Neither God nor Nature: Could the doping sinner be an exemplar of human(ist) dignity?
Last week Pieter Bonte gave a St. Cross seminar titled “Neither God nor Nature. Could the doping sinner be an exemplar of human(ist) dignity?” The talk is online as a mp3.
Here are some of my notes:
What Pieter did was examining how far one could push doping permissive lines of reasoning, especially when framed from an existentialist ethics perspective.
He starts out from roots in the tradition speaking in favour of abolition of unfair privilege – including both its protection and equivocation hiding its unfairness, and the realization that pure meritocracy is deeply problematic. A “fair” stratification based on innate ability mixes up potential and performance with actual merit and moral worth.
Doing a structured search for what particular wrongs doping does, he starts by filtering out confounders like health risks (not particular to doping), unfairness (is not talent unfair?), artificialness (there are natural doping substances), its pharmaceutical nature, deceit (game strategy is also secret), that it is effortless or fleeting. Instead he focuses on the “spirit of sport” argument, the “virtuous perfecting of natural talent”. He suggests a counterproposal: “virtuous exploration of bodily virtuosity” – a playful existence where we responsibly explore biology as an open system.
He takes the traditional “spirit of sport” to task for misuse of authenticity to further a narrow definition of normality, aligned with religious or political goals that are fairly distasteful when laid out in the open. As a contrast, there is a vast space of the uncanny but interesting, what art and aesthetic progressive projects are all about.
Similarly agency is not necessarily diminished by doping, and might even be enabled or stimulated by it. Sport has a complex view of the effortless versus the effortful, and it is not clear that this complex view can be used to support bans on doping. From an existentialist perspective, there seem to be a fear of freedom or bad faith in many of the anti-doping arguments: they simultaneously claim sport is a totally free and authentic activity where people create their own merit, yet disallow many forms of this activity and simultaneously claim (the wrong kind of) freedom diminishes value and that one should accept given limitations.
Pieter concluded with a positive existentialist ethics of enhancement, which he argued could still be compatible with cautious, precautionary, paternalistic or religious positions. Enhancement confronts us with the circular predicament of our existence: we must create ourselves, yet our aims are set by the kind of creatures we are. Our nature as self-transforming beings is however not something that should be denied, neither in sport nor in larger life.