Ethics of doping

Peter Singer on doping in sport:

At the elite level, the difference between being a champion and an also-ran is so miniscule, and yet matters so much, that athletes are pressured to do whatever they can to gain the slightest edge over their competitors. It is reasonable to suspect that gold medals now go not to those who are drug-free, but to those who most successfully refine their drug use for maximum enhancement without detection.

Julian Savulescu proposes that instead of trying to detect whether an athlete has taken drugs, we should focus on measurable indications of whether an athlete is risking his or her health. So, if an athlete has a dangerously high level of red blood cells as a result of taking erythropoietin (EPO), he or she should not be allowed to compete. The issue is the red blood cell count, not the means used to elevate it.

To those who say that this will give drug users an unfair advantage, Savulescu replies that now, without drugs, those with the best genes have an unfair advantage… Setting a maximum level of red blood cells actually levels the playing field by reducing the impact of the genetic lottery. Effort then becomes more important than having the right genes.

This discussion of the value of genes vs effort, and the morality of using drugs to level the genetic field, seems to have parallels with social redistribution. We begin unequal because of genetic differences. Through a system of taxes, subsidies, and other transfers, we redistribute the fruits of effort, genetic talent, and opportunity.

What is interesting is that most people think it is fair to redistribute some of the fruits of talent to the least lucky in society. That is why we have progressive systems of taxation, for instance. But, in the sporting arena, pure talent and opportunity is glorified and there are few serious movements to redistribute the lottery. That’s not to say there isn’t some action, but the call for more equal outcomes in sporting contests clearly not as strong as in economic contests.

9 replies
  1. Eric Crampton
    Eric Crampton says:

    Come on. Solve for the equilibrium here. The genetic/training best start out on top; the second-best start doping and so start doing better than the genetic/training best; the genetic/training best start doping and so we’re at an equilibrium that gets back to the pre-existing relative rankings at a higher level of real performance and with doping. Redistribution would then require that only the second-tier are allowed to dope.

    More fun: think of the nootropic drugs. Same result.

    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      Not true: response to doping is not equal to initial talent, I think. You can’t infer post-doping rankings from pre-doping rankings.

      • Eric Crampton
        Eric Crampton says:

        If doping does more to help the lower tiers than to help the top tiers, and it then can induce ordinal changes in an all-doping equilibrium, then your egalitarian result holds. Empirical question then.

        • jamesz
          jamesz says:

          Indeed. The difficulty is that you are really just switching from genetic talent to genetically determined response to drugs.

  2. Logan
    Logan says:

    I find it interesting that cycling was used as an example in the original post. Cycling and most other endurance sports has had a restriction on red blood cells for about 15 years. While EPO was still illegal at the time, it was widely enough used to show that the restriction just becomes a goal to reach while staying out of trouble. It did have the effect of lowering the use of the biggest abusers but mostly just increased the majority up to the arbitrary level.

    I doubt any who followed cycling over this period would say things were fairer. If anything it just shows that once one area has been exploited people will just move onto the next most effective method of increasing performance. In cycling this resulted in corruption and more illegal activity.

    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      The different notions of fairness are exactly what I’m getting at here. Nobody describes cycling in the ’90s as fair, but affirmative action for most parts of society is considered to increase fairness.

      Good point about the haematocrit limit; although, in cycling, it was certainly considered more exciting back then. Just think of Riis’ crazy attacks to drop Indurain, Pantani soloing over Les Deux Alpes, Armstrong’s Look on L’Alpe d’Huez: every cycling superstar is feted for their superhuman efforts until they’re caught. Similarly, nobody in bodybuilding or pro wrestling seems to think that the use of drugs diminishes the sport; if anything it makes it more spectacular!

  3. Vanilla Thrilla
    Vanilla Thrilla says:

    But doesn’t the social re-distribution apply to sports outcomes just as it does to any other profession or trade? That is, those who become successful and earn more at sports are hit with the same re-distributive taxes as anyone else – to the extent that they’re not domiciled in Monaco obviously.

    Re: doping, is there not an issue with new drugs that may have unknown future (possibly fatal) side-effects? Allowing a doping free-for-all may end up with a bunch of dead athletes, just like when EPO first hit cycling in the early 90s. In this case the rewards may not go to the most gifted or hardest working, but possibly to those prepared to take the greatest risks. Or are all costs of fatalities fully internalised by the (potentially young & impressionable) athlete making an uninformed decision?

    Finally, if you’ve an interest in drugs in sports, I recommend this:

    Full doco

    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      Thanks for the links: I’ll have to watch them this weekend.

      For sure, there are the normal redistributions applied to professional sportspeople. I suppose I’m just curious that our notions of fairness here aren’t ‘fractal’, in the sense that the societal judgments aren’t then applied to the individual disciplines. You might say that we’ve already done the redistribution, but the ‘fair’ level is unlikely to be constant across different fields, so why is there no adjustment?

      Imperfect information is always a problem, although the evidence shows that they’d probably have made the same decision with full information:

      • Vanilla Thrilla
        Vanilla Thrilla says:

        Interesting link, although different scenario, I wonder how many would take PEDs if there were few known side effects, or unknown side effects. Going on recent history in cycling and other sports I’d say it’d be closer to 90 – 95%

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