Oxford Debates — Performance-Enhancing Drugs Should be Allowed in Sport — Moderator’s Opening Statement

Oxford Online Debates

by Roger Crisp

Taking drugs to improve one’s sporting performance seems, on the face of it, a paradigmatic example of a wrong action. It combines two activities usually considered shameful: the use of banned substances, and cheating.

But on closer inspection the issue is more complicated. The use of some drugs, such as nicotine or caffeine (both of which might enhance performance in some cases), carries little or no stigma, and the charge of cheating would be inappropriate were the drugs in question explicitly permitted.

Socrates used to say that one should always begin by defining the object under discussion. Do we need a definition of sport from our participants, then? I suggest not, since we can focus on paradigmatic examples. But does drug-taking perhaps change the nature of activities such as cycling or boxing so much that they would no longer be sports? Well, why should what we call these activities matter?

More important is the function or point of sporting activities. Both our participants see part of that function as to exemplify human excellence. But while Savulescu suggests that such excellence can itself be promoted through the use of drugs (allowing one to run faster, for example), Devine believes drugs can prevent the development of certain excellences (such as the courage of rugby players, for example). So here we might hope for clarification on how to decide what excellences are and which of them matter in sport, and on why we shouldn’t see sport as merely for human entertainment (as a ‘spectacle’, as Savulescu puts it).

There are interesting empirical questions here also concerning the effects of different drugs, whether tightening up regulations and increasing sanctions might provide a stronger deterrent to drug-taking in sport, and whether certain drugs might be appropriate for use only in certain sports. As always, we can hope that empirically informed philosophical debate will enhance our own understanding of the issues and, if not resolve them, at least clarify some of the options open to us.

Image: Malias on flickr

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