Is Taking Performance Enhancing Drugs Like Eating Your Cat?

Every Sunday, the New York Times Magazine runs a column called The Ethicist in which Chuck Klosterman prints a reader question – some sort of moral quandary – and issues a ruling, usually about whether some action (or inaction) is moral or ethical. I thought I’d make a few remarks about Klosterman’s answer to this week’s question, which I reproduce here in its entirety:

The argument against performance-enhancing drugs in sports is that the drugs give players an unfair advantage. But how do P.E.D.’s differ from Tommy John surgery? Or pre-emptive Tommy John surgery? What about rich kids? Is their access to superior coaching, facilities and equipment a similarly unfair advantage? In a society that embraces plastic surgery, Botox injections, Viagra and all kinds of enhancements, what moral line do P.E.D.’s cross? LYNN MOFFAT, SLEEPY HOLLOW, N.Y.

Summarizing, Klosterman answered that P.E.D.s basically don’t cross any obvious line and that they don’t differ from these other ways that you can improve performance, and, therefore, that there’s no moral justification for banning them, writing: “Virtually all moral arguments against P.E.D.’s involve contradictions.”

Why, then, are P.E.D.s banned? Klosterman explains that it has to do with the fact that sports and life differ because sports are a realm of fantasy:

Sports, unlike life, need inflexibly defined rules. Any game (whether it’s the World Cup or Clue) is a type of unreality in which we create and accept whatever the rules happen to be… So how do we make an unreal exhibition meaningful? By standardizing and enforcing its laws, including the ones that don’t necessarily make sense.

He concludes with:

The motive is to create a world — or at least the illusion of a world — where everyone is playing the same game in the same way. P.E.D.’s are forbidden because that’s what our fabricated rules currently dictate. In real life, that’s a terrible, tautological argument. But in sports, arbitrary rules are necessary. The rules are absolutely everything, so the rules are enough.

I have two bones to pick with this answer.

Here’s bone number one. It seems to me he hasn’t quite paid out why games need rules. The issue isn’t just creating a fantasy world. It’s more than that because games – sports –have functions. Many sports let you practice skills which might come in handy in real conflicts, for instance. And one function of sports is not unlike the displays of non-humans in the real world: to see who’s better. Bull elk fight with their antlers in a game that is anything but fantasy. Still, these fights have “rules” – no using your antlers against the opponent’s flanks – and allow both participants and observers to make inferences about who is top elk while limiting damage. The rule lets the contest be decided in a truth-revealing way that also (usually) minimizes damage to the participants.

Is he using P.E.D.s?

Is he using P.E.D.s?

Related, a key element of “rules” that is missing here is that many rules in games make the task harder. Consider “rules” that you make when you play by yourself. Let’s see how many times I can throw this ball up without catching it… but the ball has to go at least a few feet in the air. Without such rules, tasks are too easy, limiting their ability to hone skills, and thus their utility.

But the bone I’m more interested in bone number two. Are rules in games and sports so different from moral rules in life? Why is ok to have sex with someone who buys you dinner, but not ok if you explicitly pay someone the cost of dinner for sex? Why is it not ok to have sex with someone for money… but you can make it ok if you make a video of it? Why can you sell your hair and eggs (if you have any), but not your kidney? Why is killing 100,000 people with regular weapons less deserving of punishment than killing 1,400 of them with non-conventional ones?

There are contradictions aplenty embodied in the law as well in people’s personal moral stances, and the literature in moral psychology has a lot of fun with such things. The last decade or so has seen an ebullience of work on the famous Trolley Problem, in which people say it’s not OK to pitch the guy with the backpack off the footbridge to save five others, but it’s fine to kill one to save five if the means of doing so involves pulling a switch instead of pushing someone. The person is just as dead either way, yet our moral intuitions differ drastically. (Another trolley problem paper just came out, by the way.)

Is it true that “sports, unlike life, need inflexibly defined rules?” Life seems to have some inflexibly defined rules as well, as embodied in Immanuel Kant’s notion of a categorical imperative. The convolutions of moral rules both in law and our intuitions don’t seem all that different from the rules of games and sports.

Why might that be? Klosterman gets it right, I think, when he points out that the point of rules is to make sure that “everyone is playing the same game in the same way.” A key aspect of rules and morality is impartiality, that the rules apply to everyone equally. People who break the rules are taking advantage, whether in sports or in life.

The arbitrariness of moral rules, and the contradictions among moral rules, is important to notice in the context of the function of moral psychology. As I and others have argued elsewhere, if moral psychology were, as some would have it, designed around making people better off, then the patterns of moral judgments we see in which people are happy to endorse welfare-destroying rules – such as the prohibition against eating certain foods or against pushing one to save five – are deeply puzzling anomalies. If, on the other hand, moral intuitions serve a different function, then this similarity between moral rules and rules in games is less of a puzzle.

In this sense, then, the prohibition against performance-enhancing drugs is really not so different from the sorts of rules that we outside of sports contexts, rules that can’t be easily justified but exist nonetheless, such as the prohibition against eating one’s own pets.

In this sense, I’m no more satisfied with the more or less vacuous idea that “P.E.D.’s are forbidden because that’s what our fabricated rules currently dictate” than I am with similar justifications for moral rules in the real world that are little more than references to history, tradition, or, often, a general feeling of malaise. In the P.E.D. case, it could be that allowing the drugs would make the sport more interesting – more home runs and all that – but at the expense of the health of the players, to the extent that the drugs have harmful side-effects. Owners, players and spectators might well have different positions on this; lots of rules are already in place that some people think make the game less interesting to the benefit of the participants. (Safety equipment generally falls into this category.) By the same token, the debate about puzzling moral rules in real life could – and I would say, should – have the same character: what trade-offs are we making under each candidate rule regime?

05. September 2013 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 7 comments

Comments (7)

  1. My suspicion is that we complicate matters by talking about ‘Morals’ when we should be talking about ‘moral behaviour’. Contrary to many philosophers I don’t believe ‘Morals’ exist other than as an abstract concept.

    Working from the idea of evolutionary psychology you might expect that humans have genetic dispositions which favour behaviours which enhance the fitness of individuals living in a troop. These genetic dispositions might be thought of as contributing to moral primitives. I don’t know what they are or how many there might be but I would expect moral primitives such as ‘behave fairly’, ‘complain if you are treated unfairly’, ‘look for personal advantage’, ‘don’t get caught behaving badly’, ‘lie effectively’, ‘care for young’, ‘keep track of your status’, and so on.

    Because the behaviours (behind the moral primitives) are the consequence of genetic dispositions and the environment you shouldn’t be surprised if individuals show varying levels of these behaviours, nor that some of the behaviours are at odds with others. Which immediately resolves many of the philosophical debating points – there are no absolute morals, only competing inclinations.

    So there are no high level morals, only elaborated moral primitives evolutionarily playing out in particular societies. Which is why some people take P.E.D. despite the risk to their status, and others think taking P.E.D. is ‘unfair’.

  2. I think PED use is different than Tommy John Surgery in two important ways: PED has long term health consequences that are detrimental to the individual. A surgery does not damage your health in the long run. Also, PED improves your ability artificially, while we can say that TJS makes you as healthy as you were before the injury but nothing in addition.

    By the same logic I think we can justify donating hair which poses no risk to the individual, while Kidney donation involves some risks (as well as egg donation so I would put them in the same category). Also, kidney donations hold the risk of exploitation, as the payoff for the individual is much higher than that for hair. That’s why a true donation is acceptable but when money is involved it complicates things.

  3. Lots of these debates center on performing enhancing drugs, relative to performance decreasing drugs. Now I’m fairly certain that pretty much no one would be interested in taking performance decreasing drugs in the first place, but I’d put a substantial amount of money on people not caring if someone did.

    There might be a study in that idea somewhere.

  4. I think we need a bit more methodological individualism here. It is in all sportsmen’s interests to ensure that PEDs are banned (or else employed equally by all contestants) otherwise any reputational gains you enjoy from sporting success would be devalued by the suspicion that you are merely a better than average cyclist, say, with access to a brilliant pharmacist.

    • I agree with this. PEDs are different from, say, helmets, in that it’s easier to keep secret that you’re using one. Generally, this predicts that secret-advantage-giving things should be resisted more than less-secret-advantage-giving things. It also seems to predict that as detection gets better, resistance should go down. But fair enough.

  5. Another example from the sports world that’s really interesting in this context is that of “diving” or “flopping”: i.e., deliberately deceiving a referee or umpire into believing that you were the victim of a foul. The “morality” of diving has long been debated in the sports world — especially in regard to soccer, where the behavior is notoriously common — but it made headlines recently as a result of an international soccer match in which a Costa Rican player engaged in what might well be the most egregious such act ever caught on film. The successful dive led to a U.S. player not only receiving an undeserved foul and yellow card, but consequently being suspended for the team’s next match. (Google something like “Costa Rica soccer dive” to find countless links to online videos of the episode, as well as equally countless links to American sports writers competing to out-moralize each other about it.)

    What’s particularly interesting about the diving debate is that although (like PED use) the behavior is universally outlawed — and players can be punished (with yellow cards) when caught — there are (unlike PED use) considerable cross-cultural and individual differences in the moral condemnation of it. Diving is widely accepted as a legitimate part of the game, despite its illegality, in some parts of the world, and by a substantial proportion of fans within any part of the world. Despite this variability, though, there are some interesting invariances related to a couple of points raised by Rob in his post.

    First, the arguments on both sides clearly illustrate agreement on the importance of impartiality. Opponents of course claim that divers (like PED users) gain an unfair advantage at the expense of non-divers. Defenders claim that there is nothing unfair about diving, because it is accepted as a fact that anyone can do it if they choose to, and it is simply “part of the game.” So both sides agree on the importance of impartiality, the difference being whether the accepted norm is that nobody is/should be free to do it or everybody is/should be free to do it.

    Second, the arguments on both sides are consistent with preserving the function of the game with respect to participants “honestly” demonstrating their relative skills and abilities. Diving opponents, like PED opponents, see diving as undermining this principle, but defenders refer to the ability to successfully deceive the ref as itself displaying an admirable skill set, if not an art form. The game still functions as a skills competition, with referee-deceiving simply being added to the list of skills with respect to which players compete.

    It might be interesting to speculate about non-sports analogs of this. For example, it might shed some light on the moral reasoning/beliefs of criminals (or, equivalently, politicians). To what extent do politicians believe it is morally justifiable to accept bribes, lie through their teeth, and other such despicable-to-the-rest-of-us things on grounds that (a) everyone else does it, so the playing field is level, and (b) getting away with such acts is regarded in their world as an admirable political skill?

    • So I don’t think you have to merely speculate about the non-sports analogs of this. Funnily enough, I decided to check Rob’s blog while taking a break from reading a section of Josh Greene’s forthcoming book, “Moral Tribes”, where I was in the middle of a section called “Biased Fairness”. In that section, Greene cites a number of studies in which people’s perception of what’s fair seems to depend on what would benefit them. You might already be aware of these findings, but I wasn’t. Some highlights:

      –U.S. News & World Report found in 1995 that 85% of respondents answered “yes” to the following question: “If someone sues you and you win the case, should he pay your legal costs?” When others were asked to suppose *they* were the unsuccessful plaintiff, however, only 44% thought the unsuccessful plaintiff should have to pay the defendant’s legal fees.

      –In a series of studies in the ’90s, Babcock, Loewenstein, Camerer, and Issacharoff found (e.g.) that people’s willingness to agree to a settlement in an imaginary personal injury case depended on whether they were to assigned to play the role of plaintiff or defendant and how much they then predicted the judge would award the plaintiff. (Presumably, this prediction reflected what they believed a fair settlement would be. Also, guessing accurately was rewarded financially, but participants were also financially rewarded in proportion to how much the settlement favored their side.) On average, people playing the plaintiff predicted that the judge would award more to the plaintiff than did people playing the defendant. Interestingly, these differing estimates of what a fair settlement would be then influenced their actual willingness to settle. When plaintiff and defendant made similar predictions about the judge’s award, they were much more likely to agree than when their predictions diverged (only 3% of trials ended without an agreement in the former case, whereas 30% of trials ended without an agreement in the latter). When people made their predictions about the settlement *before* learning whether they were the plaintiff or defendant, however, the overall likelihood of agreement was much higher. What people believed to be fair influenced their willingness to settle, and what they believed to be fair was influenced by what they stood to gain (and how they believed they could gain it).

      –Wade-Benzoni, Tenbrunsel, and Bazerman (1996) found that people were unwilling to agree to solutions to prevent Tragedy-of-the-Commons-style overfishing when some people were told to imagine they had long-term interests in the fish stock while others were told to imagine they had only short-term interests. While only 10% agreed to sustainable solutions in this case, 64% agreed when everyone was asked to imagine they had the same kinds of interests. Again, people’s self-interest seems to influence what they believe to be fair, which influences whether they’re willing to make certain kinds of agreements.

      So what this stuff suggests to me is that politicians (among other people) probably are willing to believe it’s morally justifiable to do all sorts of apparently immoral things. But I don’t think they believe this merely because everyone else does it or because they believe one’s ability to perform that act reflects some kind of admirable quality. Instead, I suspect they simply believe it’s fair (period) to perform the act, and I suspect they believe it’s fair because they stand to benefit from performing the act. (Of course, people don’t believe that whatever they stand to benefit from doing is fair — it has to be within a certain range of plausibility. Perhaps this range is delimited by what other people do, or what can plausibly thought to be admirable.)

      In the sports cases, I’m willing to bet that people in favor of (e.g.) diving are better at diving than those who are against it. Sure, they might also hail from a place where diving is more widely accepted, but I bet that acceptance is itself traceable to a few initial people having success diving. Those people then probably came to think diving was fair, and then others probably ended up following suit once they figured out that they could benefit from diving, too. (If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em…)

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