By Bill Benzon
All’s not well in the world of cycling. The century-old Championship of Zurich was canceled in April for lack of sponsors. The Tour of Flanders saw a 77 percent drop in live attendance. The reason is obvious; doping scandals have all but ruined the credibility of the sport. Will baseball suffer the same fate? It’s anyone’s guess. It’s clear that there’s been a whole lot of juicin’ going on. Congress has held hearings, and drug testing was started two years ago, but no current big names have been caught. So it is still easy for fans to hide their heads in the same sand that’s been covering all those WMD’s in Iraq.
And then we have track and field and pro football, where testing programs have battered “plausible deniability” pretty badly.
But that’s not my game, bewailing the parlous moral state of athletic play. Not quite.
Why do so many of us find it so easy to think of juicing as cheating? It’s not as though chemical performance enhancement is confined to a small club that forbids it to others, thereby creating an unfair advantage for themselves. Any athlete can do it, and the pros have reasonable expectations that they’ll get good drugs and competent advice on how to use them. As far as I can tell, such judgments tend to be based on an intuitive sense of what is right and proper, what is natural. And juicing isn’t natural.
Consider a rather different example of unnatural sports preparation, vision enhancement through LASIK, laser surgery on the corneas. Back in 1999 Tiger Woods underwent LASIK surgery so that he had 20/15 vision, which is better than the 20/20 that is considered normal. Once Woods’ success validated the procedure many other golfers had it done as well. Athletes in other sports, such as baseball, have also had LASIK-enhanced vision. But no one has complained about this.
Why not? Surgical alteration of the cornea is no more “natural” than steroid ingestion – and perhaps less so, as Nature did create steroids, but not lasers. It’s as though when we infused sports with moral gravitas we didn’t include vision within the scope of the moral compass.
Juicing helps increase strength and endurance. Normal athletic training routinely works on both. If you do the correct exercises, in the correct way, you’ll become stronger and be able to last longer. It takes hard work and discipline, with moral credit accruing to your account in direct proportion to hard work and discipline. Juicing increases your performance without, however, adding moral credit to your account. Therefore, it is cheating, as there should be just proportionality between moral credits earned and performance achieved.
I suspect that something like the above reasoning is what’s behind our ordinary intuitions about juicing and athletic performance – at least those of us who disapprove. And vision simply doesn’t fit into that conceptual framework. One’s visual acuity seems to be beyond the scope of one’s will; you can’t improve your vision through practice (but see this). This being the case, vision simply isn’t moralized. Hence no one much cares about Tiger Woods or any other athlete getting their eyes LASIKed to an unnatural acuity. That practice has no moral valence.
Is this right? I don’t know. My point, rather, is that our moral intuitions do not seem very reliable in these matters, especially to the extent that they depend on some notion of what’s natural.
Let’s consider a last example, a South African sprinter named Oscar Pistorius (NYTimes subscription req’d):
He would like to compete in the 2008 Olympics. He’s not yet turned in times fast enough to qualify, but he’s on a performance trajectory where he may well get the times he needs. He’s got a problem, however; his legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old and, consequently, he runs on prosthetics. Some officials believe that his prosthetics give him an unnatural advantage:
“With all due respect, we cannot accept something that provides advantages,” said Elio Locatelli of Italy, the director of development for the I.A.A.F., urging Pistorius to concentrate on the Paralympics that will follow the Olympics in Beijing. “It affects the purity of sport. Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back.”
“I pose a question” for the I.A.A.F., said Robert Gailey, an associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami Medical School, who has studied amputee runners. “Are they looking at not having an unfair advantage? Or are they discriminating because of the purity of the Olympics, because they don’t want to see a disabled man line up against an able-bodied man for fear that if the person who doesn’t have the perfect body wins, what does that say about the image of man?”
My intuitions are with Gailey on this, but, as I have already indicated, I fear that those intuitions aren’t a reliable guide to conduct. Consider these questions raised by George Dvorsky of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies:
And given the ‘arms race’ nature of competition, will these positional advantages cause athletes to do something as seemingly radical as having their healthy natural limbs replaced by artificial ones? Is it self-mutilation when you’re getting a better limb?
Dvorsky sides with Locatelli and the I.A.A.F.:
As for Pistorius and his particular dilemma, I agree with the IAAF. He should not compete with normal humans. Instead, he should continue to race against other para-athletes and keep pushing the envelope of what is physically possible.
Eventually, performances by cyborgs will surpass those of unaugmented humans. It’s the disabled, after all, who will inherit the earth.
Now where are we? Cyborgs, for real? I don’t know. But winging it on moral intuition is not going to work. Pleas on behalf of purity and the natural are of little value.
It’s back to the drawing board.
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