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

by Dean Ottati 3

February 23rd, 2014 Lifestyle, National, Opinion

Dean Ottati now looks at the third part of his stumble down morality lane in regards to performance enhancement. In the last part, Dean looks at the Ethic of Gift – this idea of responsibility for our performances and for our natural abilities. See part 1 here, and part 2 here.

In the first two installments of this series, we proposed a thought experiment:  Would you undertake a performance enhancement if it would make you a faster swimmer and you knew you wouldn’t get caught?  We also explored the question of why the usual arguments of safety and fairness don’t provide an adequate moral justification to fully explain our unease with performance enhancement.  See articles here and here.

Ways to Improve Swimming Stamina

Beyond just good old fashioned hard work, there are myriad ways to improve performance.  Just one example: In distance events, athletes can get dramatic results by increasing the number of oxygen carrying red blood cells.  Consider six possible means to accomplish this same end:

  1. Sleep high, train low – Increases the natural production of red blood cells.  It isn’t unusual to find athletes that live in the mountains, but train at sea level.

  1. Sleep in a pressure chamber to simulate sleeping high and training low.

  1. Blood cell transfusions.

  1. Take Erythropoietin (aka EPO) – A naturally occurring hormone produced by the body to increase the production of red blood cells.

  1. Gene doping – Finnish cross country skier Eero Mantyranta, who won three gold medals in the early 1960’s, had a mutation that made his body’s EPO receptors more efficient.

  2. Nanotechnology – Researchers are already experimenting with blood supplements based on oxygen carrying nanoparticles for use in emergency situations.  

When it comes to boosting athletic performance, each of these means seems progressively more intrusive and sinister, but all of them are to the same end.  No moral bright line presents itself.  What are we to make of this?

It’s a Matter of Degree

It is one thing to swim a sub 15:00 1500 meter freestyle as a result of disciplined training and effort.  It is something else, something less, to swim that fast with the aid of EPO or nanobots injected into the bloodstream to improve oxygen uptake.  The roles of effort and enhancement will always be a matter of degree, but as the role of enhancement increases our admiration for the achievement decreases.  “Or rather,” as philosopher Michael Sandel so memorably put it, “our admiration for the achievement shifts from the player to his pharmacist.”

While one could argue that the inventiveness that leads to enhancement technologies is itself a natural extension of the pursuit of excellence, one also has to ask whether an accomplishment achieved through gene doping or nanotechnology should even be considered a human accomplishment anymore.  So how do we untangle this?

What follows is an account given by Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel.  For brevity, I’ve attempted to summarize his argument, one against which I first rebelled, but have since come to admire.  Anything in quotes comes from Sandel’s book: The Case Against Perfection.

Effort and Gift

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle would suggest that arguments about the ethics of performance enhancement in swimming are really arguments about the telos, or point, of swimming competition, and the virtues of the game.   When trying to determine between right and wrong, it’s good to begin with the aim in mind.

Modern philosopher Michael Sandel would suggest that the point of all sport, including swimming, is excellence.  And human sporting excellence is comprised of two things: Effort and gift.

The first component, effort, is something upon which we can all agree and celebrate.  The television coverage from Sochi this week is filled, as it always is during every Olympiad, with heart rending stories of hardships the athlete being profiled has overcome, the obstacles they have surmounted, and the struggles they have waged to triumph over an injury, a difficult upbringing, or political turmoil in their homeland.  We love this story.

But the second component of excellence, Sandel suggests, are the natural gifts bestowed upon us.  In other words, when we celebrate an outstanding swim, we are celebrating both the hard work that went into it and the display of natural talents and gifts that are of no doing of the swimmer who possesses them.  This is an uncomfortable fact for many of us.

We want to believe that success in swimming, and in life, is something we earn, not something we inherit.  Natural gifts, and the admiration they inspire, cast doubt on the conviction that praise and rewards flow from effort alone.  The tall, strong swimmer wants to believe all his success is solely a result of his hard work.  And certainly a smaller, less powerful swimmer has to believe that hard work can overcome all (and it can overcome a great deal, but at the very top, the Olympic men’s finals are filled with a lot more 6’ 4” swimmers than they are with 5’ 8” ones – and there are a lot more 5’ 8” men in the world).

If effort were really the only athletic ideal, then the sin of enhancement would be the evasion of training and hard work through the use of a pill or injection.  But effort isn’t everything.  Few really believe that a mediocre swimmer who worked and trained just as hard as, or even harder than, than Michael Phelps, deserves greater acclaim or bigger endorsement deals.  We celebrate and reward Michael for his prodigious accomplishments because of his natural gifts, his long torso, his even longer wingspan, and his hyper-flexible ankles are at the outer edge of the distribution curve, and because of all of the grit, determination, and effort he (and his coach and his family) put into the cultivation of those gifts.

Performance enhancement technologies, Sandel points out, are an attempt to obscure the cultivation and display of natural gifts.  So perhaps the real sin of enhancement is that pill popping and gene doping “represent the one sided of willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding.”

In other words, performance enhancement distances us from the human dimension of sport, instead representing “a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires.”  In the world of anything goes enhancement, athletic performance is reduced to just another consumer choice.

But why should we worry about this?  What would be lost if technology dissolves our sense of giftedness?

The Ethic of Gift

“To acknowledge the giftedness of life is to recognize that our talents and powers are not wholly our own doing, nor even fully ours, despite the efforts we expend to develop and to exercise them.”  The more we are alive to this chanced nature of our lot, the more we are open to the virtues of humility, responsibility, and solidarity.  Our gifts are to be shared, and we are responsible for cultivating them.   Concurrently, “the awareness that our talents and abilities are not wholly our own doing,” Sandel points out, “restrains our tendency toward hubris.”

The vision of athletic performance unfettered by the genetic lottery sounds like liberation.  And to the extent that enhancement technologies are used for medical purposes they are, but when these technologies extend beyond cure, one could argue that it creates an explosion of responsibility that is anything but liberating.  Today when a swimmer turns in a bad relay split, his coach can criticize her for circle swimming in a race.  Tomorrow the coach may blame her for being too short, or for not having skin grafts to increase webbing between her fingers and toes.  Perhaps that is more responsibility than we really want or can handle.

One of the blessings of seeing ourselves as recipients of a gift is that we are not wholly responsible for the way we are.  The argument for performance enhancement entrenches a certain orientation to the world, a stance of mastery and dominion over all.  But this stance fails to appreciate that perhaps one of the great pleasures in life is the struggle to work with the materials we have to achieve our dreams.

The Ring of Gyges Revisited

This series began with the story of the Ring of Gyges: Plato’s mythical magical ring that could make one invisible.  It’s a story that asks us to consider how we would behave when seemingly everything we desire becomes available to us without consequence.  But there is one thing that the Ring of Gyges can’t give us, something that we may want more than anything else.  The Ring of Gyges can’t make us moral.  And that, Socrates suggests, is the very best thing to try to be.

Does Sandel’s basic moral account against performance enhancement satisfy (there is more to it than space allows here)?  I don’t know.  What I do know is I’ve come to appreciate it much more than I did when I first encountered it.  What do you think?  In the spirit of Socrates, I look forward to reading the comments.

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Trying to be brief in a very complicated topic and my thanks to Dean for his work: In addition to the Effort-Gift combination, I think the morality is also dependent upon accepting some general principles for defining ethical athletic performances. I would suggest considering only the body’s response to external stimuli as the “legitimate” means of improving athletic performance. In Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrahams is criticized for hiring a professional coach, the implication being that “true athletics” is marked by a performance that represents just the GIFT, not the effort, giving an moral compass for athletes of that day to simply train just enough to avoid injury in competition. Obviously today’s swim coaches expect that training will take the… Read more »

Dean Ottati

Jon, I’m really grateful to you, Steve Nolan, DanishSwimFan, McGillRocks, and others for taking the time to comment on this series. I’ve learned a lot. I really love your observation about Chariots of Fire representing a valuation of gift over effort. I never thought about it that way before. Two movies I now want to watch again: Chariots of Fire and Gattaca. I kind of expected the tech suit debate to come up in this discussion. Not all innovations in training and equipment corrupt the sport. Running shoes improve Marathoning as they prevent injury and if anything allow a more complete display of running effort and gift. I’m not really sure there is a simple principle that can resolve the… Read more »

Steve Nolan

This was a really good series! Well researched, well written, just well done overall.

I haven’t put nearly as much thought into my whole “let-them-do-drugs” mantra since watching “Bigger Stronger Faster*” a couple years back, but this was great. Hadn’t ever considered the issue from so many moral and philosophical grounds. I still haven’t made much headway on figuring out exactly where I fit on what the “point” of swimming or athletics are in general, but I like that I’m thinking about it.

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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