts (MMA) fight night in Belfast.

A fan of both heavy metal and 13th century scholasticism, Kerr doesn’t fit the typical image of an academic. Living in Ballymena with his wife Collette – a judo champion – and their three children, he took a route into philosophy via Queen’s University Belfast after being introduced to the subject at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School in the city.

Fast forward 20 years and Kerr has a couple of books to his name and is a regular speaker at theological conferences – one of his specialist subjects is Aquinas’s argument for the existence of God. He is a Catholic but sees philosophy as a separate discipline to faith.

Kerr explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

How do you marry MMA with philosophy?

“Two points to make on that: one biographical and the other more abstract. The biographical point is that I spent my 20s in an office, writing a PhD and writing articles. It’s the same old story a lot of people have. There’s a turning point where you think I need to look after my body. So I started working out. Then I thought, I’ve always wanted to do a martial art. There was a kung fu master in Belfast who was also an MMA fighter so he started teaching me MMA.

“After a few years, the opportunity of a fight came up and so I ended up going into the cage. It wasn’t to build up a reputation or anything like that. It was just – this is the more philosophical point – I had this energy and desire to pursue a goal. It’s like somebody who wants to climb a mountain. It gives you a sort of a confidence that you can face challenges, and then that permeates the rest of your life.”

There are troubling aspects to the sport, such as trash-talking – and, let’s not forget, people get hurt. How is that consistent with the virtuous life?

“The way I would think about martial arts is that we’re testing our skill on each other and we do it within a controlled environment. You do cause harm but I would see the pain inflicted as being of a superficial type, similar to what you get in the gym lifting weights. So it’s not like warfare, trying to maim or kill your enemy. If you want to maim or kill your enemy in martial arts, you’ll not be welcome in a martial arts gym.”

Tell me about “toxic masculinity”. It’s a concept you take issue with

“Yeah, I was interested in looking into what exactly it is. I’m thinking back to Plato and Aristotle and their discussions of character. If you’re vicious your character hasn’t properly formed. To have a character means to have virtue, and we have the cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. They reflect what it is to be a mature, properly formed human being.

“If I’m a man with the cardinal virtues that means my character is a masculine character – those cardinal virtues are incarnated in me as a man. So when I came to think about toxic masculinity, it’s actually a notion of vice, it’s a lack of masculinity. When people are engaged in this sort of vicious behaviour, they’re not being masculine, they’re lacking in proper masculinity because they’re lacking in virtue.”

Those promoting the idea that vices are masculine tend to be men – is that fair to say?

“I think so. And I think such people should go and read Aristotle or Plato because the sorts of behaviours that they are encouraging are philosophically unjustifiable. We need genuinely virtuous men and women in public to show what proper virtue is, what proper manliness is. It’s not that sort of toxic behaviour that very public, celebrity-type figures are promoting.”

You have been invited to give talks in schools. What is that like?

“It’s a privilege to talk to young people and to expose young people to this sort of world of intellectual thinking. This is what the ancient Greeks had in mind for philosophy. It is a very abstract subject but it’s meant to have an impact in real life.”

What message do you like to convey?

“Just strive to be the best version of yourself. That will lead to what Aristotle called eudaemonia, or happiness. It will lead to the kind of life whereby, when you get to the end of your life, you can think ‘I lived a good life’. And ‘the good life’ is not the sort of saccharine, Christmas Day joyful experiences that we get now and again. It’s the well-balanced life, lived in accord with rationality and virtue.

“So I always urge any young person, especially any young man, to seek to be that sort of person – and seek to be a role model to others, to guide others into wisdom and virtue.”