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Performance-enhancement in sports with Leon Kass and Eric Cohen

Friday, 14 March, 2008

Leon Kass and Eric Cohen, both former members (former head, in the case of Kass) of the President’s Council on Bioethics, have a piece in The New Republic, somehow from two weeks in the future (28 March), titled “For the Love of the Game“. Have a read, but be warned that it is a prime example of “Kassian sophistry” (although some of it sounds like Michael Sandel, another former member of the President’s Council). Perhaps starting on page 6 may be easier on the brain, and that’s where the good stuff starts anyway. Like this:

In athletics, as in other human activities, excellence has until now been achievable only by disciplined effort.

This is an odd statement to make. It’s pretty obvious that excellence can also be a product of good equipment, good nutrition and, in a major way, natural talent. I know the authors also know this, because they go on to say:

In many cases, of course, no amount of practice can overcome one’s limited natural endowments: nature dispenses her unequal gifts with little regard for any abstract principle of “fairness.” Yet however mysterious the source and the distribution of each person’s natural potential, the individual’s cultivation of his natural endowments is intelligible.

Unfortunately, the authors fail to recognise the problems this fact raises for the rest of their essay. Athletics, like the rest of life, is not fair. In the words of Julian Savalescu:

“sport discriminates against the genetically unfit. Sport is the province of the genetic elite (or freak).” I completely agree with Savelescu, that sport is really just a “very expensive horse race”.

Now, basically the argument of Kass and Cohen boils down to the fact that our enjoyment of sport supposedly comes from being able to put effort into sport and achieve something as a result. In this respect I do agree, and this does separate human sports from animal sports like horse racing. Humans are able to comprehend what they are trying to achieve, and strive to do it. It is precisely this drive that makes many want performance enhancement.

This is why I do not agree that the athlete who opts for enhancement is “cheating himself”. Rather, it is precisely the spirit of sport, and indeed many human endeavours, to want to achieve things through any means necessary. This is why athletes train, this is why they buy top-of-the-line equipment, and why they hire knowledgeable coaches. They have chosen a goal, and want to see that goal realised. Why should we only allow people to compete in a marathon if they were born with qualities of an endurance-runner and trained them to full potential, if we can see that goal realised for any person with the aid of performance enhancement?

Cohen and Kass go on to say:

Precisely because he has chosen to be chemically made into a better athlete, his resulting superior performances are not great athletic achievements. A patient to his druggist, less doer and more done-to, he is dependent on outside agents for “his” performance. His doings become, in a crucial sense, less “his own.”

The first response to this, of course, is to remind ourselves that superior performances are usually not purely athletic achievements. We are all “patients to [our] druggist” in the sense that we are all genetically made into a certain type of athlete by nature. We are already very dependant on outside agents, namely the genetic constitution of our parents, for “our” performances. Not to mention that top athletes were usually trained from an early age, before they could truly consent to it. Another example of external agents contributing to achievements.

Secondly, if we choose to take an enhancement pill, opt to be genetically modified or have a bionic limb, how does that make it less our own achievements. Should we say that drag racers cannot take credit for the speed of their car, or that golf players cannot take credit for their choice of clubs? No, the choice made by the athlete over which enhancement technology to use is no less his own than a choice of what diet to maintain, what training to do or what equipment to use. In fact, as enhancement increases, the influence of natural genetic gifts decreases, arguably levelling the playing field for outcomes to be affected primarily by “our own doings”.

Lastly, I can think of a perfect compromise for those who seek to make sport primarily about effort. If biological enhancements should only be allowed if they represent one’s own performance rather than that of others, then we simply need to get pharmacologists and geneticists into sport. After all, if they make their own enhancement technology, then the fact that they are running the 100m dash in 8 seconds is entirely a result of their own work. Scientist olympics – that would be a great idea.

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