A Modern Day Ring of Gyges – Performance Enhancement (Part 1 of 3)

by Dean Ottati 10

February 20th, 2014 Lifestyle, Opinion

In the first of this three part series, doctor Dean takes us to school and challenges us all to use our critical thinking skills to really weigh the philosophy of doping. This is an exploration of modern morality that many swimmers and athletes face in their careers, which can be as uncomfortable of an inspection from the outside as it is from the inside, using the backdrop of ancient storytelling as his muse and metaphor.

2500 years ago, in one of the great masterpieces of western philosophical tradition called The Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato proposed a now famous, and still very relevant thought experiment.  His characters, one of them being Plato’s famous teacher Socrates, are worrying about the question of why we should be good.  Why be moral rather than immoral?  After all, morality doesn’t always seem to be particularly advantageous.  Then, as now, when we look around us, doesn’t it sometimes seem to be the case that immoral people are rewarded for their bad behavior and moral people get the short end of the stick for their good behavior?   And if that’s the case, does it really make sense to be moral?

Plato’s thought experiment makes the question even tougher, and more personal.  Suppose, he proposes in the Republic, that there was a magical ring that could make you invisible – In ancient Greek myth, there was such a ring, called the Ring of Gyges (yes you Lord of the Rings fans, this is where Tolkien got his idea, he was a great reader of Plato).  The story goes like this:

Gyges was a Sheppard.  One day there was a terrible earthquake and the earth opens up.  Gyges happens to be walking by the chasm.  He peers in and sees a statue of a horse and what appears to be a corpse.  Being rather fearless, Gyges heads into the chasm.  Once inside he sees a ring on one of the fingers of the corpse.  So he takes it.  After Gyges heads back up to the real world, he’s fooling around with the ring and he discovers something extraordinary.  That is, if he turns the collet of the ring toward himself, he becomes invisible.  If he turns the collet away from himself, he becomes visible again.  And this pleases him.  So what does he do?

Gyges makes himself invisible and he sleeps with the queen.  He rapes her.  And then he kills the king.  And then he takes over the kingship with a new queen at his side.  So this lowly Sheppard, armed with this magical ring is now the king.  In fact, he’s a tyrant.

I suspect many of us have had this fantasy at different times of our lives.  What if we could be invisible?  What would we actually do if we were possessed of this beautiful, powerful, seductive ring?

The reason why the Ring of Gyges example is so effective is that raises the question of why we are being good (assuming that we are).  Is it just because we know other people are watching?  Is it because we are afraid of the consequences of bad actions?  Is it because we want to be thought of as good people?  Or is it, as Socrates thought, that some of us have really thought the questions through and come to the realization that being good actually benefits us and the people around us?

Buried under the sheer ancient weight of 2,500 years of telling, the story of the ring of Gyges has a remote, antiquated, and fanciful feel to it.  But I suggest the story, and the questions it raises, is not so farfetched at all.  In fact, it may be more relevant today than it was in Plato’s time.  A modern day version of the Ring of Gyges may already exist among us:

Imagine a swimmer who has always loved the caress of water across her skin, and she has dreamed of swimming in the Olympics since the first time she dove in a pool.  If not the Olympics, maybe just qualifying for the Olympic Trials so that she can at least have one opportunity to take her best shot.  Or perhaps earn a college scholarship.  But despite a youth spent staring at a black line, pushing herself to her limits every day, forgoing social events, and not so much as indulging in a French fry in favor of her pursuit of excellence, it’s clear she’s going to come up just short.

And one day someone she knows, and even trusts, walks up to the young woman and  says:  “I’ve got a little something in this vial that the governing bodies will never be able to detect.  It’ll give you enough of a boost to get you into the Olympics…”

Should she take the vial?  Why or why not?

We know for certain that the temptation exists.  Just about every month, SwimSwam publishes an article about somebody being accused of taking performance enhancing drugs.  January’s example can be found here.  And, while by definition one can never really “know” such things, there are plenty of circumstantial reasons to believe that others are partaking in enhancement and getting away with it.  So why shouldn’t our hypothetical young swimmer?

Judging from the comments, SwimSwam readers are strongly opposed to performance enhancement, but it isn’t always clear why.  While I share the same moral intuition as many of the commenter’s, I also find the argument against performance enhancement is much tougher to make than it first appears.  Swimming is all about performance enhancement, so when does it spill over from legitimate means to illegitimate ones?  There is more gray area than bright line.  What would you say to the young lady who has worked so hard all of her young life, pursuing her dream?  I invite reader comments.  What are the arguments?

With the strong caveat that I’m not an expert in either the dark art of performance enhancement (other than a broad outline of what may be possible) or of moral philosophy, in the next two installments I’ll try to muddle through some of the debate in the hopes that we can all come away with a better moral understanding of this modern predicament (after all, most of us are not experts about most things, yet we must muddle through our daily lives as best as we can).

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10 years ago

If you make all drugs legal then you will destroy the sport of swimming. The winners will be decided not by whose the most talented/best swimmer, but by whose willing to take the most drugs and put their life the most at risk.
Morality is essential to society just like the rules are essential to swimming. Taking drugs to swim faster is no better than wearing fins in competition.

Steve Nolan
Reply to  RICHARD
10 years ago

What’s the view like from down there? Plenty of athletes are already either using banned substances, or using other performance enhancers that haven’t even been banned yet.

(And this isn’t an argument one way or the other, I’m just sayin’…I sleep a lot more soundly just assuming everyone at the Olympics is “dirty.”)

10 years ago

All drugs should be legal. Period.

Jim Graham
10 years ago

The reason not to take what’s in the vial is because there is a rule against taking what’s in the vial. If that sounds like circular reasoning, it isn’t. Rules are established to create level playing fields for competition, which is the essence of sport. But for rules, sport is meaningless. When our hypothetical swimmer takes what is in the vial and makes the Olympic team, she’s bumping someone else off the team who (presumably) is following the rules and isn’t taking what’s in the vial. And this unfortunate rule-abider is surely working just as hard and dreaming just as big as our protagonist. Knowingly cheating is akin to stealing–you are stealing achievements rather than earning them. The reason not… Read more »

Steve Nolan
10 years ago


Make everything legal. The reasons why some things are banned and some things are not are incredibly arbitrary and worthless and people should be able to just do. what. they. want. Ooh baby I’m so excited.

If someone can come up w/ a really well-reasoned argument for why these “performance-enhancers” should be banned I’m all ears. It generally boils down to “It’s cheating because I said it’s cheating!” which is nooot really that compelling.

Reply to  Steve Nolan
10 years ago

I’ll feed the troll. Because athletes will die.

See Cycling, 80s and onward.

Steve Nolan
Reply to  Bob
10 years ago

I’m not trolling, bro.

These scary, scary drugs are not too bad for you if used correctly. Sure, there are adverse results if people abuse them. You can say the same thing about plenty of other legal substances, though! Because these “performance enhancers” are outlawed, the testing needed to fully understand how to utilize them isn’t as polish as it could and should be. (Though, again, the line between what is banned and what isn’t is incredibly arbitrary. Do ya think Toradol is safe the ways many NFL athletes use it? Probably not. But, there it is, all legal and stuff.)

I’m just gonna leave this here…

“In 1995 a Chicago physician,

… Read more »

Reply to  Steve Nolan
10 years ago

Your quote kind of proved my point didn’t it?

You now curtail your earlier stand that they should take whatever they want whenever they want with the simply disclosure of “if used correctly.” I presume you mean that the price to compete will now include not only the price of the drugs but careful doctor’s supervision. That works for the tip of the spear but what about the other 99% who won’t have the resources to “use correctly.” Caveat emptor, buyer beware, sucks to be the dead kid who’s heart stopped from too much EPO?

And really, bringing up whats legal or not legal in the NFL is something to point to?

Steve Nolan
Reply to  Bob
10 years ago

Your point is that athletes dying is something to avoid. That quote shows that the athletes are pretty much OK w/ it, if it helps them win. To me, that speaks to letting people do what they want, regarding being able to take whatever drugs they want. There should be clear recommendations on how to properly use them, of course, but I never said they had to use them correctly – only that there aren’t deleterious effects if properly used. (Don’t put words in my mouth, brah.) If they want to go outside of those recommendations, go for it. Buyer beware, blah blah.

Sports are already not a level playing field, so that argument’s out. Not too many kids from… Read more »

Reply to  Bob
10 years ago

Firstly, I agree that the distinction between illegal and legal performance enhancing substances is at times arbitrary, irrational and illogical. But the results of that poll, as shocking as they are, prove exactly why we shouldn’t let athletes take whatever they want. It’s easy to say in a poll you would take something you knew to be lethal, but I wonder what the numbers would be if the researchers actually started handing out pills there and then, or how many would then go on to hugely regret that decision later.

But even if you decide that a consenting adult can make that sort of decision, we all know from the sorry past of this and other sports that people can… Read more »

About Dean Ottati

At various time in his life, Dean has been a summer rec swimmer, an AAU swimmer (yes, he is that old), a swim coach, a swim team director (social suicide through volunteerism), a meet director, a starter, an official, and just about everything else a swimmer/parent can be.  He currently …

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