Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Doping, Slippery Slopes and Moral Virtues

(Series Index)

Well, I’m still stuck on the enhancement-in-sports-and-education-roundabout and probably will be til the end of January. So this post is, unfortunately, yet another addition to my ongoing series. This one is quite narrowly focused, looking at one argument from Chapter 10 of the following book:

Mike McNamee Sports, Vices and Virtues: Morality Plays (Routledge, 2008)

The book is actually pretty interesting. It makes the case for viewing elite sport as a kind of morality play: a forum in which the moral virtues are celebrated, and from which the general population can learn. It’s an idealistic view, but one with which those who complain about the grubby professionalism of modern sports are likely to agree.

I’m only going to zone in on a small part of the book’s overall thesis. The part in question comes from McNamee’s chapter on doping in elite sports. The chapter reviews some of the typical anti-doping arguments and dismisses them in relatively short order. I’m not too interested in this part of the chapter since I’ve covered such arguments elsewhere in this series. The chapter gets rather more interesting when it turns to consider one potentially novel — and McNamee thinks better — argument against doping: the slippery slope argument (SSA). It’s this argument that will be discussed here.

The remainder of this post is structured as follows: part one discusses SSAs in general; part two looks at McNamee’s SSA against doping; and part three looks at McNamee’s complaints about the vices of athletes who dope. Just note that although “doping” has a particular meaning in sport, one that may be thought distinct from “performance enhancement”, the terms are used interchangeably in what follows.

1. A Taxonomy of Slippery Slope Arguments
An SSA has a fairly standard form: it proposes that allowing something to be the case (in this instance, doping in sports) will lead to something else, usually undesirable, happening. And since this undesirable thing should not be allowed to happen, then it follows that the first thing should not happen either. In other words, it proposes that there exists a slippery slope between two things (call them X and Y), and since the second of these is undesirable the first shouldn’t be allowed. To put this more elegantly:

  • (1) If X is allowed to happen, then Y will happen.
  • (2) Y should not be allowed to happen.
  • (3) Therefore, X should not be allowed to happen.

There’s one important thing to note about this version of the argument: there can be more than one “slide” on the slippery slope before we reach the bottom. In the version given here, Y is directly connected to X and Y also lies at the bottom of the slippery slope. As such, the argument is suggesting that there is only one slide down to the bottom of the slippery slope. This need not be the case. There could be multiple stopping off points along the slope before we get to the bottom. All that matters is that the first slide — the one from the current status quo to X — leads, inexorably, to the bottom.

Now, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss SSAs before on the blog. In my series on John Corvino’s article (“The PIB Argument”) I looked at the use of SSAs in the same-sex marriage debate. There, I followed Corvino’s basic taxonomy and identified two forms such arguments could take: (i) the causal and (ii) the logical.

A causal SSA is one that proposes a causal link between X and Y. As an example, consider the following SSA: if you smoke one cigarette, you will want to smoke more cigarettes; if you smoke more cigarettes you will become addicted to nicotine and continue smoking for an extended period of time; and if you continue smoking for an extended period of time you dramatically increase your risk of lung cancer. So, since you should not wish to dramatically increase your risk of lung cancer, you should not smoke one cigarette. In this argument, the link between the points on the slippery slope is causal: one outcome, it is claimed, will naturally lead to another.

Contrast this with a logical SSA. In a logical SSA, the link between the points on the slippery slope is logical, not causal, in nature. This is most common in ethical SSAs. In an ethical SSA, the claim is usually that if we deem some practice to be morally acceptable, then we lose the principled basis upon which we object to other (more undesirable) practices. In other words, the logical barricade that currently exists between our principles and some undesirable practice is eroded. In the same-sex marriage debate, for instance, there are those who argue that in legalising same-sex marriage, we lose the principled basis on which we object to polygamy, incest or bestiality. This was discussed in the earlier series on the PIB argument.

Although I like the simplicity of the logical/causal division, McNamee adopts a slightly more complex taxonomy of SSAs. Relying initially on the work of Bernard Williams, he distinguishes between horrible result SSAs and arbitrary result SSAs. The distinction here depends on the kind of event or outcome that is thought to lie at the bottom of the slippery result. Obviously enough, in a horrible result SSA, the outcome at the bottom of the slope is horrible, whereas in an arbitrary result SSA, the outcome is simply arbitrary. But that just raises the further question, what do we mean by “horrible” and what do we mean by “arbitrary”. Unfortunately, McNamee isn’t clear on this point, and since I haven’t read Williams’s earlier work, I’m not sure that I can clarify the matter all that much. My guess, however, is that a horrible result is one that is morally repugnant or objectionable, and that an arbitrary result is simply one that seems unconnected (either logically or causally) from the initial starting point.

In addition to dividing SSAs up into these two major kinds, McNamee (again borrowing from someone else) looks at three different ways in which the slide down the slope can be conceptualised. This leads to the following three sub-types of SSA:

1. Precedential SSAs: In a precedential SSA, the initial slide from the status quo to X, is thought to set a precedent for further slides down the slope. Imagine you are arguing with your teenage son. He wants to go to some nightclub, but you disapprove. He is persistent and eventually you relent, allowing him to go but only “just this once”. Unfortunately for you, this relenting sets a precedent to which your son can appeal in future cases. Before you know it, you are allowing him to go out whenever he asks, which is exactly what you didn’t want. This kind of SSA could also be referred to as a “thin end of the wedge”-SSA.

2. Sorites SSAs: In a Sorites SSA, the slide to the bottom of the slope is hastened by the conceptual ambiguity of some key term(s). Obviously, the allusion here is to the infamous Sorites paradox: if you remove grains of sand from a heap, one-by-one, at what point does the heap become a non-heap? Here, the problem is caused by the conceptual ambiguity of “heap”. As McNamee points out, conceptual ambiguity of this sort is often exploited by proponents of doping and performance enhancement. For example, proponents of enhancement often point to the fuzzy boundary that lies between “treatment” and “enhancement”. They then use most people’s acceptance of “treatment” to make the case for certain forms of “enhancement”.

3. Domino Effect SSAs: In a domino effect SSA, the slide to the bottom of the slope is causal in nature. One event leads to another, which leads to another and so on. This corresponds pretty much exactly with my earlier description of a causal SSA so I won’t given an example here.

I’m not sure that McNamee’s more complex taxonomy brings with it any great advantages. Although the horrible/arbitrary distinction might be useful, the three sub-types listed above really only elaborate on the logical/causal division discussed earlier. Specifically, they just distinguish between two kinds of logical SSA: the precedential — in which endorsing one moral claim sets a precent for endorsing further moral claims; and the Sorites — in which conceptual ambiguity means we lose faith in our more restrictive moral beliefs. The domino effect SSA is simply a redescription of the causal SSA.

Even though I’m somewhat sceptical about its utility, I’m still going to make use of McNamee’s taxonomy in what follows. This is for the obvious reason that he makes use of it in describing his argument, and since I want to explain his argument here, it’s easier if I follow suit.

2. The Arbitrary Result SSA against Doping in Sport
The section heading gives the game away but, just to state the obvious, having taxonomised SSAs, Mcnamee goes on to present his own, arbitrary result-SSA against the use of doping in sport. He does so in a slightly unusual way. He starts by developing a kind of Sorites SSA that used by proponents of doping, and then he inverts it to support the anti-doping position.

Let’s look at the pro-doping SSA first. Of course, since the argument is being used to support something rather than object to it, it’s not really right to call it an SSA. The moniker “slippery slope” should probably only be applied in the negative case, not the positive. Nevertheless, with that concession to linguistic purity in mind, I’ll persevere in calling it the pro-doping SSA.

The pro-doping SSA discussed by McNamee relates to the ambiguity of the treatment/enhancement distinction. He uses a nice example to make his point:

Skeletal Reinforcement: Apparently (I’m not familiar with the sport) American Footballers can suffer from pretty serious injuries (broken bones etc.). Oftentimes these injuries affect their quality of life in their retirement. Suppose someone, pointing to the prevalence of such injuries, suggested a remedy. Instead of relying on the fragile construction of the human body, all players would have their key skeletal structures reinforced by new materials such as Kevlar. This would prevent serious long-term health effects from accruing to the players.

McNamee seems to accept that most people would look favourably on this kind of intervention. Furthermore, its advocates could probably sneak it in under the guise of its being a “treatment” not an enhancement. After all, reinforcing the key skeletal structures is being done to prevent injuries. And preventing injuries is surely a respectable form of treatment. This is the essence of pro-doping SSA:

  • (4) If you accept the moral legitimacy of treating sports injuries, then you ought to accept the moral legitimacy of preventing sports injuries.
  • (5) If you accept the legitimacy of preventing sports injuries, then you ought to accept the legitimacy of skeletal reinforcement in American football.
  • (6) You do accept the legitimacy of treating sports injuries.
  • (7) Therefore, you ought to accept the legitimacy of skeletal reinforcement in American football.

I’ve compressed the logic here, but you get the drift. The top of the slope is represented by the proposition “the treatment of sports injuries is legitimate” and the slide is brought about by the conceptual ambiguity of “treatment”. Why shouldn’t preventative interventions be viewed as a type of treatment?

The problem — at least from the perspective of the anti-doper — is that if you accept the moral legitimacy of skeletal reinforcement in this instance, you begin the inexorable slide to a pro-enhancement position. This leads to the inversion of the above reasoning. If you accept skeletal reinforcement for football players, what would you say about artificial toe extensions and arch reinforcement for sprinters? Surely, you’d have accept them too, particularly if it was pointed out that this could reduce the effects of friction on the sprinters’ limbs. But these interventions are likely to have enhancing effects too. Before you know it, you are landed in the landscape of enhancement.

Two points here. First, this Sorites-style SSA might not be valid. Just because there’s no difference between preventative interventions and treatment, does not mean that there is no difference between enhancing interventions and treatment. Indeed, that’s the whole point of the Sorites paradox in the first place: a single grain of sand is very definitely distinct from a heap of sand, even if the dividing line between being a heap and a non-heap is fuzzy.

Second, and more importantly, the pro-doping faction can easily ask the anti-dopers to point to the horrible result that lies at the bottom of the slope — the one that means we shouldn’t start the slide. In other words, they can issue the following challenge: If skeletal reinforcements for American football players aren’t troubling, then maybe we’re wrong to think that toe-extensions are troubling? And if we’re wrong about that, maybe we’re wrong about most forms of enhancement too?

Live to this kind of pro-enhancement argument, McNamee suggests the opponent takes a different tack. Instead of assuming that there must be a horrible result at the bottom of the slope, they can appeal to the possibility of arbitrary results: ones that seem to lose all connection to moral principle. In other words, they can say that by accepting the first slide down the slope, we will create conditions in which moral arbitrariness can thrive, i.e. conditions in which our decisions about which kinds of practices are permissible and which are impermissible seem to lack any firm grounding in reason.

To spell out the argument formally:

  • (8) If we accept X (some type of enhancement or quasi-treatment like skeletal reinforcement), then we will create conditions in which moral arbitrariness can thrive.
  • (9) We should not wish to create the conditions in which moral arbitrariness can thrive.
  • (10) Therefore, we should not accept X.

This is straightforward enough, but we need some reason for accepting (9). Why is it that moral arbitrariness is so problematic? McNamme has the following to say:

Let us take one brief example. There are aspects of our lives where, as a widely shared intuition, we might think that in the absence of good reasons we ought not to discriminate among people arbitrarily. Healthcare might be considered precisely one such case. Given the ever-increasing demand for public healthcare services and products it could be argued that access to them ought typically to be governed by publicly disputable criteria such as clinical need, or potential benefit, as opposed to choices of an arbitrary or subjective nature. (Sports, Virtues and Vices, pg. 186-187)

This is interesting. I think it appeals somewhat to the Rawlsian notion of public reason, i.e. the notion that practices need to be accepted for reasons that are accessible to all members of the public, not because of chance or whim. I probably agree with this, but then I’m forced to question premise (8): why would endorsing enhancement lead to moral arbitrariness? Why would we lose the ability to assess different forms of enhancement with publicly accessible reasons simply by accepting one particular form?

McNamee says the following:

Nothing in the pro-doping, or more broadly the pro-enhancement, position seems to allow for such objective dispute let alone prioritisation…In the absence of a defensible telos, over and above the mindless mantra of more medals, more glory (the narrowly conceived citius, altius, fortius), of clearly and substantively specified ends (beyond the banner of unrestrained “enhancement”), elite athletes, their coaches and their sports emdical back-up teams alike ought to resist the potentially open-ended transformations of human nature and potentialities.

I don’t quite know what to make of this. On the one hand, McNamee demands that decisions about the permissibility of enhancement be open to public scrutiny but says that they can’t do this until proponents of enhancement have some clear, morally defensible telos. At the same time, he acknowledges that there is kind of telos in sight (more medals, more glory, unrestrained enhancement), but dismisses this on, I hate to say it, arbitrary grounds. That is to say, he just seems to assume, without clear argument, that the very idea of enhancing and transforming human potentialities is not “morally defensible”.

Surely he must have a better reason to object to it than that?

3. The Vices of the Doper
Perhaps he does, but it is one that is somewhat distant from the slippery slope argument we have been discussing up til now. As I said at the outset, McNamee’s book defends the idea that sporting contests are a kind of morality play: a forum in which the moral virtues are celebrated, and the vices condemned. Thus it’s no real surprise to find out that one of the main reasons he objects to doping (and enhancement) is that dopers exhibit certain moral vices. McNamee points to two vices in particular: pleonexia (injustice) and shamelessness. Let’s discuss these briefly.

The Vice of Pleonexia: To be virtuous, a person must be just. And to be just they must be willing to give others their due and accept what is due to them. The problem with the doper is that they are not willing to accept what is due to them: they demand more and more, and they shut out others in the process, denying them their due as well. So goes MacNamee’s argument. The problem with this argument argument though is that it is forced to make certain questionable assumptions about the desert relation, i.e. the relation that determines whether somebody deserves a particular kind of punishment or reward. McNamee assumes that commitment, talent and dedication form the basis of the desert relation in sport and that those who engage in doping lack these traits. I think this is arguable on two grounds. First, on the ground that dopers may well display some kind of talent, commitment and dedication (is doping not evidence of dedication?); and second, on the grounds that there may be some trait possessed by the doper that ought to be included in the desert relation.

The Vice of Shamelessness: Shame is tied to feelings of guilt or personal failure. The person who experiences shame will feel both that they have let themselves down and that they have left others down too. As a result, they will seek to hide themselves away. McNamee doesn’t think that we should encourage athletes to feel shame, rather he thinks we should encourage them to have the capacity to feel shame. The problem with dopers is that they may lack this capacity. McNamee uses the example of Charlie Francis to illustrate what he means. Francis said that if Ben Johnson had simply stuck to schedule — knowing when to come off certain drugs and doses — he would not have been caught. This, as McNamee notes, is to treat doping as “a mere problem of timing, not one of ethics”. In contrast to this, McNamee thinks dopers should feel ashamed of any successes they gain by doping. They have let themselves and others down. There are many problems with this argument. The main one is that the belief that the doper should feel shame is usually driven by the belief that their successes are fraudulent or unfair to others. But this is exactly what the pro-doper would argue against. They would say that doped-up performances are neither necessarily fraudulent nor necessarily unfair.

This brings us to the end of McNamee’s arguments against doping. While there is some interesting material in there, I think McNamee has a long way to go before what he says is at all persuasive. His anti-doping SSA needs further work before the connection between enhancement and moral arbitrariness is shown; his claim that the doper exhibits the vice of injustice needs to clarify the nature of the desert relation that is being invoked; and his belief that dopers should feel shame is driven by assumptions that the pro-doper has no reason to accept.


  1. (4) If you accept the moral legitimacy of treating sports injuries, then you ought to accept the moral legitimacy of preventing sports injuries.

    sure, but

    (5b) If you accept the legitimacy of preventing sports injuries, then you ought to accept the legitimacy of banning the playing of American football.

    There are numerous hidden premises going from 4 to 5.

    If we are discussing a human institution like the rules of a game, I can't see how moral arguments like these about anti-doping rules can work, since the rules can be changed by agreement of the sporting body, players and the interested spectators. The use of caffeine as a stimulant is now acceptable in many sports. So, whether doped-up performances is fraudulent or unfair is by agreement of all the parties, and is as likely to be based on aesthetic grounds as on health risks to participants.

    Many medical bodies regard boxing as an unethical sport, because of the harm incurred by participants, even if they enter freely into the sport, and are aware of the risks. We can tinker with rules to minimize harm, but it seems impossible to completely remove this risk.

  2. I think I address that idea somewhere else in this series of posts. Basically, you could view the rules as completely arbitrary and open to change by agreement, or you could take the view that the rules are used to create a forum for a particular kind of human excellence (which is not arbitrary) to be celebrated. If you take the latter view, there may be moral constraints on the flexibility of the rules that go beyond just fairness and harm.

    1. I did read your series earlier where you discuss the integrity etc arguments [I should mention in passing that your blog posts are all excellent reads and invariably provoke at least some thoughts in my head]. These ideas seem implicit in the McNamee book too, but I can't see a plausible way to balance off a harm versus a celebration. Undoubtedly we do make exactly those kinds of choices everyday (I rock climb...)

    2. Yes well I think it would come down then to how we relate different moral values. You might argue that the badness of "harm" and (say) the goodness of "physical toughness" are incommensurable. So if there is an activity which celebrates physical toughness but comes at the expense of harm, there is no way to decide whether it is good or bad.

      I'm not sure whether I'm that pessimistic. I tend to think there is some way to rank activities like this (probably ordinally). I definitely feel like some forms of harm (or risk of harm) are tolerable because they allow us to attain something of great value, like, perhaps, the experience you have when you go rock climbing.

    3. Which returns to moral luck, in that harm will not be distributed evenly, while pleasure is experienced by all participants. Anyway, I am straying a bit from performance enhancement.