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.