Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Taking steroids is only natural...

...according to Alva Noe in this Salon article. One of the central points undergirding the view Noe expresses is as follows:

Human beings are and always have been a technological animal. Ours is a history of shared technological innovation. Sharpened stones and cave paintings show up 80,000 years ago in the archaeological record. We are natural by design; we are designed by nature and culture. Once this basic fact about ourselves is clearly in focus, we are forced to acknowledge that using of steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs does not cross a bright line when it comes to personal responsibility. The athlete's reliance on steroids is no different in principle from a reliance on training techniques, newly designed footwear, sunglasses, mitts, nutrition or the computer-graphic analysis of plays. We are what we do and are never entirely self-sufficient in determining the scope of what we can do.

Noe also makes the argument at the end of the article that steroids are not sufficient for the skill required to hit a homerun in MLB, or have the kind of career that high-profile players accused of doping have had. Their talent is not dependent on the performance-enhancing substances.

I am a purist, I suppose, and think the bans on steroids and other similar substances are justified. I think that steroids are different in principle from sunglasses, mitts, and good nutrition.

13 comments:

Carl Thomen said...

I must agree with the Noe (although Lewis Lapham in "Mudville" and Ollivier Dyens in "Metal and Flesh" have made the point before, and in a better way I think). The distinction between technology you put on the inside of your body and technology you put on the outside of your body (pill-shaped vs. shoe-shaped technology)is completely arbitrary, unless we are talking about potential harm to the athlete. But then it seems our worries about harm are not commensurate with the other paternalistic norms of our society (re the harms of other human enhancers like botox, ritalin, viagra, breast enlargement etc). What's good for the goose with the boob-job must be good for the gander in the 200m waddle. It's not that the harm argument cannot be paired with defensible supplementary premises concerning other types of harm via enhancement, it's just that it never is. The other concern is "unfair advantages"...but come now. If one is to argue that all competitors come to the starting line on an equal footing without drugs (regardless of swimsuit sponsor etc) one is being willfully blind to the inherently technologically unfair nature of elite sport. It's not just natural talent that separates Michael Phelps from Eric the Eel. It's also the winning culture and technology of the United States versus the paddling pools of Equatorial Guinea. This is Kalevi Heinila's "totalization of sport".

We shape our tools and our tools shape us. It isn't a new idea either: "Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result...The useful arts are reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man, of the same natural benefactors."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836

Tait Szabo said...

"I think that steroids are different in principle from sunglasses, mitts, and good nutrition."

No doubt many if not most people seem to share that belief, but the project of identifying the difference and demonstrating that it is relevant to supporting bans is difficult (and I think doomed to failure). Inside/outside, harm, equality (i.e. the possibilities that Carl mentioned), as well as naturalness and many other considerations all fail to support continued bans of performance enhancement substances like steroids. (I do not mean simply to assert that, but rather I think it has been demonstrated quite adequately in philosophy of sport literature, at least.)

Nevertheless, A-Rod is a cheater. There are banned substances in baseball, so whether they should be banned or not, it is cheating to use them. The important question isn't whether or not someone like A-Rod is a cheater, but rather whether he should be demonized as he is and whether we should be re-examining our commitment to banning these substances.

Carl Thomen said...

Agreed Tate (I assume you're feeling better after Dundee :-). People who demonize A-Rod et al are putting the cart before the horse. You need to critize our performance-based culture before you flog our athletes for trying everything possible in their efforts to be faster, higher and stronger. The world is paying to be entertained with ever more fantastic performances, and it wants bang for its buck.

Tait Szabo said...

"I am a purist..."

Mike, it occurred to me that I hear something like that phrase often in this context. What do people mean when they utter that? What is it to be a purist about sport, and are many people who claim to be purists actually purists?

We don't want to regard sport as pure only when it is free of banned substances, as that will clearly beg the question. But what is the alternative? I imagine truly pure sport looking something like this: the athletes are born into and raised within the same environment, trained the same way, fed the same diet, and so on; when they compete, the only difference affecting their performance is genetic. Perhaps an even purer sport would be one like that but in which the athletes are genetically identical.

At least part of what I take Noe to be pointing out in the Salon article is that, really, no sport is pure to begin with. This idea of "pure sport" is a red herring. All sport involves some sort of enhancement of human capabilities as it is, and attempts to draw some sort of relevant distinction between the enhancement of banned substances and the enhancements that are permitted seem to fail.

Tait Szabo said...

Oh, I nearly forgot: I am feeling well, Karl. Thanks. And I, too, can misspell a name even though it's right in front of me! ;)

Carl Thomen said...

Touche :-) My idiocy aside, has anybody heard of a drug called Diamox? It's used by mountaineers to swell blood vessels so that more oxygen can be absorbed (At least, I think this is what it does, does that sound right?). Interestingly, there is a distinction in mountaineering between ascents made with supplementary oxygen and those made without...but if I'm using Diamox, doesn't this compromise my claim to have made a pure (my probably incorrect word) ascent? I'm wondering whether we tolerate drugs like Diamox in mountaineering because they reduce the risk of death while also enhancing performance...or is optimum performance in these scenarios the same thing as coming back alive? Can anyone help me out? This is what happens when you read adventure books...

Mike Austin said...

Tait,
I don't really have a nice definition for what a purist is in this context. One necessary condition for being a purist is to favor the bans on PED's, I would say. I think some people use the term pejoratively, and so I was simply accepting the label, I guess. I think one promising avenue for an argument against lifting the bans on steroids and similar substances has to do with the internal and external goods of sport, as some sport philosophers have argued. I also think a case can be made based on virtue. However, I agree that there are some difficult issues surrounding which performance-enhancers to allow (sunglasses) and which to ban (steroids). For me, part of it is based on the intuition that if doping was legal, say, in the Tour de France, there would be more value in a victory achieved by an athlete who didn't dope compared to a victory achieved by an athlete who used EPO. That's simply sharing an intuition, and is not an argument, but even when I try I can't rid myself of it!

Rob Sica said...

Allen Buchanan takes a line akin to Noe's in this recent Philosophy Bites podcast:

http://nigelwarburton.typepad.com/philosophy_bites/2009/05/allen-buchanan-on-enhancement.html

Carl Thomen said...

Mike and Tayte - Sad to see you won't be at the Langara College conference on Technology and Sport (May 29th - June 1st). I reckon it's going to be great, and a lot of these issues will be discussed in depth (at least, I hope so...)

Griff said...

Mike, I share your intuition that there is something wrong with doping. However, I fully agree with "Tate" and "Karl" that it is very difficult to locate a relevant moral distinction between PEDs and sunglasses, mitts, good nutrition, weight lifting, and other technological advances allowed in sport. Weight lifting, too, can be detrimental to one's health, but it is not banned. Sunglasses (or laser eye surgery) enhance(s) vision, and yet is generally considered acceptable to the so-called "purist."

I think that unless a successful argument can be made that PEDs somehow undermine the very essence or nature of the sport in question, in ways that these other things do not, the intuition that doping is wrong must be admitted to be irrational. And this brings us back to the question that Carl and I discussed a while back about whether the notion of the "true spirit" or "essence" of a particular sport is even coherent.

Mike Austin said...

Griff,
Good points, and I agree that my anti-doping intuitions may be irrational. I think there is an essence of sport, which includes notions such as play, competition, and other things, but how to fully describe this and then make an anti-doping argument based on it is at present beyond me. It would be interesting to consider the possibilities for an essence or telos of sport in a future post. Any takers?

Griff said...

@Mike: Always. ;-)

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