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.


Patrick Stephens said...

Good outline.

Some random thoughts:

You should probably include some analysis of Oscar Pistorius and his ultimately successful case against the IAAF.

Have you thought about incorporating an examination of similarities between environmentalism and opposition to PET/D? It occurs to me that objections to genetically modified crops and objections to PET/D grow from essentially the same philosophical roots.

You seem to discredit the Argument from Unnaturalness as the weakest argument -- and it surely is -- but it's also the most common, arguably the most persuasive, and it's the one that Kass et. al. have grounded the bulk of their work on.

At heart, doesn't this debate hinge on a perspective of human nature? If human nature is fixed (by nature or god) then we adjust and tinker with that design at the risk of destroying our very humanity, but if our nature is fluid and dynamic, then it is also ultimately the product and object of our own design.

In some sense, the view of human nature as a fixed object, unalterable by individual human will, lies at the heart of most collectivist ideology; it's just the external agent that fixes our nature that changes. For environmentalism our nature is fixed by our environment, for religious conservatives, our nature is fixed by God, for Marxists, our nature is fixed by history and class struggle, for post-modernists, our nature is fixed by our culture, etc... etc....

Anyhoo... my 2 cents. I look forward to more! : D

Shawn said...

Hey Pat! Thanks for the comments. I wasn't going to include the Pistorius issue--mostly for time considerations. In fact, I was thinking of trimming this back to just talk about PEDs and not deal with PETs--again because of time constraints. And in the literature, most of these arguments are directed at PEDs anyway. I have to squeeze all this in in about 10 minutes.

I do plan on drawing a comparison to the enviros/anti-biotech arguments.

Patrick Stephens said...

wow.. 10 minutes. ouch.

Any chance you'll expand it for publication somewhere? (In all your copious amounts of free-time, of course.)

Shawn said...

I should clarify: 10 minutes for this section. I'm covering several other topics.

I do hope to work this, and the other sections, into stand alone article. At some time. In the future, in that land beyond the dissertation.

Steve said...

My first thoughts.

Don't forget about the argument from legality. Using PETS is often illegal, so you shouldn't do it.

A related argument is the argument from the teammates. Risking trouble with the Feds risks letting down your teammates at an important time.

Similarly, the argument from honesty. One shouldn't boast that PETS affected achievements are naturally gained, especially to teammates.

Argument from history: PETS use destroys (pro) sports' linkages with their pasts, as fans cannot compare the greats across times.

Argument from owners/economy: PETS use drives up the salaries players can command.

I agree with Patrick about the argument from unnaturalness and its relation to human nature.

I disagree that the argument from fairness collapses wholly into the argument from danger. I think you can make a stronger case that it collapses into unnaturalness. For example, basketball practice is natural enhancement, shooting up is unnatural and thus unfair. (I hear that claim a lot.)

Finally, you need some hard stats for the argument from danger. Many dangers are caused by ODs, but is that most? All? Only a few? Anecdotally, the two people I know who took one cycle of PETS suffered long term (5-7 Year disadvantages). A lot of people will have similar thoughts, so you need stats to either prove them right o show the the contrary.

Ah, am late! Adios.

Shawn said...

Hey Steve, thanks for the comments.

I've ignored the argument from illegality mainly because the question is regarding the justifications for the sport governing body for banning. The argument for legality moves the question back to a political/legal one. At the same time, this does offer a decent place to draw the banning line: if it is illegal, we ban it. If it is legal, it's okay. Of course, most sports do not ban along this line: some of the PETs are legal(caffine, blood doping) and yet are banned.

Honesty: This is either the argument from false achievements or it is besides the point. Sure, as a matter of honesty you should not be making use of PEDs but claiming you're not. But this doesn't speak to whether the PEDs should be banned.

History: I might add this one, though I think it is weak. Most of the sports ( and athletes ) have changed in so many ways over the years we can't compare anyway. (baseball: mound heights, night games, the changing role of relief pitchers make comparing a Koufax to Josh Beckett almost meaningless)

Economics: Isn't that an argument for PETs?

Its kind of a lay-talk I'll be giving, so I don't want to start throwing stats at them, but certainly if I go to publish this I'll have to add in some citations. Incidentally, from what I can tell, there is little in the way of peer-reviewed, blind studies that support claims of serious long-term health risks for anabolic steroids or HGH. That doesn't mean they're healthy for you, of course, but if these were seriously dangerous, you'd expect that there'd be more than anecdotal evidence and inconclusive studies.

Steve said...

Most of the extra arguments I threw out or EXTREMELY weak or redundant. But those are tho most common ones I hear that you hadn't mentioned.

Economy is only in favor of PETS use if you also assume that PETS use drives up overall revenue. That's an empirical claim that needs "scientific" support. If you assume that revenue stays the same, or at least that PETS use doesn't cause increased revenue (the truth of which is an empirical finding too), then the owners will still want to pay the players as little as possible. Imagine that revenue is 5, and player salaries total 3 of that 5. If PETS use causes players to put up better stats, and thus "justifies" bigger contracts during free agency, then players might wind-up earning 4 or 5 or 6 out of 5. Owners don't want that. You can complicate the model so that revenue increases every year and still get the same result.

Lay people can handle stats, just don't overdo it.

Look, I am sympathetic to your claim that we can make a case for permitting steroid use.

But for scientific evidence, you might do a more thorough lit review before you say there is no scientific support for long term risks. It took my 34 seconds to find a study that confirms long term effects (aggression).

Another five minutes on google scholar and i was awash in long term risk studies. Many articles say, especially for HGH, that we can't confirm 100% that HGH use has bad long term side effects, or what all of those effects might be. But that is the scientific procedure. Quite a few studies were directly on issue. That's after five minutes. Scientists are currently building inductive cases for each side of the HGH debate. To say that there is nothing but inconclusive studies and anecdotal misrepresents the debate and science.

Shawn said...

Thanks for the links Steve, I'll check them out. (for the record, I didn't say there was 'no' research, just little that was definitive)

Steve said...

Yeah, I know. But 'definitive' is a dirty word in science. Our interest in PETS is so recent that the timeframe alone rules out "definitive" evidence for long term effects, good, bad, or none. We were talking Popper in undergrad Phil of Science today, and I took out my impatience with the students on you. That wasn't fair. Sorry. (But you also know better than to say that if PETS were seriously harmful (long term), then we would have stronger evidence of that harm.)

Drew said...

I got to your blog from a Google search of 'philosophy blog' (you have some prime real estate here). Anyway I just have another counterexample for the argument from fairness that you may be able to use. Is it really fair that Yao Ming is 7'6"? At 6'0" my height is above average, but no amount of steroids or HGH will allow me to compete against Yao in basketball. Although it is more evident in some sports than others, physical dispositions determine the advantage (skill notwithstanding) from sport to sport. Why shouldn't this be more unfair than PETs?

In most sports, the playing field is leveled by its physical demands. If I were to guess, the average baseball player is between 6'0" and 6'4" and weighs between 180 and 240--a balance between power and quickness that is equally suited for offense and defense. Banning PETs will not change the types of physical builds that make good baseball players. It only thwarts some players' hopes of getting stronger, even though their teammates might be more naturally gifted anyway.

Boxing is a bit more interesting because weight classes negate the most relevant natural advantage between any two boxers. But even then, might there be inherent advantages by race? Perhaps the average black and Mexican boxer has an upper-hand against the average white boxer. This is a bit more controversial territory, but if there is any scientific credence to the notion, then shouldn't certain competitors be allowed to use PETs but not others? That would seem a bit silly.

The rationale for banning PETs, if I understand correctly, is because they give some players an unfair advantage over their competitors. In most sports, there are a slew of nature-nurture factors that contribute to an athlete's success. I don't think there is a fact of the matter about what types of performance enhancers are more fair than others. Whether they are natural, artificial, or in-between is irrelevant. Why should we allow some factors to enhance performance while prohibiting others? Boxing got it right; weight classes level the playing field but leaves some variation for height, reach, and skill. The nice thing is that if competitors decide to use steroids, they still have to make their weight class (or move up). Barry Bonds-esque gains are not beneficial. In any case, the difference between a welterweight a steroided welterweight is not as substantial as the difference between a welterweight and a middleweight (13 lbs. difference).

As you've pointed out, training contributes just as much to all these things. But I think physical constitution, whether obtained naturally or artificially, genetically or via hard work, should be looked at holistically. Muscle strength is just another variable like height and weight. If we pick out one factor and decide it needs to be controlled, we should at least look at all the variables, as boxing does.

Paul Jolley said...

Very interesting stuff. It might be worth noting that a drug even seemingly as innocuous as caffeine can alter the perception of 'pain' during exercise, thus increasing performance. I am not aware that it is a banned stimulant. Does this altyer the value of the achievement.

Joe Duarte said...

Argument for historical fairness: In order to have a level playing field and/or a basis for comparison with the greats of the past, we should not have drugged athletes today. (Think homeruns.)

Shawn said...

Drew: Thanks for the comments regarding boxing. While I doubt we'll see weight classes in team sports like Football and Baseball, it's an interesting way of canceling out some of the perceived benefits of PEDs.

Paul: Caffeine is most definitely a stimulant--and, at least in academics, is performance enhancing!! I believe some competitions do ban caffeine.

Joe: Hey Joe, didn't read the other comments, huh? :-) The argument from history was brought up by Steve. Given the amount of accepted changes (various rule changes, racial integration) in the various sports over the decades, most records are already incommensurate even without factoring in PETs.

alex said...

very clear.
i'm working on sport ethics for my phd and i wrote a little on this argument (only in italian, unfortunately).

i suggest a further distinction between some "good" technology and the "bad" ones: i mean, some technology does not improve the performance, some does.

for example, a basketball player need particular shoes, but not to be a better player - in fact he/she is already better, and technology helps him/her to show his/her ability. if i wore michael jordan's shoes, i won't "be like mike".

some other technology (drugs) creates a new space for athletes to "raise the roof" and all those problems you want to explain: diseases, cheating and so on.

a good example: heidi/andreas krieger

sandel uses more or less the same arguments i used in my paper, but he's far better than i am :) and says that sport is about overcoming obstacles, and some obstacles should not be removed with some "external" help because this way sport would not be sport anymore. (in against perfection)

this is the case of the athletes with some handicap - pistorius is one: he doesn't want to be "better than normal" athletes, he just asks to be more or less at the same level, to have the same chances. the technology he uses does not improve his performance, but permit the performance. without "blades" he couldn't run.

Daniel Greenspan said...

You might find it interesting to know that the LZR swimsuit by speedo has been approved for use in the olympics. This suit reduces drag and provides buoyancy, and likely creates an advantage for the one wearing it. Your argument from objectification might not agree with its approval in the olympics.

Scott Krueger said...

I think you are missing an important element of "argument from the children":

Just watch Animal Planet or Nat Geo and you’ll see that we mammals play as kids to learn the skills we need to survive and get along with each other as adults. As humans, we think we are better than other animals, so we call those skills “values”. Games are an essential element of childhood, basic to a child’s development into an adult. The lesson that athletics have taught young people is “with hard work, commitment, dedication and sacrifice (and so on- you’ve heard it a million times) you can steadily improve- and achieve great things!” In athletics, it is easy for young people to see the connection between exercise and steady improvement in performance. Hopefully they can then make the jump to seeing the connection between hard work and success.
PEDs pose a serious threat to these lessons. I’m not sure what values kids develop when their roll models are winners because of the drugs they put into their bodies. Sure, even if you are using performance enhancing drugs or technologies you still have to physically work hard to be the best - but the more that victory is due to medical/technological help, the less important that hard work and mental toughness becomes.
I know- you don’t crack open a beer and put on the game to ensure that good values are instilled in America’s youth. But nonetheless, it’s important to keep in mind the natural function of all games, which is to teach.

KLP2332 said...


Farin Ledvel said...

Like the threads in this discussion, but let me throw out something completely radical. We need to stop arguing about performance enhancing and stop talking about the health of the athlete. The future of sport science (both surgical and genetics) will make this argument by today's standards seem quaint. I've worked in the sport field with pros and amateurs for 25 years, I've known athletes who had drug tests ruin their lives, some for ridiculous levels of a substance. So long as WADA (and now major Pro Leagues) are heck bent on stopping performance enhancing then all athletes' accomplishments will be routinely judged as cheating. That is having an effect ten times worse than illegal drugs in teens.

I write in more detail about this on my blog...

Great discussion everyone, this is the only way change will take place.