Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

George Carlin has died at the age of 71 from apparent heart failure. (NYT Obit)

Carlin was a modern-day Socratic gadfly--a real philosopher. Like Socrates, Carlin stood in front of society and pushed them to question the way they lived. His best bits were usually about how we use words and language. He wasn't just a cunning linguist (oh, how he'd love that!); his humor brought out the personal assumptions and social implications of the words we use. He saw the connection between thought, language, and action; and that the attempt to control language is an attempt to control one's thoughts and actions.

This is of course best exemplified in his Seven Words You Can't Say on Television:

Carlin was one of the first stand-up comedians that I remember. His Carnegie hall show, that I think was on HBO in the 80s, was one of the first extended stand-up routines that I saw and it started my love of stand-up. (Along with Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy) I can still see all the chairs piled up behind him on the stage as Carlin riffed on the behavior of cats and dogs.

His humor was also a biting social criticism--often, as the years went by, at growing distance from my own views--yet still witty and funny. Carlin was a rare a talent that had the ability to piss off just about everyone: he attacked religion, politicians, feminists, and conservatives of all stripes. Carlin had no truck for bullshit of any kind and where he sensed someone trying to get away with something, he attacked them vigorously and thoroughly. Sadly, in his waning years, Carlin got much too bitter and angry; and this detracted from my enjoyment of his more recent work.

Just this Friday, I was watching several of his older bits on YouTube. (This was 'research' for my upcoming talk on "Bullshit".) They were still funny as ever. Thank you George Carlin.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Favorite Fiction Books

In a discussion board at Rings of Orbis, people are posting lists of their favorite books. This is what I posted.

Oh boy o' boy! This is going to be tough. I'm sure a different night the list would be slightly different. To keep things more simple: I'm not including non-fiction. I am also avoiding putting anything I read most recently to avoid proximity bias.

In no particular order (keep the list to 10 was hard enough):

1. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

The epic and classic story of keeping one's independence and integrity in the face of peer, social, and career pressure.

2. Early Autumn by Robert B Parker

I love all of Parker's Spenser novels (some of the older citizens may remember Spenser for Hire from the 80s). This one is my favorite because Spenser is the most explicit about his philosophy of life.

3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger

A classic. Loved it as a teenager, and really identified with Holden. As an adult, Holden seems more immature and in need of some growing up, but I still love it.

4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

An early Sci-fi classic. A story that has stuck in my imagination since I was kid.

5. The Maltese Falcon By Dashiell Hammett

My favorite genre is the detective novel (with sci-fi a close second!). Hammett's classic is just plain fantastic. If you like the Bogart movie, the novel is so much better.

6. Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro Novels

I couldn't decide which one was my favorite, but I love the series. Darker and more realistic than Spenser.

7. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

One exception to my rule of not including recent reads. This is, I guess, an instant classic for me. I make the exception for two reasons: 1) it's fantastic and 2) I should have read it years ago.

8. Asimov's Foundation series

I loved it as a young teenager--but haven't read it in years so I often wonder if I would still like it. But I devoured the series in my tweens.

9. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K Rowling.

Loved the whole series (Check out my Harry Potter and Philosophy on Amazon), but this one was my favorite.

10. The Counterlife by Philip Roth

This book is so interesting and weird, plus I've read it several times and still haven't quite figured it all out.

I'm working on a non-fiction list and will post it at some point.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Arguments against Performance-Enhancing Technologies

I have been working on a sports ethics presentation. The following is a (really) rough draft of the section of performance-enhancing technologies. I'd be interested in feedback, but do keep in mind this is not meant as a formal piece of writing. It is more of a jotting down of thoughts waiting to be coerced into something intelligent. Usual caveats for such thing: poor grammar, typos, inchoate thoughts. This is an experiment on my part, I typically prefer to post only more polished works. Let's hope this goes well.


I have identified seven distinct arguments offered for justifying the banning of certain performance-enhancing technologies/drugs (PET or PED) (these are not mutual exclusive or jointly exhaustive):

1. Argument from Danger

2. Argument from Unnaturalness

3. Argument from Objectification

4. Argument from Fairness

5. Argument from Coercion

6. Argument from False Achievement

7. Argument from the Children

Argument from Danger

o The substance or technology endangers the user to some significant degree.

o Primarily targeted at performance-enhancing drugs.

o Problems:

o Many of the dangers arise from abuse or overdose; thus, dangers could often be avoided if used under a physicians care. (though no doubt this would be harder to regulate)

o Counter-examples:

§ Some of the banned substances, like HGH, have few, if any, known serious, long-term consequences.

§ Some dangerous substances are not banned: Nicotine is a well-known stimulant and it is linked to cancer and other diseases, yet, few sport associations prohibit it.

o Paternalistic concerns.

§ Generally, the individual athlete should be free to weight the benefits and risks of a particular substance and assume the risk if so chooses. A prohibition appears to say that the athlete is in some manner unfit to make this decisions

o Danger inherent in many sports to begin with:

§ Boxing

§ Physics shows us that a body weight limit in football would reduce injury caused by collisions.

Argument from Unnaturalness

o This is probably the weakest argument of all.

o Much of an athlete’s preparation for competition is unnatural to some degree.

o Diet and training of an elite athlete is typically far out of the natural range.

o A large part of the problem lies in the ambiguity of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’.

o Anabolic steroids are derived from substances that occur in our body.

o Blood doping involves injecting one’s own blood back into his system--what’s more natural than one’s own blood?

o Many allowed substances are ‘unnatural’: ibuprofen not a naturally occurring chemical compound.

o There is no inherent value in something being natural as opposed to man-made. Arsenic is after all a naturally occurring substance while chocolate has to be manufactured.

o Performance-enhancing Technologies:

o All technologies are man-made and artificial and thus, in a sense, unnatural.

o Once we move from bare feet to sandals and then to running shoes, why not a better designed running shoe?

Argument from Objectification

o A less common argument for banning PETS is that the use of PETs turns the athlete into an object, a tool for success instead of a human being.

o The skills of the athlete are replaced with technology and so we have a contest of technologies not of individuals.

o Problems:

o Sports are constantly undergoing technological advancement in equipment used in the game and for training--usually unnoticed and unchallenged.

o The introduction of graphite racquets in tennis has not made the tennis players less human, mere tools of performance.

o PEDs are not automatic, instantaneous. The athlete still needs natural ability as well as dedicated training and practice in order to see his ability improve. It really wouldn’t matter how much steroids I took, I am never going to hit a golf ball like Tiger Woods -- or any pro golfer for that matter.

o We use technology to enhance all areas of lives:

§ Dishwashers, automobiles.

§ Pain and allergy relief medicines.

§ These don’t make us less human; in fact they allow us to express our humanity more fully. Instead of wasting time washing dishes at the sink, one can spend the time writing his philosophy dissertation.

Argument from Fairness

o One of the more common arguments:

o The general idea is that PET should be banned because they give the user an unfair advantage.

o This argument, however, begs the question.

o Certainly if the use of substance or technology is prohibited, and a player uses it in violation of the rules, they have advantage over the players who do follow the rules. This is unquestionable unfair.

o However, if the substances or technologies are not prohibited, then each player has the opportunity to make use of the PET. It is not clear how its use would be unfair.

o Counter Examples:

o Does a basketball player who spends an extra hour after practice shooting free throws gain an unfair advantage? Does the long-distance runner who consumes a meal heavy in complex carbohydrates the night before a run gain an unfair advantage over one who does not? Does a swimmer in the new Speedo suit have an unfair advantage over his competition if they decide to wear a different suit?

o This argument appears to collapse into the argument from danger:

o Since these substances or technologies endanger the user, many would rather not use them but competitive pressure requires that they do so--and this pressure is unfair.

o This brings us back to the problems of the argument from danger and forward to the argument from Coercion.

Argument from Coercion

o The idea here is most athletes feel competitive pressure to make use of these substances or technologies that they would not otherwise choose to use.

o Most athletes, the argument goes, would rather not inject themselves with a substance like steroids that could have significant long-term side-effects. Yet, they are compelled to do so if most of their competitors are doing so. This forces the athletes to do something they would rather not do and to do something that possibly puts them at some considerable risk.

o It looks like someone who chooses to use PED force this same choice on others.

o An effective sport-wide ban would remove this pressure.

o Problems:

o Parallels to other aspects of sport:

§ Extreme training/diet

o Can also be dangerous and unhealthy.

o Puts pressure on others to do engage in similar practices.

o (it should be noted that there are limits at most levels in number of practices, length of practices, etc. for very much this reason)

o Parallels other areas of our lives

§ Getting a college degree

§ Many college students only go to college because of the competitive pressure in the job market. They need the degree to get a job. If they could get the same job without the degree, they would prefer not to go to college.

o Assumption: most athletes only take PEDs because of competitive pressure. Is this true?

o Doesn’t appear to work for non-drug technologies. Competitive pressure doesn’t explain the ban on on non-drug technologies, such as aluminum bats in Major League Baseball.

Argument from the Children

“Why won’t anyone think of the children!” (The Simpsons)

This argument is based on the idea that the use of performance enhancing drugs by professionals leads to an increase in the use by under-age aspiring athletes. The adult professional might be able to weight the long-term risks of using steroids versus the potential gain. A fourteen year old trying to make the high school football probably cannot make that assessment in an objective and rational way. Moreover, the dangers of using many of these drugs are often more severe for a growing youth than an adult. So the argument goes, in order to prevent the use of performance-enhancing drugs in children, we need to ban its use by adults.


o Many activities that are okay or permissible for adults but not okay for children (sex; contractual agreements, smoking cigarettes) and yet we don’t ban the permissible adult use.

o The diet that a professional football player or marathoner might regularly eat is probably not a diet that is acceptable for a high school student. The hours and intensity of training an elite athlete engages in is not likely to be healthy for a teenager. And yet many young, aspiring athletes do follow the lead of adult athletes on diet and training, quite possibly to detrimental effect. (example?)

Nonetheless, a sport might have a significant interest in making itself a good role model for youngsters and this might be one way to do this.

However, this argument does not solve the more general problem of finding a non-arbitrary reason for drawing the line between what is acceptable and what is not.

Argument from False Achievement

o The central idea here is that the achievements of an athlete using a performance-enhancing technology are not achievements of the athlete. The achievements are due to the technology and not the athlete’s skill or ability.

o One hears this one often regarding baseball’s Barry Bonds: his home run record, critics argue, is not his, but BALCO’s.

o This doesn’t seem quite fair. Most individuals could take steroids and never hit a major league pitch much less a home run, much less over 760 of them. Even most major league baseball players probably couldn’t hit that many even on steroids.

§ Another important consideration here is that many of the pitchers were taking steroids as well during this period, and so there has to be some balance of increased strength in hitting versus increased ability to get the batter out.

o We don’t seem to draw the same conclusions about an athlete’s increased ability or strength due to better diet and training; or, approved supplements like creatine.

o Improved technology: Sand wedge in golf; swimsuits in swimming; graphite racquets in tennis.

o All of these improved the athletes’ ability to do what they do. Yet, we don’t attribute Andre Agassi’s greatness to a better tennis racquet though certainly his racquet is far superior to ones Arthur Ashe used.

o However, it is telling that there are some calls for banning Speedo’s LZR Racer suit. Reported to reduce drag and make swimmers more buoyant, some say it is an unfair advantage and that it has lead to the breaking of many world records in swimming. The worry behind this is in part a concern that the suits and not the swimmer are responsible for these achievements.

Some conclusions from this analysis:

o Tendency of arguments to collapse to Argument from Danger.

o Anti-new technology bias: old technology and drugs are okay, new ones are bad. (cortisone is older and so okay, speedo swimsuit is new and so is unfair)

o Only apparent rationale for line being drawn where it is often drawn is between stuff that works really well and stuff that doesn’t work as well.

o Creatine is often taken for the very same reasons that anabolic steroids are taken. The latter works much, much better.

o A properly formulated diet can increase muscle mass and reduce body fat; but HGH can do this better.

o The better a new technology works at improving performance the more likely it seems that it will be banned.