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.

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