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Supercoach and the MRI machine

Are there neuroethical issues in sports? Dr Judy Illes thinks so, in a talk given in Canada on September 17. People are using neuroimaging to assess ability (which may also pick up unsuspected pathologies in the brain), intervening against depression in athletes, and perhaps using deep brain stimulation for enhancing motor performance. Does enhanced training methods pose a new problem for sport?

What makes sport special is that it is governed both by formal rules of the game, informal rules and values (the famed and ill-defined "spirit of sports"), athletes have much less "biological privacy" and strive to maximize human potential than in almost any other area of human endeavor, and at the same time sport is heavily competitive. New technology is often problematic because it doesn't fit into the formal or informal rules, threatening the enjoyment/profitability of the game. Human enhancement in particular cuts to the core of what sport is about and reveals the often contradictory attitudes to maximal achievement at any price while simultaneously aiming for personal virtue, commercial profitability, viewer interest and human health. Not to mention the clash with values outside sport.

Consider the best coach in the world. He has a great eye for talent and can tell with high precision who has potential to be among the best – if they train hard enough. He is also a great motivator, who can get anybody to actually work as hard as they possibly can to achieve their true potential. Would the presence of this supercoach be regarded as against the spirit of sport? Most likely not. He would be regarded as a great figure, helping athletes perfect themselves. Yes, some athletes might go too far in their pursuit and sacrifice long-term health, family and enjoyment for a chance to win. But this would likely be seen as part of the deal: if you really want to get to the top, you should be willing to sacrifice anything. Also, that the supercoach would encourage some and discourage some athletes by predicting how great their chances are, that is again not different from what currently occurs. Some athletes may slack off because he predicted they have enormous potential and they hence do not think they need to train as much, but that is their (bad) choice. All in all, if supercoach existed it seems that he would be a popular figure in sport and in sport news. Even his slightly less competent colleauges who merely do a very good job would be lauded.

But what if we replace supercoach with an equivalent MRI machine linked to an extensive psychological database, able to predict athletic performance (especially when combined with a bit of muscle MRI, metabolomics and genomics), as well as giving feedback on how to manage training optimally? A lot of the admiration seems to go away. Partially it is because it is harder to admire a technological system, despite this system likely containing many more distilled man-years of experience than any real coach. Another reason is the readily evoked unease about how this system could be misused, pushing athletes beyond the breaking point or giving teams with access to the machine an unfair advantage.

But it seems that from a moral perspective supercoach and the MRI machine are equivalent. They do the same job, it is just that one is a hypothetical person, the other a hypothetical machine manned by a team of experts. The moral agency (which could include compassion and an understanding of the spirit of sport) of supercoach is not clearly greater than the MRI team, which presumably involves a machine-adviced coach with his own agency. There might be practical reasons to prefer one over the other, but none appears to be universal: machines are expensive, but so are truly good coaches. Technological systems might impose social demands that shouldn't be imposed, but so can human coaches. High-tech training might be against the focus on the human aspect of sport that many cherish, yet people seem willing to accept many forms of extreme training if they produce greater performance on the field – especially since this coaching actually doesn't involve anything doping-like, just a better understanding of how to motivate and achieve training results.

The real problem may be that athletes are already in a vulnerable situation where their moral agency is threatened. Their medical privacy is regularly ignored, sometimes with disastrous personal consequences such as the Caster Semenya case. Saying no to harder training, performance enhancing methods or being used for political ends is problematic. Maybe the real neuroethical challenge would be to figure out how to enhance the autonomy of athletes. Perhaps SSRIs, which seem to improve some aspects of social assertiveness, actually are part of the solution rather than the problem?

More likely the real need is to renegotiate how the sports industry works. But that is probably of less interest to ethicists, sports organisations and the viewing public.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Now, take the next step. What if it was determined that psychoanalysis or hypnosis will get rid of some reasons for athletes to choke up and not perform properly. Is psychoanalysis or hypnosis to be banned from competitive sports? If not, why steroids?

  2. Or, to turn it around, if meditation could reliably give people a high equal to the one given by heroin, would it be banned?

    Most likely people would see the psychoanalysis and hypnosis as acceptable, simply because it doesn’t seem to be against “the spirit of sports”. And the meditation high would also likely be accepted since it was achieved through a suitably high status method and possibly hard work. Yet this seems to be largely a matter of framing. People in surveys are for example much more positive to enhancing cognition using “herbal supplements” than a pharmaceutical pill, and they are more accepting of “becoming who they really are” than “becoming more than they are”.

    I think many people do consider the mindset of the user of an improving technique to matter. But this is usually just intuition, and it seems hard to get a sufficiently strong deontological argument about it to push through the bans we see in sports (and drugs). If wrong intentions or lack of authenticity is so bad that they can motivate anti-doping bans, then it would seem that one could also exclude athletes who don’t take certain sports traditions seriously enough (even if they do not *do* anything) or are just in it for the money.

    From a consequentialist view the issues of health and whether this produces a more interesting sport are obviously more relevant. Framing shouldn’t matter so much.

  3. Steroids help extend the limits of one’s physical powers whereas psychological training does not, it merely permits one more closely to approach existing physical limits – ‘becoming who you really are’ rather than ‘becoming more than you are,’ as Anders says.

    That said, hypnotism resembles performance-enhancing drug taking in that they both result in positive change without this improvement coming from the athlete’s own efforts. The athletes are passive recipients during the crucial part of the process.

    Meditation does not involve the assimilation of foreign bodies, as does ingesting or injecting drugs. That is why most people would be readier to accept it.

    A Corinthian approach to sport would solve many problems: no time wasted training, no money wasted on drugs or expensive machines, no need for sponsorship or government funding (which funds could then be redirected to education or health).

    The ethical problems that top-level competitive sport creates are only worrying if one assumes that top-level competitive sport per se is worthwhile, which I don’t. Seeing as Oxford Practical Ethics devotes a fair amount of time to sporting matters, it would be interesting to see a blog post presenting the arguments pro.

  4. I am sceptical of the existence of physical limits separate from mental or training limits. If I just took steroids I would not become much stronger, since I do not exercise to a great degree. If I got motivated to exercise, I would come up against certain biological limits – but these limits would already be different from the limits of my speed, endurance and strength I have in my current state since by then my body would have been changed by the exercise. Steroids would push some of these limits, but so would different training regimens or motivations.

    In general people have an intuitive ranking of performance enhancers, based on whether they are foreign bodies, whether they are “natural”, whether they are imposed on someone passive or whether the person has to work for them, and whether the motivation is social rather than selfish. But when looking more carefully at the enhancers many of these traits become unclear. For example, hypnotism is not at all a passive process, it requires the tacit approval of the participant. Steroids only work (if they work) together with hard training, and so on.

    I like your question about whether top-level competitive sport is worthwhile. I can’t say I see any strong reason for it, but maybe I’m missing something. I hope some of the real sports philosophers around here will take it up.

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