Be a Good Sport...

I have a lot of respect for Eric Cohen, but I have to say I don’t find his TNR cover story (co-authored with Leon Kass) on the moral issues surrounding steroid use in sports entirely convincing. It’s a long piece—almost 10,000 words—so I probably won’t be able to address every bit of it. But a couple of passages stood out to me that I’ll try to address briefly here.

One of the first arguments the piece makes is that steroid use is objectionable because it removes an element of work from the game:

In athletics, as in other human activities, excellence has until now been achievable only by disciplined effort. For this reason, attaining those achievements by means of drugs, genetic engineering, or implanted devices looks to many people to be a form of “cheating”—not just their opponents but also the game, themselves, and their would-be admirers. Many of us believe that each person should work hard for his achievements, and we look down on those who try to fly high on the cheap.

This seems to misunderstand the value of “hard work.” Hard work isn’t good in and of itself. It’s good because it produces advances in human capability, and because it contributes to individual and societal well being. But hard work for its own sake—for the purpose of being hard—isn’t of any value. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. No reasonable person would admire a man who left his lawn mower in his garage, choosing instead to cut every piece of grass by hand. Nor would anyone celebrate the forklift driver who spent all day pushing a crate a few inches when it could’ve been done in just a few moments. Instead, we value hard work when it achieves something meaningful—the invention of a lawn mower or a forklift, the skill and dedication it takes to produce something useful and beneficial—not for the sole fact of its difficulty.

The piece goes on to argue that:

The reason that cheating should bother us is not simply our love of fairness but, more fundamentally, our admiration for human achievement.

But how is precise chemical manipulation of the body not an amazing human achievement? I, for one, am deeply impressed with the science that allows humans to reshape their chemistry, to become faster, stronger, more focused—closer to both their own ideals and the ideals of others—through the startling achievements of science.

One might argue that this reduces the effort of the individual player (the piece suggests this, saying, “A patient to his druggist, less doer and more done-to, he is dependent on outside agents for “his” performance. His doings become, in a crucial sense, less “his own.”), but I wonder how the aid of physiological science is any different than the aid of armies of personal trainers and doctors, medicines and diagnostic machines, weights and cardio training equipment, that top athletes, both professional and amateur, already use. The authors put the issue as a question of wonderment: “How did he—a human being just like me—do that?” Yet professional athletes, while human, are very clearly not just like me, or us, or most humans at all, in any respect that matters. They are, for one, naturally, innately gifted, and they have access to a bevy of phenomenally expensive resources, both human and machine, dedicated to perfecting their physical abilities.

Later, Cohen and Kass bring up the differences between human and animal action, and suggest that chemical manipulation of the human body dilutes a crucial human component:

In the activity of other animals, there is necessarily a unity between doer and deed; acting impulsively and without reflection, an animal—unlike a human being—cannot deliberately feign activity or separate its acts from itself as their immediate source. But although a cheetah runs, it does not run a race. Though it senses and pursues its prey, it does not harbor ambitions to surpass previous performances. Though its motion is not externally compelled, it does not run by choice. Though it moves in ordered sequence, it has not planned the course. It owes its beauty and its excellence—and these are not to be disparaged—to nature and to instinct alone.

In contrast, the human runner chooses to run a race and sets before himself his goal. He measures the course and prepares himself for it. He surveys his rivals and plots his strategy…. The racer’s running is a human act humanly done, because it is done freely and knowingly. But the humanity of athletic performance resides not only in the chosenness and the intelligibility of the deed. It depends decisively also on the activity of a well-tuned and well-working body.

If anything, this section works against the thesis. That humans would choose to develop the methods to change their physiognomy, that an athlete would then choose to apply those methods in conjunction with a tough, disciplined training regimen (as the authors admit, steroid use in no way reduces the training efforts of an athlete, their use instead amplifies the work that athletes do) seems to represent a clearly—and to my mind, wonderfully— human choice. Just as no animal builds skyscrapers, cures diseases, drives automobiles, or installs air conditioning into their dwelling, no animal would choose to manipulate their bodies through such complicated and carefully thought-through means. To rise above our natural limitations, to restrain the animal instincts inside of us, to master our selves, both minds and bodies, and our surroundings; these, it seems to me, are profoundly, distinctly human traits—and they should be celebrated.

All that said, there may be reason to bar steroid use in professional sports, but that reason has little to do with human dignity or achievement. Instead, it has to everything do with our ongoing fascination with restricted, rule-based play. We might ban steroids from sports for the same reason that we bar chess players from moving pawns 7 squares at a time, or bar basketball players from catching passes while in the stands. Rules—often arbitrary—add intrigue and interest to play, and if the gatekeepers of a given sport, either the fans or the professionals in charge, find a certain rule compelling, then by all means, they ought to institute it. But these rules are for our amusement, and that—amusement, and nothing greater—is really all that’s at stake.

Note: I should probably admit that I don’t care for sports—either playing or watching them—and, although I played soccer and swam competitively for quite a few years as a kid, I’ve never really related to the fascination that so many share with the enterprise. I enjoy exercise, but I tend to do so in windowless basement rooms while watching television or hooked up to an iPod. So if it’s a matter of simply “not getting it,” then perhaps I’m guilty.