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.


  1. I don't know if this provides any insight to the bigger issue, but I think that trick play should be treated as "cheating". The reason is that the player took advantage of one of the core ideas of "good sportsmanship" -- that we behave differently on-the-field and off-the-field. This is particularly important in a contact sport like American Football.

    In that clip, the offensive team acted as though the play had not started, which caused the defensive team to refrain from tackling the ball carrier. To illustrate how wrong this is, imagine how you would respond if the defensive line had tackled the QB (possibly injuring him, since he was not bracing for a hit), but the QB truly had not intended to start the play.

  2. Hi Ricketson,

    That's an interesting observation. In fact, I'm currently reading a book by Graham McFee that argues for a similar point. He says that we should identify a distinct category of cheating called "spoiling". Spoiling would involve actions that, while not directly contrary to the rules of the game, are contrary to the spirit of the rules.

    I'm still not sure if I agree, but I think I'll need to revisit my earlier endorsement of the trick play. I agree that I was a little too quick to accept it in the post.