Friday, December 30, 2011

Overview of the Arguments Against Doping in Sport (Part Two)

(Part One)

This post is the second (and final) part in my overview of the moral arguments against doping in sport. As mentioned in part one, I’m using the following article as my guide to this topic:

Angela Schneider and Robert Butcher “A Philosophical Overview of the Arguments on Banning Doping in Sport” in Tannjso and Tamburrini (eds) Values in Sport: Elitism, Nationalism, Gender Equality and the Scientific Manufacture of Winners (Taylor and Francis, 2000).

In their article, Schneider and Butcher identify three main families of anti-doping argument. They are: (i) fairness arguments; (ii) harm arguments; and (iii) integrity arguments. I dealt with fairness and cheating arguments in part one; in this part I will deal with the integrity arguments.

As it happens, Schneider and Butcher are much briefer in their treatment of the integrity arguments than they were in their treatment of the harm arguments. As a result, this post will be much briefer than the previous one. I must say though, Schneider and Butcher’s brevity is somewhat surprising given the fact that they ultimately think that an integrity-style argument holds out the best hope for proponents of the anti-doping stance. Indeed, they themselves ultimately endorse one of these arguments and we’ll spend most of our time discussing that argument in this post.

Before we do that, however, we need to quickly discuss the idea of sporting integrity and dismiss some of the less successful forms of integrity argument. The idea of sporting integrity can be summed up by appealing to notion of authentic athletic performance. (This being something that Nike famously use as their corporate motto.) An authentic performance is one that respects the internal goods of sporting activity; and inauthentic performance is one that does not. The internal goods of sporting activity are the human excellences that are constituted by the rules of sporting activity. I discussed at some length previously.

All integrity arguments against doping will claim that doping leads to inauthentic as opposed to authentic performances. The less successful forms of integrity argument — the one’s dismissed fairly quickly in Schneider and Butcher’s discussion — appeal to the concepts of “unnaturalness” and “dehumanising”. As Schneider and Butcher note, these concepts are either ill-defined or not morally compelling. Consequently, they do not make for the most persuasive arguments. I tend to agree so I see no need to address them at further length here.

Instead, I turn to consider what Schneider and Butcher see as being the most persuasive integrity argument: the irrelevancy argument.

1. The Irrelevancy Argument
The irrelevancy argument makes a very simple, and in some ways modest, claim. It claims that drug-enhanced performances are not necessarily immoral or wicked, but, rather, that they are just irrelevant to the kinds of good or end that sporting activity is trying to promote. Consequently, true athletes — i.e. those who engage in sport in order to pursue the internal goods of sporting activity — should simply have no desire to engage in doping.

In contrast to their discussion of the harm arguments against doping, Schneider and Butcher provide no formal summary of this irrelevancy argument. I always get slightly suspicious when authors fail to do this, particularly when it comes to arguments that they themselves are trying to endorse. Thus, I’ve decided to try to formalise their reasoning as follows:

  • (1) The main reason for athletes to participate in a sport, is to develop a set of skills that overcome the obstacles created by the constitutive rules of the sport.
  • (2) Doping (taking substance X) does not help an athlete to develop the skills needed to overcome the obstacles created by the constitutive rules of the sport; it only helps an athlete to gain a competitive advantage.
  • (3) If something does not help one to satisfy the main reason for participating in a sport, then it should be viewed as being irrelevant by those who wish to participate in a sport.
  • (4) Therefore, doping should be viewed irrelevant by those who wish to participate in a sport.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this formalisation is inelegant. Nevertheless, I think it does capture Schneider and Butcher’s argument in a reasonably faithful manner. And there are three interesting features of this argument that I want to comment on here.

First, the argument is really dialectic in nature, not conceptual or categorical. In other words, it appeals to the internal reasons for action of someone who wishes to engage in a particular activity, not to categorical or conceptual propositions. It then tries to demonstrate for this person how certain other activities are contrary to (or irrelevant to) their own reasons for action. I covered dialectic arguments of this type once before when looking at Gibbard’s argument for the principle of generic consistency. Schneider and Butcher seem very clear about the dialectic intent of their argument in the article under consideration. They repeatedly emphasise the point that a successful case against doping will have to appeal to what the athletes themselves desire, not what the authorities or wider public desire.

Second, because the argument appeals to the internal reasons for action of particular actors, it skates on thin ice. Although the presumption will be that most athletes are motivated by a desire to develop skills and overcome obstacles, one can easily imagine a cynical cohort of athletes who are motivated more by the fame and riches that come with sporting success. They are likely to remain unpersuaded by the argument. Should we care about this exclusion? I’m not sure.

Third, although I like the general idea of the argument, I’m pretty sure it is false. In particular, I’m pretty sure that premise (2) is false. I think many doping substances and practices (e.g. blood doping in cycling) actually do help people to develop the skills and overcome the obstacles set down by the constitutive rules of sport. For instance, cyclists who engage in blood doping really do improve their stamina and pedaling efficiency. Are we really going to say that those skills are irrelevant to the internal good of cycling?

I think the problem here is that Schneider and Butcher try to separate skills development from competitive success. But when you think about it, if the rules of any sporting competition have been carefully formulated, these two things should go together, i.e. those who have the best-developed skills should be the most competitively successful. Of course, it could be the case that the rules of the competition have not been carefully formulated and that competitive success is a very poor measure of skills development. And this may be what Schneider and Butcher are getting at in their argument. In other words, they may be saying: “Look at how out of sync our measures of sporting success are with the internal goods of sporting activity. This is shown by the fact that drug-enhanced performances lead to competitive success.” The problem I have with this is that it’s very difficult to say why drug-enhanced performances should not be competitively successful without arbitrarily assuming that they are contrary to the internal goods of sporting activity.

2. The Unnecessary Risk Argument
Despite the failings of the irrelevancy argument (at least in the form given above), I’m going to entertain the possibility that it is successful in order to examine two follow-up arguments offered by Schneider and Butcher. In some ways, I feel comfortable doing this since these arguments might (if reinterpreted) actually provide additional reasons for supporting the irrelevancy argument, reasons that help to overcome the objection that I offered above. I won’t push this reinterpretation here, but it might be worth exploring at a future date.

Both of the follow-up arguments try to add to the reasons why athletes should wish to avoid doping. Both of the arguments also attempt to re-introduce some of the harm arguments that were discussed in part one. Although Schneider and Butcher were dismissive of all these harm arguments, they feel it is appropriate to make use of them here. Why so? Well, because the main problem they had with the various harm arguments was that they each needed an independent reason for thinking doping was wrong before they could get off the ground. Since the irrelevancy argument has, in Schneider and Butcher’s minds anyway, provided this independent reason, there is hope for the harm arguments once again.

The first of the arguments is the unnecessary risk argument and it works like this:

  • (5) If taking substance X is irrelevant to developing sporting skills, and if X has some minimal risk of harm associated with it, then it would be prudent for athletes to avoid taking X.
  • (6) X is irrelevant to developing sporting skills (from previous argument), and X has some minimal risk of harm associated with it (from harm to self argument).
  • (7) Therefore, it would be prudent for athletes to avoid taking substance X.

I don’t think there’s a whole lot to be said here. In general, I find the basic principle (set down in premise 5) to be persuasive. To use an analogy, if I don’t have cancer, I don’t see any reason to undergo a course of chemotherapy since chemotherapy is harmful and would only improve my health if I actually had cancer. This would be true even if the risks associated with gratuitously undergoing chemotherapy were quite small. Still, the obvious point must be made: the argument is only really successful if doping is, in fact, irrelevant to developing sporting skills.

The second follow-up argument is the self-defeating argument. It works like this:

  • (8) The only reason to take substance X is to gain a competitive advantage.
  • (9) If one athlete takes substance X and thereby gains a competitive advantage, then all athletes will be coerced into taking that substance.
  • (10) If all athletes are coerced into taking substance X, then there will no longer be a competitive advantage associated with substance X.
  • (11) Therefore, there is no reason to take substance X.

A few words about this argument are in order.

First, this argument assumes that a prisoners’ dilemma (or arms race) logic prevails in competitive sports. I mentioned this when discussing the harm-to-other-athletes argument in part one. I think it’s probably true that such a logic prevails in competitive sports, but I have no good evidence to back this up.

Second, since the argument assumes a prisoners’ dilemma logic, it should really take into account all the features of the prisoners’ dilemma game. Thus, for example, the reasoning will only be persuasive if other competitors are aware that substance X is responsible for the first athlete’s success. If this information can be concealed from the other competitors, the coercion may not take place. Also, although the reasoning is persuasive, the whole point of a prisoners’ dilemma is that one individual cannot change the strategic dynamic of the game by unilaterally choosing to not engage in doping. The players will need to cooperate in order overcome the problem. This might be one reason why general bans and enforcement policies need to be introduced: if left to their own devices, athletes won’t be able to prevent doping.

Third, and once again somewhat obviously, the argument is only successful if premise (8) is true. If it turns out that substance X also helps athletes to achieve the internal goods of sporting activity, then there would be good reason to continue to take substance X, even after the competitive advantage it bestows is eroded.

4. Conclusion
That brings us to the end of this overview of the arguments against doping in sport. As we have seen in this part, Schneider and Butcher think that an integrity-based argument holds out the best hope for proponents of the anti-doping stance. They are particularly enthusiastic about the irrelevancy argument outlined above. They think that this argument, in conjunction with the two follow-up arguments, provides good reasons for athletes to disavow the use of doping substances. That said, I have presented some reasons for thinking that the irrelevancy argument is unpersuasive.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Overview of the Arguments Against Doping in Sport (Part One)

I’m sorry to say that my obsession with the ethics of enhancement in sport is set to continue for a few more days at least. For some background as to why I’m interested in this topic see here and here. I appreciate some readers may be getting slightly bored with this topic, but today’s post should be pretty useful since it is the first in a two-part series that attempts to provide a broad overview of all the anti-enhancement arguments in sport (but in this case the term “doping” is standing in for “enhancement”).

I’ll be using the following article as my guide:

Angela Schneider and Robert Butcher “A Philosophical Overview of the Arguments on Banning Doping in Sport” in Tannjso and Tamburrini (eds) Values in Sport: Elitism, Nationalism, Gender Equality and the Scientific Manufacture of Winners (Taylor and Francis, 2000).

In this article, Schneider and Butcher identify three main families of arguments against doping. They are: (i) fairness arguments; (ii) harm arguments; and (iii) integrity arguments. The first group of arguments suggest that a permissive attitude toward doping leads to unfairness; the second group of arguments suggest that a permissive attitude toward doping creates different varieties of harm; and the third group of arguments suggest that a permissive attitude toward doping somehow perverts or undermines the integrity of the sport.

Within each of these groups there are a number of different arguments to be considered. I have presented these in the diagram below. Over the course of the next two posts I will try to examine most of these arguments, using Schneider and Butcher’s analysis as my guide. I will, however, be excluding the fairness arguments from my discussion. I do so since I have already considered these kinds of arguments at length elsewhere.

In the remainder of this post, I will look at the various harm-based arguments against doping. Three quick points at the outset. First, “harm” is generally agreed to be a morally relevant consideration, particularly in liberal political theories. Second, “harm” is obviously an ambiguous concept. This needs to be borne in mind when reading the remainder of this post: the arguments that we are about to discuss may all appeal to different forms of harm. And third, because of the (ambiguous) nature of harm, there can really be no general harm-based argument against doping. What matters is whether a particular form of doping is harmful in a particular sport. This needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Schneider and Butcher overcome this problem by using some case studies in their analysis. I’ll mention these as I go along.

1. Harm to Self
The first, and in some ways the most obvious, harm-based argument against doping comes from the notion that doping is harmful to the athletes who partake in it. Schneider and Butcher formalise these “harm-to-self” arguments in the following manner:

  • (1) Substance or practice X harms its user.
  • (2) The user needs to be protected from this harm.
  • (3) The user can be protected by banning the substance or practice.
  • (4) Therefore, the substance or practice should be banned.

They then imagine this argument being used to justify a ban on the use of anabolic steroids in sport. Would the argument be successful?

As regards premise (1), Schneider and Butcher note that the evidence is mixed. One reason for the evidence being mixed is that the substance is controversial and so difficult to study in a controlled scientific manner (mainly because ethics committees tend to reject proper studies). Controlled trials using low doses seem to reveal that there is little harm, but anecdotal evidence amongst athletes using high doses suggest some potentially harmful side-effects.

  • (5) The evidence on harm is mixed: better quality studies are needed before we can say anything definitive.

So people who wish to use the harm argument will — somewhat paradoxically — need to encourage further studies if they are to justify premise (1). Whatever the reality may be, Schneider and Butcher are willing to concede the truth of premise (1) since they think the main problem with the argument lies in premise (2).

And what might this problem be? The answer, in a word, is paternalism. It is generally accepted — following the lead of J.S. Mill — that paternalism is unacceptable in a liberal society. Competent adults have a right to autonomy and the right to autonomy encompasses the right to make decisions that go against one’s interests. Since professional athletes are usually competent adults, it follows that we shouldn’t intervene to prevent them from taking a potentially harmful substance. To be sure, this argument isn’t completely compelling: paternalism can be acceptable in some instances. For instance, Schneider and Butcher suggest that a paternalistic attitude toward child athletes might be acceptable. They just don’t think such an exception from general rule applies to competent adult athletes.

There are other problems with premise (2). The chief one being that many sporting activities and training practices are harmful as well and yet we don’t ban people from participating in them. Take boxing as an example: to be a boxer means that one takes on certain risks associated with the sport. Since we don’t step in to prevent people from voluntarily competing in this potentially harmful activity, how could we justify stepping in to prevent people from taking a potentially harmful drug?

  • (6) Individuals have a right to autonomy, and this right includes the freedom to make decisions that are harmful to themselves.
  • (7) Other aspects of the sporting life are harmful too, we need some additional reason to justify singling out the harm caused by doping.

Premise (3) is also in trouble. Schneider and Butcher argue that there is very little evidence to suggest that banning the use of a substance actually protects athletes. Indeed, despite the fact that anabolic steroids are banned in many sports, athletes continue to take them in “clandestine, unsanitary and uncontrolled ways”. Other steps are probably more effective in weening athletes away from steroids, steps which Schneider and Butcher return to later in the article.

  • (8) In practice, doping continues even when bans are in place; arguably, bringing doping out into the open might make it safer.

The argument map below summarises the reasoning to this point. The overall conclusion is that the harm to self argument seems like a non-starter.

2. Harm to Other Athletes
On the face of it, a harm-to-others arguments is far more likely to succeed than a harm-to-self argument. The reason goes back to the core of Millian liberalism: the harm principle. Although it is wrong to stop someone from harming themselves, it is right to intervene and stop them from harming others. Thus, as we switch to consider the harm-to-other athletes argument, things are looking up from proponents of the doping ban.

To see whether things will remain on the upside, we need to dress the argument up in its formal garb:

  • (1) An athlete’s use of substance X causes harm to other “clean” athletes.
  • (2) Those other athletes need protection from this harm.
  • (3) Banning substance X will protect those other athletes.
  • (4) Therefore, substance X ought to be banned.

What are we to say about this? Well, first things first, we need to some clear grasp on the nature of the “harm” that is thought to arise here. Schneider and Butcher suggest the harm of coercion is the main one, with coercion then bringing further harmful effects if the substance itself turns out to be harmful in some way. In other words, the following two premises support premise (1).

  • (5) If one athlete uses substance X, and substance X is performance-enhancing, then other athletes will be coerced into taking that substance.
  • (6) Coercion is a form of harm (that may bring further harms with it).

The problem Schneider and Butcher then see with the argument is that the harm of coercion is commonplace in sport. For example, if one athlete takes up a new (potentially harmful) training regime, and this training regime proves highly successful, then other athletes will be forced to follow suit. In some ways, that’s just the nature of the beast in competitive sports. There is an arms race logic that prevails. In order to stay competitive, athletes will need to up the ante, and once they do this others will have to up the ante too. This process can cycle on indefinitely.

So the question for Schneider and Butcher then becomes: why is upping the ante by adopting some new training regime less objectionable than upping the ante by taking steroids (or other drugs)? To answer that question we must move beyond harm-related concerns to concerns about the nature of doping and the nature of sporting excellence. In other words, premise (2) of the argument is hopelessly incomplete.

  • (7) Coercion is commonplace in sport. So to say that other athletes need to be protected from being coerced into taking substance X, we first need to have some clear reason for distinguishing coercion into doping from other forms of coercion.

Schneider and Butcher try to find some independent reasons for thinking that coercion into doping is different later in their article, and once they have done this they think a coercion-based objection to doping could become successful. We’ll see how this might work in part two. For now, let’s move on to the next harm-based argument. Argument diagram is below.

3. Harm to Society
The next argument is predicated on the notion that doping harms society as a whole. Following the template that has been set down above, we can formalise this argument like so:

  • (1) An athlete’s use of substance X causes harm to society.
  • (2) Society needs to be protected from this harm.
  • (3) Banning substance X will protect society.
  • (4) Therefore, substance X ought to be banned.

The key to evaluating this argument is, once again, to clarify the kinds of harm to which it appeals. Schneider and Butcher identify two possible ways in which the use of certain drugs in sport might harm society (particularly children, who are the future of society). First, it might harm society by providing role models who encourage an attitude of disrespect toward rules and authority in general. Second, it might harm society by providing role models who encourage other forms of substance-abuse. Let’s take these in turn.

  • (5) The use of substance X provides role models who encourage an attitude of disrespect toward rules and authority.
  • (6) The use of substance X provides role models who encourage other forms of substance abuse.

As regards the first kind of harm — that of encouraging disrespect for rules and authority — there are two things that need to be said. The first is that not all forms of disrespect for rules and authority are to be discouraged; the second is that whether taking steroids or other substances does in fact model an attitude of disrespect depends on whether the substances in question are actually banned. If they are not, then taking them cannot model an attitude of disrespect. But this argument is being used to support the introduction of the ban in the first place. Consequently, in its current form, the argument simply begs the question.

  • (7) An attitude of disrespect toward rules and authority is not always a bad thing.
  • (8) The use of substance X can only encourage an attitude of disrespect toward rules and authority if the use of substance X is banned in the first place.

As regards the second kind of harm — that of encouraging other forms of substance-abuse — Schneider and Butcher say the following. There are many substances (cigarettes and alcohol spring to mind) that are deemed appropriate for adults to take and inappropriate for children. And yet we do not ban adults from taking those substances. Why couldn’t doping substances be among those? The only way a ban could be justified on this kind of ground is if there is something particularly problematic about the doping substances (e.g. if they carried the same addictive effect as heroin), and that doesn’t seem to be the case. Also, the causal link here is probably dubious.

  • (9) There are many substances that are off-limits to children, but not to adults. Why couldn’t substance X be one of those?
  • (10) The causal link between taking substance X and encouraging other forms of substance-abuse is dubious.

Although this is probably enough, there are few more problems with this argument. We’ll briefly catalogue a few of these here.

One particularly significant problem is the assumption it makes about sport and role models. There are other public figures — e.g. rock stars and actors — who we don’t necessarily expect to provide good role models for others. So why should we expect this of sportspeople?

  • (11) Why should sportspeople be role models when other public figures are not held to this high standard?

Some philosophers have (apparently) argued that sports do play a particularly important role in shaping a young person’s worldview. But even if we accept that “sport is different” in this regard, we are then forced to confront another dubious assumption. You see, for the role model argument to really work, we’d need to explain why drug-enhanced performances are something that should not be encouraged, i.e. are things toward which young people should not aspire. Not all drug-enhanced performances are negatively perceived. For instance, drug-induced poetry and music is sometimes commended, or viewed as no better or worse than non-drug induced versions. Why should drug-induced sporting performances be different? The answer to that comes from looking at the integrity of sport, not at the harm it can cause.

  • (12) We can only say that taking substance X is harmful to society if we have a justifiably negative attitude toward drug-enhanced performances. We have no such justification yet.

Finally, and more briefly, even if all these criticisms don’t apply, premise (3) would still be questionable. Will introducing a ban really protect society from harm?

  • (13) It is doubtful whether a ban on doping would actually protect society from harm.

The argument diagram below summarises all of this.

4. Harm to Spectators
One final group of people who might be able to rustle up a harm-based objection to doping would be the spectators. Schneider and Butcher think that the possibility of there being a sound argument of this type is pretty slim. The main kind of harm caused to spectators is that their aesthetic enjoyment of the sport is somehow reduced or undermined by watching drug-enhanced performances. For example, those who watched Ben Johnson’s infamous 100m victory back in 1988 no doubt felt cheated and disappointed when they subsequently learned that he failed a drugs test.

There are two problems here however. First, its not clear that there is any great harm being caused here. Certainly, sporting authorities might be worried if spectators start to turn their backs on a sport due to doping (as may have happened in cycling) but its not clear whether that is a sufficient moral reason to ban doping. Second, the harm to spectators could, arguably, be solved by adopting a pro-doping stance rather than an anti-doping stance. If we allow all competitors to use doping substances this would remove spectator’s concerns about unfair victories and might even make the sport more exciting.

Thus, it seems unlikely that the harm to spectators argument will ever be compelling. We won’t bother with a diagram here since this is relatively uninteresting.

5. Harm Caused by Bans
To this point we have been looking at harm-based arguments that support the ban on doping. But harm-based arguments are implicitly consequentialist in nature. And since consequentialism aims at the best overall outcome, there is a flipside that needs to considered here, namely: would a ban on doping cause significant harms that could be avoided by adopting a permissive attitude toward doping?

Schneider and Butcher think that there is one major harm that is caused by bans on doping. This is the harm that it does to a person’s right to privacy. It is widely-known that the only effective way in which to police a ban on doping is to have random, year-round drug tests. Such tests are needed since banned substances can be taken in the off season and still benefit the athlete. But such tests mean that the athlete constantly faces the prospect of a random drug test. This is a massive intrusion into the athlete’s private life.

We could formalise this suggestion into a privacy-based argument against bans, as follows:

  • (1) Athletes have a right to enjoy private lives.
  • (2) A ban on doping would have to be enforced with a regime of year-round, randomised drug tests.
  • (3) A regime of year-round, randomised drug tests would violate an athlete’s right to privacy.
  • (4) Therefore, a ban on doping would violate an athlete’s right to privacy.

Schneider and Butcher see one major objection to their argument being made by proponents of the bans. This is that athlete’s somehow lose their right to privacy by becoming professional athletes. This would presumably be because they don’t have a right to compete in professional sports in the first place, and so when they enter the domain of professional sports they enter a domain that is excluded from the general class of rights.

  • (5) The domain of professional sports is excluded from the general requirements of rights-based societies. Professional sportspeople lose their right to privacy when they enter that domain, and they have no “right” to enter that domain in the first place.

Schneider and Butcher see two problems with this objection. First, if taken seriously, this kind of objection would seem to imply that sporting authorities are entitled to introduce all sorts of rights-violating rules. That is surely absurd. Second, if the objection is to avoid absurd implications, it must show why violating the right to privacy in this particular manner is permissible, but other forms of rights violation are not. In other words, it must show why doping is so morally objectionable that it justifies the violation. This justification is something we are still looking for.

  • (6) It is absurd to exclude the domain of professional sports from all the requirements of rights-based societies.
  • (7) In order to prevent the absurd implications of this principle, we’d need some additional reason for thinking that violating the right to privacy was justified in the case of doping, but that other forms of rights-violation could not be justified on similar grounds.

The relevant diagram for this is below.

6. Conclusion
We have now run through all the major harm-based arguments in favour of (and against!) doping bans. As we have seen, none of these arguments is particularly persuasive. The harm to self argument is both in need of some hard evidence and in danger of being overly paternalistic. And the various harm to others arguments all fail to explain why doping is so harmful. In fact, they all tend to beg the question, in the technical sense of that term. Furthermore, there is a least one harm-based argument against doping bans.

In light of this, we must deem harm-based arguments against doping to be a failure. Perhaps the integrity-based arguments will fair better. We’ll find out in part two.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tannjso on Enhancement and the Ethos of Elite Sport

As part of my ongoing struggle to understand the arguments for and against the use of enhancement technologies in sporting contests, I want to take a look at the following paper by Torbjorn Tannjso (that’s his name without the appropriate accents by the way):

“Medical Enhancement and the Ethos of Elite Sport” in Bostrom and Savulescu (eds) Human Enhancement (Oxford: OUP, 2009).

Although I’ve read quite a bit about this topic recently, I felt it would be worthwhile providing an exposition and analysis of Tannjso’s paper for two reasons. First, he has written quite a bit about the ethics of sport in the past, so he should be a good guide to the kinds of ethical issues that are raised in this field. Second, and rather more importantly, his paper takes an unusual approach to the topic, at least in light of the other papers I have been reading.

What is this unusual approach? Well, in the two previous papers that I’ve covered on this topic, there has been a tendency on the part of the authors to start off with some general ethical principles (e.g. fairness) and work from those principles to specific conclusions about the use of enhancement in sport. Tannjso’s paper is interesting because it takes the opposite approach: it works from several case studies in sport and tries to figure out which principles guide our intuitive responses to those cases. Although this methodology is common in ethics, I had yet to encounter it in my readings on this topic.

As a result of his methodology, Tannjso’s article reads like a mystery novel (of sorts): he presents us with a case study, raises some questions about this case study, tries to find a principle that will answer those questions and then repeats the process in an effort to further refine his conclusions. The article as a whole is structured around an attempt to find the ethos of elite sport, i.e. that principle or set of principles that explains why the rules of sport are as they are, and why we react differently to different kinds of enhancement in sport.

I’ll try to cover each major step of Tannjso’s analysis in what follows. I start by looking at his proposed distinction between negative and positive medical interventions, and enhancement proper. I follow this by presenting some of his various case studies and the kinds of reaction they provoke. And I conclude by sharing with you what Tannjso thinks really is the ethos of elite sport.

1. Some Conceptual Clarifications
Tannjso proposes that we distinguish between the following kinds of medical intervention:

Negative Interventions: These are medical interventions that are designed to cure, eliminate or alleviate a handicap or disadvantage that someone has relative to the population as a whole.

Positive Interventions: These are medical interventions that are designed to improve the functioning of some trait, organ or system within the natural variation.

Enhancement Interventions: These are medical interventions that designed to improve the functioning of some trait, organ or system beyond natural variation (or, alternatively, to add new non-natural traits).

We can illustrate this by reference to the following (hypothetical) graph. Imagine that the graph depicts the variation in foot sizes across the human population (assume it’s of one sex for the time being, just to avoid some possible complications). As you can see, the distribution follows what it called the “normal" form. Although this graph is hypothetical, I assume that this is basically true of the actual distribution of foot sizes across the human population. Using this graph as our guide, we can then define a negative intervention as one that takes someone from the lower end of the distribution into the middle; we can define a positive intervention as one that takes someone from either the lower or middle of the distribution to the higher end; and we can define an enhancement as something that takes someone beyond the higher end of the distribution.

Tannjso acknowledges that the conceptual boundaries between these three types of intervention are fuzzy. For example, where exactly is the cut-off point for a negative intervention? Is it one standard deviation from the mean? How about two? These questions don’t seem to have an obvious or agreed upon answer; any boundary that we draw is liable to seem arbitrary.

Still, for all their fuzziness, distinctions of this sort do play some part in how we think about the ethics of medical intervention, particularly when it comes to deciding which interventions to prioritise and which interventions to fund from the public purse. You can probably imagine how this might go. When it comes to prioritisation, the obvious sequence would seem to be: negative interventions come first, positive interventions come second, and enhancements come third. (Of course, this is only “obvious” if we make certain moral assumptions.) When it comes to funding, most people think that negative interventions should (in general, but not in every instance) be publicly funded; that positive interventions probably should not be publicly funded; and that enhancement should really be privately funded.

These presumptions are not above reproach, but they are plausible. Anyway, they need not detain us here since we have other issues relating specifically to medical interventions in the sporting contest.

2. Some Case Studies on the Ethos of Elite Sport
As I said at the outset, Tannjso explores the ethics of enhancement through a set of case studies. They range from the hypothetical to the actual. With each case study, Tannjso tries to first identify the reactive judgments they provoke, and then consider what these reactions say about the ethos of elite sport. I’ll try to set out each of his major case studies here (there are more mentioned in the article, but the following relate specifically to sport).

The first case study is hypothetical and is, in fact, the main case study. Tannjso uses this as his main proving ground for his subsequent conclusions about enhancement and sport. The case concerns a fictional highjumper who undergoes a medical enhancement to lengthen his legs:

The High Jumper: A skilled surgeon manages give a man three metre long legs. The man subsequently tries to compete in the high jump. The problem is: with his leg length, he can easily hop (or step!) over the bar in the high jump competition. This allows him to clear heights that are all but unobtainable to other competitors.

Tannjso thinks that this hypothetical case provides a clear enough example of an objectionable enhancement, one the sports authorities would be keen to ban. He’s just not sure why it is so objectionable. There are several features of the case — as described above — that are potentially objectionable. But which one is the most significant? Which one really justifies our negative reaction?

To answer this question, Tannjso proposes that we look at some historical enhancement-related rule changes in the pole vault and javelin competitions. One of these changes seemed to embrace enhancement, while the other seemed to reject it:

The Pole Vault: At one time in its history, pole-vaulting was carried out using a pole made of bamboo and steel. This was replaced by a fibreglass pole. The fibreglass pole was pre-bent and allowed the vaulters to clear significantly greater heights than did the old bamboo and steel ones. This pole-enhancement was largely embraced by both pole-vaulters, authorities and fans of the sport.

The Javelin: In 1986, the centre of gravity in the javelin was moved forward 10cm. This accomplished two things: it made the javelin safer to track and spot by the umpires, and it also reduced the distance that the javelin could travel.

Why were the reactions different in these two cases? A few things seem relevant. First, in relation to the pole-vault, the new poles were available to all competitors, so they didn’t raise any fairness issues. Second, and again in relation to the pole-vault, the new poles made the sport more exciting for both competitors and spectators. Third, in relation to the javelin, the reduction in the distance helped to accommodate javelin throws in the infield. So the decision was at least partly motivated by a practical constraint. Fourth, and finally, in both cases, the changes do not appear to be objectionable. But why was that? To answer this we must examine the ethos of elite sport.

3. What is the Ethos of Elite Sport?
Tannjso's initial attempt to analyse the ethos of elite sport comes up with three key ideals of sporting contests. These are: (i) aesthetic quality, i.e. the contest should provide aesthetic enjoyment for the spectator; (ii) competitiveness, i.e. the contest is a matter of winning and losing (a zero-sum game); and (iii) fairness, i.e. each competitor should have a fair chance of winning the contest. Individual contests may frequently fall short of these ideals, but they are, nonetheless, ideals that should be aimed at.

What we now wish to know is whether these ideals can explain our different reactions to enhancement in the high-jump, pole-vault and javelin case studies. Tannjso thinks not. Having one competitor with extra long legs might reduce the aesthetic quality and fairness of the high jump in the short term, but if we wish to restore these two things, then we could adopt a pro- or anti-enhancement stance. In other words, we could simply encourage all competitors to go for the leg-extension surgery, or we could ban it. Fairness and aesthetic quality could be preserved either way.

We can see how this balance might affect the reasoning in the pole-vault and javelin case studies. In the pole-vault case, giving the new fibre-glass pole to all competitors seemed not to damage the ethos of the sport and yet was clearly a pro-enhancement decision. This is possible because clearing greater heights made the sport more exciting. What then of the javelin case? Why did the authorities adopt an anti-enhancement stance there? The answer would appear to be that non-moral (or non-ethos-related) safety and practicality concerns tipped the balance toward the anti-enhancement stance in that particular case. Those non-moral concerns did not seem to apply to the pole-vault case.

All of this suggests that the three sporting ideals identified above do not help to explain our negative reaction the high-jump case. Those ideals are basically neutral when it comes to the issue of enhancement. We are forced then to explore other potential sporting ideals. Tannjso does this at some length in his article, introducing new case studies along the way to further address the complexities of our intuitive judgments. I won’t repeat every step in his analysis here. Instead, I’ll skip straight to the punchline.

Tannjso thinks that when you explore all the possibilities, there really only one aspect of the ethos of elite sport that can explain our reaction to the high-jump case. It is this: that the winners of elite sporting competitions should be those who won the genetic lottery. As he puts it himself:

The explanation here must refer to a further aspect of the ethos of elite sport, a very special notion of justice typical of it. This is a notion of justice insisting that we all must accept the ticket we have actually drawn in the genetic lottery. Genetic differences are not irrelevant to the outcome of the competition. Indeed, genetic differences are what should be decisive, once we have eliminated other differences

The idea is that most regulations and changes in sport are motivated by an attempt to level the playing field between competitors as much as possible, so that genetic differences are all that can really decide the outcome.

Now, to be clear, Tannjso does not think that this aspect of the ethos of elite sport is at all commendable. He describes it as being a “Nietzschean view” of sporting justice, something that sporting authorities should be keen to get rid of. He just thinks it is ultimately what explains the negative reactions to some kinds of enhancement. He also thinks that if we do get rid of the Nietzschean view of sporting justice, we will not be able support a rigidly anti-enhancement view. We will be left instead in the predicament described above in the pole-vault and javelin examples: a scale that could in either the anti- or pro-enhancement direction, depending on the effect this would have on aesthetic quality, competitiveness, fairness and other non-ethos-related considerations.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Schermer on Enhancement and Cheating (Part Two)

(Part One)

Welcome to this, the second part, of my brief series on Maartje Schermer’s article “On the Argument that Enhancement is Cheating’”. The article examines the claim that enhancers ought to be outlawed in both sporting and educational contexts because their use amounts to a form of cheating. To be honest, I’m using Schermer’s article as a springboard from which to develop some of my own ideas about the propriety of enhancement in both settings, but I’m still trying to acknowledge my debt to her work.

As we saw in part one, there is little to be said in favour of the Enhancement-is-Cheating-Argument (ECA) in the sporting context (and, by analogy, in the educational context). Cheating occurs when someone violates of the rules of a sporting contest in order to gain an unfair advantage. Under this definition, it is possible that the use of enhancers would amount to cheating, but this is easily rectified by changing the rules in order to allow enhancement. No major moral objection is posed by the ECA.

A more promising argument focuses on why changing the rules of a sporting contest so as to allow enhancement is not acceptable. We examined one such argument in part one. The argument was based on the idea that the rules of sporting contests are designed to promote a certain set of human excellences (e.g. athletic prowess) and that the promotion of those excellences would be undermined by allowing the use of enhancers. Using some philosophical jargon, we called this the Enhancement-breaches-the-Constitutive-Regulations-Argument (EBCRA). This argument built considerably on some of the basic ideas in Schermer’s original article.

In this entry, I consider whether the ECBRA can apply to the educational context as well as the sporting one.

1. The ECBRA in the Sporting Context
To assess the applicability of the ECBRA to the educational context, we need to briefly return to its canonical formulation in the sporting context. This was the following (numbering is consistent with part one):

  • (7) We ought to prevent people from breaching the constitutive regulations of a sporting contest.
  • (8) The use of enhancers is a breach of the constitutive regulations of sporting contests.
  • (9) Therefore, we ought to prevent people from taking enhancers when they participate in sporting contests.

An attempt to defend premise (7) is laid out in part one of this series, I shall not repeat it here. What I do wish to repeat here is the problem with premise (8). As I noted in part one, this premise is the weakest link in the ECBRA. It is not at all obvious that the use of enhancers violates the constitutive regulations of sporting contests. The problem has to do the clearly identifying the kind of human excellence that the constitutive regulations are being used to promote. If we fail to do this, we won’t be able to say whether or not (8) is true or false.

For some sporting contests (like, say, running) it might be relatively easy to work out which sporting excellence is being promoted. But for other sporting contests this will prove far more difficult. This is because those contests will often be designed to promote a range of human excellences, from athletic ability to strategic astuteness. To give you an example, look at the following video:

Have you watched it? If so, ask yourself the following question: was the move that the player performed in this video something that we should encourage? I don’t know a whole lot about American Football, but I’d say that it is. The player exploited certain assumptions that other players had about the appropriate way in which to play the game. He thought outside the box and gained a strategic advantage by doing so. Surely that it something we should encourage in the sporting context?

Rhetorical and all as it is, I think this question has some persuasive force: it suggests that a certain strategic ruthlessness is something that we can admire on the sports field. But then this raises the question: if people have assumptions about the impropriety of using chemical (or other) enhancers in sports, and if those assumptions could be exploited so as to gain a strategic advantage, why should this be discouraged? What is it about the use of enhancement that changes this from being a case of admirable strategic ruthlessness to an impermissible breach of the constitutive regulations?

There may well be answers to that question in the sporting context — I shall not pursue them here — but I will suggest that this kind of question is particularly important when it comes to assessing the applicability of the ECBRA to the educational context, as we shall now attempt to do.

2. The ECBRA in the Educational Context
Let’s start by formalising the ECBRA for the educational context. This time round, instead of focusing on sporting contests, we shall be focusing on educational assessments. We shall be suggesting that educational assessments are constituted by a set of regulations, and that these regulations are designed to promote a certain suite of human excellences. Those human excellences will all have to do with the cultivation of certain cognitive and other intellectual virtues. The claim will then be that the use of enhancers undermines the cultivation of those virtues. As follows:

  • (10) We ought to prevent people from breaching the constitutive regulations of educational assessments.
  • (11) The use of enhancers is a breach of the constitutive regulations of educational assessments.
  • (12) Therefore, we ought to prevent people from using enhancers when they undertake educational assessments.

The defence of premise (10) is not something I shall be getting into here — it should be relatively clear how one would go about defending it from what was said above and in part one. What I want to focus on is premise (11). As was the case with premise (8) in the previous argument, this seems like the weakest link here. And once again, the weakness has one main source: we can’t know whether the use of enhancers is a breach of the constitutive regulations unless the human excellences that the constitutive regulations promote are clearly identified.

We can imagine some pretty clear cut examples that would fall within the scope of premise (11). A weaker student might, for instance, try to “enhance” their performance in some assessment by stealing or copying from a stronger student. Alternatively, and as is becoming increasingly common, a student might pay some online essay mill to write an essay for them (here’s an interesting whistleblower’s account of this burgeoning industry). Although I put the word enhance in inverted commons when describing these actions, I see no reason to exclude them from the class of enhancements, they just happen to be particularly egregious and morally objectionable forms of enhancement. They involve claiming credit for someone else’s work, and thereby lead to a complete subversion of constitutive regulations of educational assessment: no matter what kind of human excellence we may be trying to promote through our assessment processes, claiming credit for the work of another cannot be among them.

I’m not sure how to conclude things from here. This clear cut example is not particularly edifying since it doesn’t clarify the kinds of human excellence that are being promoted in the educational context, and it doesn’t tell us whether other forms of enhancement, such as the use of chemical cognitive enhancers, would be morally objectionable. I suspect it will be difficult to bring any great clarity to this issue since education is such a diverse field and since many different, not always compatible, human excellences, might be promoted in different disciplines. Still, I’m going to try to identify some general “Educational Excellences” that might be common to a range of disciplines and see whether they pose problems for some forms of enhancement.

3. Educational Excellence and Enhancement
I’m going to look at three potential educational excellences. I’ll start with an obviously circumspect one, one that I already discussed above:

The Excellence of Strategic Ruthlessness: All education is designed to encourage people to do whatever it takes to achieve the best possible results.

This excellence poses no problems for any forms of enhancement, indeed it does quite the opposite: it actively encourages people to use any means necessary to produce the best possible results (by “results” here is meant results in educational assessments). And for that reason alone it is clearly objectionable as an educational excellence. For if we really did try to encourage strategic ruthlessness of this form, we could have no objection to the student who purchased an essay from online essay mill. Since it would be absurd to reward or commend this kind of activity in an educational setting, strategic ruthlessness — at least when it takes this extreme form — cannot be a educational excellence.

How about the following:

The Excellence of Procedural Mastery: All education is designed to encourage people to master a set of processes, not to achieve a set of outputs.

Although there are conceptual difficulties when it comes to distinguishing processes from outputs, I think there is a lot to be said for this particular educational excellence. Across most subjects that I teach, and across most subjects that I am aware of, process is typically valued more than output. I think that’s why I frown so much on the student who purchases an essay off the internet. In so doing, they bypass making any use of the intellectual processes and capacities that the assessment is supposed to measure.

Still, even if there is a lot to be said for this particular educational excellence, does it pose problems for enhancement? Only if enhancement necessarily leads to the bypassing of the processes that we are trying to assess in the educational context. It’s unlikely that all forms of enhancement do this. For instance, the use of some cognitive enhancers may actually encourage a greater development of the intellectual processes and capacities that educators are trying to develop. So why not allow them to be used?

This leads me to suggest the following:

The Excellence of Critical Thinking: All education is designed to encourage people to master a set of critical thinking skills. Critical thinking skills involve the identification and evaluation of assumptions and arguments.

This excellence is essentially a more specific form of the previous one: it identifies critical thinking as the specific process that educational is designed to promote. I haven’t been too careful in defining what critical thinking skills actually are, but hopefully the brief clarification given above is enough for present purposes. Once again, I think there’s a lot to be said for this particular educational excellence. Indeed, in all subjects that I teach, my main goal is to encourage people to develop their critical thinking skills. I just try to show them how to do so in relation to a particular subject area.

Nevertheless, admirable and all as it is, the question still arises: does this educational excellence pose any problems for the use of enhancers? I suspect not. I suspect that most enhancers will have no direct role to play in improving critical thinking skills. If someone takes a drug that improves their memory or concentration, they will not necessarily become more critical thinkers. The skill of critical thinking seems to involve a different set of processes. Those drugs may be indirectly beneficial, but by themselves they will be useless to someone wishing to become a critical thinker.

But what does this mean for the ECBRA? Perhaps very little. For if critical thinking is the primary educational excellence, and if most enhancers can’t directly help someone to improve their critical thinking, the use of enhancers will not really amount to a breach of the constitutive regulations: it will simply be an irrelevant distraction. Still, if it is an irrelevant distraction, this could provide some support for a restrictive policy toward enhancement: we should restrict the use of enhancers in order to prevent students from being tricked or seduced into thinking enhancement really could promote their critical thinking skills. Such a policy would smack of paternalism, but it might (barely) be justifiable in the educational setting (since paternalism seems slightly more acceptable in such a setting).

I’ll have to leave it there for now. I’ve strayed well beyond the confines of Schermer’s original article at this stage. Indeed, I’ve wandered into some territory that I myself am currently trying to map out. I hope to have a more fulsome presentation of my views ready by the end of January. For now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief discussion of the ethics of enhancement in both the sporting and educational contexts.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Schermer on Enhancement and Cheating (Part One)

Maartje Schermer is an ethicist based in the Netherlands. I met her at a workshop on the ethics of deep brain stimulation in Warsaw about a year ago, I recall talking to her about the Dutch euthanasia system, among other things.

A couple of years back she wrote a paper entitled ‘On the Argument that Enhancement is “Cheating”’ in the Journal of Medical Ethics. This paper happens to be relevant to a line of research that I’m currently pursuing, so I want to go through its contents over the next couple of blog posts.

As might be guessed from the title, the paper examines the popular claim that the use of certain performance enhancing technologies (be they chemical or electrical in nature) is an illegitimate breach of the “rules” of certain disciplines. In her paper, Schermer considers the force of this “cheating” argument in relation to both sports and education.

In this first post I look primarily at what she has to say about sports; in the next post I’ll turn to consider education. At the outset, I want to explain why I’m interested in this topic. I’ve done this before, but reviewing the reason here might help to remind both my readers and, perhaps more importantly, myself.

1. Sports and Education: The Analogical Argument
My goal is to write a paper that, in part, offers a fairly detailed assessment of the following analogical argument:

  • (1) We ought to restrict the use of (some) enhancement technologies in (some) sporting contests.
  • (2) (Some) Educational assessments are like these sporting contests, in all important respects.
  • (3) Therefore, (probably) we ought to restrict the use of (some) enhancement technologies in (some) educational assessments too.

Those who remember my earlier post on this topic, or who clicked on the link provided above, will notice that two significant changes have been made since my last attempt to formalise this argument.

For starters, the focus of the argument has shifted from being about the moral wrongness (or rightness) of enhancement itself, to being about the obligatoriness of restrictive policies. This shift in focus was just to bring the argument more in line with my own research interest, which has to do with the appropriate regulatory framework within universities.

In addition to this, a number of qualifiers have now been added to the argument. This is because my previous attempt at formalising the argument was considerably more absolutist than I intended. I think it’s pretty obvious that no argument which purports to condemn all forms of enhancement in either the sporting or educational context can succeed. The main reason for this is that sports and education seem to be aimed at encouraging particular kinds of enhancement.

Before moving on to look at Schermer's article in more depth, I want to say at the outset that, as of now, I have no particular dog in this fight. I’m only interested in exploring the potential persuasiveness of the analogical argument outlined above; I’m not interested in defending or opposing it. To put it another way, I’m not religiously opposed to the very idea of human enhancement (far from it), but nor am I religiously in favour of all forms of human enhancement either. I just want to see what kinds of arguments can be made about this issue, and I want to see whether these arguments are any good.

Since the remainder of this post is going to focus on what Schermer has to say about enhancement in the sporting context, the discussion can be viewed as an examination of the arguments for and against premise (1) of the analogical argument.

2. The Cheating Argument in Sports
Schermer’s article starts with the observation that many people invoke the idea that enhancement technologies are a form of “cheating” when trying to condemn their use. In both sport and education, the use of enhancers is usually seen as an attempt to bypass the hard work and effort that we like to associate with sporting and educational prowess.

There’s probably some kind of quasi-formal reasoning lurking behind this common objection, but to unearth it we will first need to define what cheating is. Schermer suggests the following definition:

Cheating: This is the violation of an internal rule of some competitive practice in order to gain an unfair advantage over one’s competitors.

Obviously, this is a value-laden definition: to say something is an “unfair advantage” is to say that it is morally objectionable. So if it is true to say that cheating is the violation of a rule in order to gain an unfair advantage, then it is true to say that cheating is morally wrong. Whether it is really true to say this is another question. I, for one, see no reason to object to Schermer’s definition: even if there are other uses of the “cheating” terminology out there, we can simply accept it as a stipulative definition for the purposes of this discussion.

In any event, taking this definition onboard, we can formulate the following argument against the use of enhancers in sport (and in support of premise (1) of the analogical argument). Call this the Enhancement-is-Cheating-Argument (ECA for short).

  • (4) We ought to prevent people from violating the internal rules of a sporting contest in order to gain an unfair advantage over their competitors.
  • (5) The use of enhancers amounts to a violation of the internal rules of sporting contests in order to gain an unfair advantage.
  • (6) Therefore, we ought to prevent people from using enhancers in sporting contests.

The first premise of this argument (4) is relatively unobjectionable. If anything is wrong in sports it is the violation of the rules. I think this is for two simple reasons. First, those who participate in sporting contests agree (consent) to be bound by those rules. And second, the rules of the sporting contest usually delimit a certain set of human excellences that the contest is designed to promote: anyone who breaches those rules defeats the purpose of the activity. This second reason is particularly interesting and is one to which we shall return.

The second premise of this argument (5) is where the objections are typically targetted. As Schermer makes clear in her article, it is not at all clear that the use of enhancers do violate the internal rules of all sporting contests. For example, I’m no historian of sport, but there was probably a time when the use of performance-enhancing drugs was allowed in cycling (I’m pretty sure I read this somewhere). This was presumably because until those drugs were developed, the relevant sporting authorities never thought to have an explicit rule banning competitors from using them. It was only after they became aware of the problems created by those drugs that they banned them.

All of this leads Schermer to make a simple point: the ECA is easily overcome by changing the rules of the sport. Thus, if the use of performance-enhancing drugs is a violation of some rule, change the rule so that it no longer is, and the ECA disappears. Problem solved. Objection overcome.

This solution — that of changing the rules so that the use of enhancers no longer constitutes a form of cheating — works fine if we view the rules of the sport as being more or less arbitrary constraints. For example, if we thought that the rules merely served to make contests more entertaining (i.e. if entertainment were the primary goal of sport), then altering the rules so that enhancers are permissible within that contest would not be a problem. After all, if all competitors are enhanced (or, at least, have access to enhancement), the entertainment value of the contest is likely to be preserved.

But there’s a serious problem here: the rules of sporting contests are probably not best thought of as arbitrary constraints. As I pointed out above, they are more likely to delimit a certain set of human excellences that the contest is designed to promote. This leads us to a different objection to the use of enhancement in sport.

3. The Constitutive Rules/Human Excellences Argument
Let’s start by differentiating between two kinds of rules: (i) the regulative and (ii) the constitutive. This distinction comes from the work of John Searle (who seems to be cropping up quite a bit on the blog recently). The two kinds of rules can be defined as follows:

Regulative Rules: These are rules that place restrictions upon pre-existing activities (i.e. activities that pre-date the rules). An example might be the rules of driving. Driving is an activity that does not need rules in order to be properly performed, but it might need rules in order to be safely performed.

Canonical Form: Activity of type X, ought to be performed in manner Y.
Constitutive Rules: These are rules that help to constitute or define a particular kind of activity (i.e. the activity cannot exist apart from the rules). An example might be the game of chess. Chess is an activity that does require rules in order to be properly performed. If you started moving your knight in diagonals, or if you allowed pawns to move like rooks, then not only would you be breaking the rules of chess, you would be playing something that did not really constitute chess at all.

Canonical Form: In context C, doing X counts as doing Y.

You can probably see where this is going: we’re going to present an argument against enhancers based on the idea that their use amounts to a breach of a constitutive rule. However before we do that, we have to make one further conceptual clarification. This is one I take from a recent paper by David Lauer (who in turn takes it from John Haugeland). The clarification arises from a common objection to normative arguments based on constitutive rules, so let’s look at that objection first.

The objection runs something like this: It makes sense to make normative arguments that are based on regulative rules. This is because regulative rules tell us how an activity — whose existence is logically independent of the regulative rules — ought to be performed. To return to the driving example for a moment, it is logically possible to drive your car whilst under the influence of an intoxicant, but this would a normatively worrisome way to drive. Hence, driving whilst under the influence is banned by the regulative rules of driving. In contrast to this, it does not make sense to make normative arguments that are based on constitutive rules. This is because constitutive rules don’t tell us how a particular activity ought to be performed, they tell us that a particular activity must be performed in order for it to count as an instance of Y. To use the chess example, to start moving pawns in diagonals like bishops doesn’t simply amount to a normatively inferior form of chess, it amounts to playing something other than chess. Thus, constitutive rules tell us what something is, not what it ought to be. These rules are descriptive classifications, not normative prescriptions.

In his recent paper, “Anti-Normativism and the Fraud with ‘Ought’”, David Lauer challenges this line of argument. In my opinion, his challenge is pretty compelling but I don’t wish to repeat it here since his paper is currently only in draft form. However, I do wish to make use of the conceptual distinction he uses to make his counter argument. This conceptual distinction is based on the idea that there are actually two types of constitutive rule:

Constitutive Standards: These are constitutive rules that tell us which conditions an antecedently intelligible X has to satisfy in order to count as a Y. For example, moving carved pieces of wood around a check-patterned board counts as chess, if the movements correspond to the rules of chess. In this form, the constitutive rules are purely descriptive, not normative.

Constitutive Regulations: These are constitutive rules that remind us how an already intelligible Y ought to be done in order to count as a good instance of Y. For example, boxing without landing any punches below the beltline, or running the hundred metre sprint without a false start. In this form, the constitutive rule is not purely descriptive, it is normative too.

Lauer goes on to clarify that these two types of constitutive rule correspond with the different perspectives one can take on any constituted phenomenon: that of the external observer and that of the engaged participant. From the perspective of the external observer, it will always be possible to view that activity in a normatively neutral fashion; from the perspective of the engaged participant, it will be difficult to avoid normative evaluation of the activity. He goes on to argue that for certain human activities (language is the example at the heart of his paper) it is impossible to take the external perspective.

Now that we have Lauer’s conceptual clarification in place, we can begin to make an argument against the use of enhancers in sport. As you can imagine, the idea is that sporting contests involve activities that are governed by constitutive regulations (not standards!). After all, swimming, running, cycling, rowing, jumping (etc.) are all activities that are intelligible apart from the rules governing their competitive forms, but those rules do add something to the picture: they specify the precise form those activities have to take in order for them to count in the competitive context. And that competitive context does something too: it gives us a space in which a set of human excellences (in this case, all relating to athletic prowess) can be promoted and socially celebrated.

If we accept these points, then the following argument might seem compelling:

  • (7) We ought to prevent people from breaching the constitutive regulations of a sporting contest.
  • (8) The use of enhancers is a breach of the constitutive regulations of sporting contests.
  • (9) Therefore, we ought to prevent people from taking enhancers when they participate in sporting contests.

As you can see, this argument is very similar to the ECA. The main difference is that we can offer a slightly more persuasive defence of the first premise of the argument (7) this time round. That defence would be based on the preceding discussion about the normative role of constitutive regulations and the fact that athletic prowess is a type of human excellence. It would, of course, be open to someone to reject the value of athletic prowess, but nevertheless I feel we are on more solid ground here than we were with the ECA.

That leaves premise (8) as probably the weakest link in the chain. While it is clear that the use of some forms of enhancement would amount to breaches of the constitutive rules, this is not always obvious. For example, someone who wears rollerblades (a foot enhancement) during the 100 metre sprint is clearly breaching that constitutive regulations of that contest, but how about someone who takes steriods? I’m sure most people would be inclined to say “yes” in response to this, but that answer is not immediately compelling. Further work needs to be done to spell out exactly how the use of steriods is a breach of the constitutive regulations of sprinting.

I suspect part of the problem here is a failure to be clear about the type of human excellence that the 100m sprint is designed to promote. If we could get clearer about this, then this kind of objection might evaporate.

Anyway, I shall leave it there for the time being. As we have seen from this entry, there is little reason to accept the enhancement-is-cheating argument (ECA), but there may be some reason to accept the enhancement-breaches-the-constitutive-regulations-argument (EBCRA). What we need to do now i see whether the EBCRA can apply to the educational context as well as the sporting context. We'll look at that issue (rather more briefly) in part two.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Schieber's Objection to the Kalam Argument

Okay, I’ve been correcting student papers for far too long now. The time has come to peer above the parapet and write some sort of blog post. Nothing too laborious today, I’m afraid. Just a quick attempt to formalise an objection to William Lane Craig’s Kalam Argument that I recently heard (where “recently” = about a month ago) on the Reasonable Doubts podcast.

The objection in question came from the presenter Justin Schieber (I think that’s how you spell it anyway) and was based on a series of questions and objections he put to Craig on the Unbelievable podcast (hosted by Justin Brierly). The full exchange was set out in Episode 92 of the Reasonable Doubts podcast pretty quickly, and on a first listen I wasn’t sure if it was particularly interesting. I became slightly more convinced of it merits on a second listen, and I decided to write up this blog post in order to see whether there is anything to it. After all, one only really understands something when one tries to explain it to others.

I’ll break the discussion here up into four sections. In the first section, I will briefly outline Craig’s argument (I apologise in advance for this), focusing on the oft-neglected second stage where he defends the personal nature of the cause of the universe. In the second section, I will discuss Schieber’s initial objection to this argument — the one that was actually put to Craig on the Unbelievable podcast. In the third section, I will present Craig’s response to Schieber’s objection. And, finally, in the fourth section, I will attempt to formalise Schieber’s response to Craig’s response. As far as I am aware, this fourth section brings us up to date with the current state of the dialectic.

To reiterate: my goal here is to see whether — through a reasonably careful formalisation — there is anything to Schieber’s objection. Comments from readers would be welcome on this.

1. The Kalam and Personal Causes
I appreciate this will be quite tedious for those who are already familiar with the argument, but to make sure we all start off from the same point, here is the basic version of Craig’s Kalam argument:

  • (1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
  • (2) The universe began to exist.
  • (3) Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.

Craig usually defends premise (1) by appeals to incredulity — e.g imagine if a tiger just popped into existence without a cause? — or by appeals to intuitively compelling metaphysical principles such as ex nihilo nihil fit. I looked at some of Wes Morriston’s objections to these defences on another occasion.

Craig defends premise (2) with at least four different arguments. Two of which are a priori and based on paradoxes that would arise if the set of past events was actually infinite; and two of which are a posteriori and based on aspects of contemporary physics (namely, Big Bang theory and the second law of thermodynamics). Craig’s defence of this principle is certainly complex and, one has to say, philosophically impressive. Still, there are plenty of replies to his arguments in the philosophical literature some of which are equally impressive (e.g. those found in the work of Graham Oppy or Quentin Smith).

Premise (3) follows logically from the conjunction of (1) and (2). The problem for Craig — or, rather, the problem that we will be considering today — is that (3) does not provide support for the existence of God. If we left the Kalam at (3), the most we could say is that there has to be some cause for the existence of the universe; but we couldn’t say whether that cause is divine or non-divine. The Kalam needs a second stage.

Despite his usual penchant for formal arguments, Craig doesn’t seem to ever present a formal argument for a divine cause. In the 3rd Edition of Reasonable Faith he simply says that: “conceptual analysis of what it means to be a cause of the universe then aims to establish some of the theologically significant properties of this being [the first causer]” (p. 111). Nevertheless, I think it is possible to formalise Craig’s second stage argument as a series of (hopefully exhaustive) disjunctive syllogisms. In other words, Craig defines the theoretical space in which possible causes of the universe will be found; he identifies the main contenders within this space; and then starts eliminating contenders on various grounds until all but the theologically significant contenders are left standing.

For our purposes, the theoretical space of possible causes is defined by one key property: non-temporality (or eternality). In other words, all putative causes of the universe must, at a minimum, be non-temporal. This is for two reasons: (i) because Craig’s defence of premise (2) of the Kalam explicitly rules out the possibility of an infinite regress of temporal events and (ii) because the goal of the argument is to find the cause that kicked off the actual temporal sequence of events in the universe.

The main contenders within this theoretical space can then be reduced to two: (a) a non-temporal impersonal cause and (b) a non-temporal personal cause. If the cause is personal, then it is theologically significant since that is typically thought to be a key property of God. But further argumentation would be then needed to show that this personal cause has the other properties associated with God (e.g. omnibenevolence). That is something that the Kalam, by itself, cannot do.

Anyway, with all this in mind, we can offer the following as a formalisation of the second stage of the Kalam argument:

  • (4) The cause of the universe could either be a non-temporal impersonal cause or a non-temporal personal cause.
  • (5) The cause of the universe cannot be a non-temporal impersonal cause.
  • (6) Therefore, the cause of the universe is a non-temporal personal cause.

Premise (5) is the key here. Craig supports this with the idea that impersonal causes are always sufficient to produce their effects. In other words, if the cause is present, so too must the effect be present. This is supposed to create a problem since it would mean that if the cause is eternal, so too must the effect be eternal. But since it is a key part of Craig’s argument that the universe is not eternal, the cause cannot therefore be impersonal.

There are some problems with this argument. Not least of which is the fact that it tends to confuse true eternity (non-temporality) with beginningless and endless duration. These problems are covered by Wes Morriston in his article “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?”, which I discussed on commonsenseatheism over a year ago. (Side note: It does slightly beggar belief that Morriston is not mentioned in Craig’s Reasonable Faith).

2. Schieber’s Initial Objection
In the question that he put to Craig on the Unbelievable podcast, Schieber presented a direct challenge to the second stage of Craig’s argument. The challenge is not directed at Craig’s defence of premise (5) but, rather, at the very concept of a non-temporal personal cause. Since this is the case, we’ll construe this as an objection to premise (4) (since premise (4) is supposed to accurately describe the space of possible causes, and since Schieber’s argument is that one of the proposed causes within that space could not possibly exist).

This objection derives its force from an analysis of what it means to be a personal cause. Schieber argues that persons cause events — events such as the beginning of the universe — through intentional action. I suspect this is a familiar notion to most readers, but perhaps a few clarificatory words are in order. Intentionality is the so-called “mark of the mental”. An intentional state, such as a belief, desire or intention, is something with the property of “aboutness”. To follow Searle’s analysis, all intentional states will have a direction of fit and a direction of causation.

Let’s use the example of a intention to illustrate what this means — this will be useful since intentions are crucial to the whole dialectic between Craig and Schieber. Suppose I intend to eat an apple. My intention has a world-to-mind direction of fit: in order for my intention to be satisfied, the conditions in the world must change in such a way that I consume and digest the apple. But my intention has a mind-to-world direction of causation: the mental state causes those changes to be brought about in the world outside the mind.

See the table below for a more complete taxonomy of intentional states with their associated directions of fit and causation.

Now we come to the crux of it. Schieber argues that in order for a person to cause an event to occur, they must first intend for this event to occur. And in order for them to do this, their intention must temporally precede the changes that are brought about in the world. This further implies that in order for there to be intentions, there must be a temporal framework in place (i.e. a sequence of moments that succeed one another). But if this a necessary condition of intention, then there cannot be a non-temporal personal cause of any event.

To summarise:

  • (7) Personal beings cause events via intentions.
  • (8) In order for an intention to cause an event, that intention must temporally precede the event.
  • (9) If something temporally precedes/succeeds another thing, then there must be a temporal realm (obvious, but worth stating explicitly).
  • (10) Therefore, personal causes cannot be non-temporal (from 7, 8, and 9).

If successful, this argument would defeat premise (4) of the extended Kalam.

Regular followers of Craig’s work can probably guess how he will respond to this. True to form, he doesn’t disappoint when asked to respond on the Unbelievable podcast. But this response leads Schieber to formulate an altogether more interesting version of his objection. Let’s see how all this plays out.

3. Craig’s Response
As I say, those who follow Craig’s work on the Kalam will be able to guess his response. For years now, Craig has been harping on about the distinction between “causal priority” and “temporal priority”, as well as the possibility of timeless eternal intentions. Combining these two notions, Craig can say that God’s intention to create the universe may have existed eternally and may have causally preceded rather than temporally preceded the beginning of the universe.

In the course of the podcast, Craig explains what he means by way of a thought experiment:

The Cliff-Hanger: Picture, if you will, a man who is hanging off the side of a cliff. To prevent his descent into oblivion, he grabs hold of a tree branch. He does so by intending to hold onto the tree branch. But here the intention is simultaneous with, rather than temporally prior, to the actual act of holding onto the branch.

This thought experiment reveals a flaw in premise (8) of Schieber’s objection. This premise states that in order for an intention to cause an event, the intention must temporally precede the event in question. But as the Cliff-Hanger example reveals, this need not always be the case: sometimes, intentions can be simultaneous with the events that they cause. Thus, we have to acknowledge the following rebutting premise:

  • (11) Intentions can be simultaneous with the events that they cause; they need not always temporally precede them.

Furthermore, as Craig goes on to make clear, even if the intention is simultaneous with the event that it causes, this does not mean that it is not *causally* or *explanatorily* prior to the event: the man’s intention to hold onto the tree-branch is what explains his holding onto the tree branch, not the other way around. I see this as a “the dog wags the tail, the tail doesn’t wag the dog”-kind of point.

Two observations are worthwhile before moving on. First, Craig’s response is, I think, well-made. Indeed, it exploits a distinction that Searle and others makes in their analysis of intentions, namely: the distinction between prior intentions and intentions-in-action. The former must temporally precede the act; the latter must coincide with and sustain the performance of the act. I’ll use this distinction in the remainder of the discussion. Second, even if the response is well-made, I’m not sure how far it gets us: simultaneity is still a temporal relation and God is supposed to be non-temporal. Perhaps Craig thinks that along as any sort of chink is opened up to the possibility of intentions that are not prior to action, he has given the concept of an eternal intention some plausibility, but I’m not convinced. I think this raises more problems. I’ll try to return to this at the end.

4. Schieber’s Response to Craig’s Response
Taking Craig’s criticism onboard, Schieber refines his original argument. The refinement accepts that there are two kinds of intention — prior intentions and intentions-in-action — but adds further complexity to our understanding of intentions by focusing on two different kinds of intentional content. They are:

Intentions that Change a State of Affairs: These are intentions whose content specifies that, in order for them to be satisfied, the present state of affairs must be altered in one or more ways. To use the vocabulary introduced earlier, the world must be changed in order to fit with the content of the intention.

Intentions that Maintain a State of Affairs: These are intentions whose content specifies that, in order for them to be satisfied, the present state of affairs must remain the same. To use the vocabulary introduced earlier, the world must stay the same in order to fit with the content of the intention.

Scheeber’s claim is that while intentions to maintain a state of affairs can be simultaneous with their effects, intentions to change a state of affairs must precede their effects.

This then raises the obvious question: what kind of intention was God’s intention to create the universe have? What kind of content did it have? Surely it would have to be an intention to change a state of affairs, not an intention to maintain a state of affairs. After all, “prior” to the universe existing, God was the only thing in existence; “after” the universe began to exist, there were at least two things in existence. Thus, there must have been some change in the state of affairs. So if there was a change in the state of affairs, this change must have a cause, and this cause must be personal, then there must have been a prior intention.

In other words:

  • (12) Persons can cause events via two kinds of intention: (i) intentions that change states of affairs; and (ii) intentions that maintain states of affairs.
  • (13) Intentions to change a state of affairs must be temporally prior to the changes they bring about; intentions to maintain a state of affairs can simultaneous with the states of affairs they maintain.
  • (14) An intention that caused the universe to begin must have been an intention to change a state of affairs.
  • (15) Therefore, an intention that caused the universe to begin needed to be temporally prior to the beginning of the universe.

But, of course, according to the Kalam argument the cause of the universe must be non-temporal, so Schieber’s original objection to the Kalam will then go through, i.e.

  • (16) Therefore, a personal cause of the universe cannot be non-temporal.

This is illustrated in the diagram below.

5. Conclusion
I’m pretty much done. I hope this post has been informative to those of you who have made it this far. It’s certainly helped me to clarify a few points in my own mind. I’m still not sure whether Schieber’s argument is a good one — and I’m still trying to imagine how Craig might respond to it (suggestions below please). Nevertheless, I do have two concluding observations that might stimulate some conversation, even if they don’t address all significant points arising from the preceding dialectic.

First up, there is this whole issue of intentionality and intentional states. Most analyses of intentional states — such as Searle’s — assume that there is a mental world and an external world. Indeed, this duality is what makes sense of the directions of fit and directions of causation proposed by Searle. This is not to say that intentional states are impossible unless they connect to an external world — I can imagine, for example, intending to change my beliefs about something — but it’s always difficult to grasp what an intentional state could be about unless at some point it joins up with the external world. This creates problems in our analysis of God’s creative act. Can we meaningfully talk about God’s intentional states as if they were similar to our own? This might also be thought to open up a potential challenge to Schieber’s refined objection since it still relies an analogies with our own intentions. But there’s something for the theist to worry about here too. Indeed, Schieber actually takes advantage of something like this in another argument he makes about God’s existence: we typically have intentions and desires because there are things in the external world that displease us and that we would like to change; but God is supposedly perfect; so when he exists on his own — as he must “prior” to the existence of the universe — he could not possible have desires and intentions like ours. So it’s difficult to understand why he would create a universe at all. (It also seems to me that divine simplicity would pose problems for divine intentionality).

Second, there is the whole issue of time and eternity. The more I’m forced to think about eternal persons (which, admittedly, isn’t very often), the more confused I become. It seems to be an incredibly difficult conceptual feat to make any sense of eternal minds or eternal intentional states. You could see this in my discussion of God’s creative act which made use of temporal words like “priority” and “before” even after I had accepted that God’s intentions must be non-temporal. Craig likes to object to an infinite regress of past events on the grounds that accepting such a possibility comes at the theoretical cost of accepting numerous paradoxes. But I’m not so sure that accepting the possibility of non-temporal persons comes at an even larger theoretical cost (I’m also not sure that all paradoxes are theoretically costly).

Anyway, I shall leave it there.