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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.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Yeah those who want sports without doping are paternalistic hypocriticals; let the dope flow! And why stop at sports? There should be an enhancement for everything, and it should be obligatory since not having one fails to maximize your potential. For instance, there should be an enhancement that makes moral choices and enforces them for the moral benefit of the enhanced person so that everybody is virtuous and free. Wait, have I just said ‘free’?

    1. I assume Andrew was speaking in jest, but his comment brings out an important point in Pieter’s talk. “Maximizing one’s potential” is often assumed to be in a single direction for every enhanceable trait. This leaves out the interplay between traits – some are not compatible with each other (being strong is rarely compatible with being small and nimble, yet both can be desired), and many need to come together in the right way to achieve something (the violinist needs certain forms of muscle ability but not others). More deeply, the goodness of traits is assumed to be given, rather than seen as a result of how they contribute to a meaningful life project – the violinist and the endurance athlete have individually meaningful projects, yet combining them does not normally produce an even better project. Pieter was criticising this in his talk, arguing that the current sport perspective tends to assume there is a single given, acceptable way of doing things. But that leaves very little room for creativity and individuality.

  2. Pieter was criticising this in his talk, arguing that the current sport perspective tends to assume there is a single given, acceptable way of doing things. But that leaves very little room for creativity and individuality.

    This does not concern sport in particular but human activities in general and I fail to this how this favours in any way the claim that

    agency is not necessarily diminished by doping [enhancing?], and might even be enabled or stimulated by it

    On the contrary it seems to me that, because enhancements can only be applied in a piecemeal way, modifying traits one by one without any systematic trial-error-correct process to would overall benefit the agent in the sense of maximizing her potential, it actually undermines the target claim (in bold). And if there is such a process to the effect that people can see their abilities wholly reshaped, it seems plausible to think that we’ll lose something crucal to agency (autonomy?) in the process since agency depends on one’s being able to maximize one’s own abilities through one’s own actions. At any rate, the burden rests on the shoulders of the fans of enhancements to explain why agency would not be undermined in this case.

  3. Hi Andrew, thanks for commenting, but you take some stabs at my supposed positions, which are rather wild stabs in the dark that pass me by completely. Here’s two questions to you, followed by a brief paraphrase of the main thesis I’m working on, an existentialist critique of ‘talent’ idolatry and of moralized social schemes of ‘talentocracy’.

    [Q1] let the dope flow! Not at all, that’s a gross caricature that actually runs counter to the very specific and restricted “pro-doping” view I defend. As it stands my comprehensive position on doping will probably strike you as deeply conservative. Alongside of my – highly constrained – defense of dignified doping I also advocate that – at least in widely mediatized, commerce-driven popular sports where a proper participant-driven spirit of sport is likely to erode quickly in the face of big cash and unscrupolous spectacle-entrepreneurs – we should seek to make them less risky and enforce a health risk threshold across the board: that means no excessive-risk doping, and no excessive risk anything . That means: no breakneck bike descents of mountain slopes, no high-impact face-ramming or bodies smashing into each other, etc. etc. In other words: a global crack-down on sports recklessness, again, across the board. A conservative, yes outright restorative enterprise to restore a more honorific, for-itself spirit of sport. Here’s what I wonder: do you feel equally strongly about the high-risk and/or pathological life conditions of many elite and amateur athletes as you do about doping athletes? If not, how would you account for being more permissive towards the former and more restrictive (and perhaps categorically prohibitionist) about the latter?

    [Q2] there should be an enhancement that makes moral choices and enforces them First, the moral enhancement discussing is miles away from this one, and you won’t find me defending the moral automaton picture you’re painting. Moreover, free, well-reflected and deliberate self-guiding is key in the argument I proposed. The exact antithesis to your automaton-ish picture. As said in the talk and argued more extensively in my paper ‘dignified doping: truly unthinkable?’, I wholeheartedly agree with Leon Kass that “engaged and energetic being-at-work” is what we need to treasure and defend. The thing is, Kass adds to that phrase “with what nature uniquely gave us”. Quaint addition, and isn’t he evading his own pro-effort virtue ethic there? Because just as much as I and Kass alike think we should resist a consumerist, slothful use of assistive and enabling technology, so too must we – and why is Kass suddenly relaxing high demanding virtue ethic here? – resist a consumerist, slothful use of our given nature, that is of the myriad automatic and semi-automatic bodily processes that assist and enable us in our performances. As you say, agency depends on one’s being able to maximize one’s own abilities through one’s own actions , so how do you feel about drawing on automatic to semi-automatic bodily processes, which ‘do the work for you’ equally and taken in concert overwhelmingly more so than some relatively minor biotechnological aid or enablement? And if, to some minor extent (I’m quite skeptical about the extent to which we will be able to realize effective enhancement interventions) we would be able to recast some part or process of our body in accordance with our own design, wouldn’t that be a more free, more intentional and effortful self-constitutive gesture than taking the easy route of going with the flow of our senseless evolutionary jumble, which is so easy to reconceive, via a (slothful and self-deceptive) mind-warp induced by the traditional opiate of religion, as a source of meaning and a teleological vector of purpose?

    [quick off-hand paraphrase] In the case you’re only going by the above summary of my talk, the core of my plea is that doping can be a most dramatic display of the extent to which we find ourselves not only god-, but more importantly nature-forsaken when trying to find some sensible foundation to decide on how to fill the hours. Especially because it arises in the arena of ‘pointless’ play, doping can be a gesture of bold acceptance of the (indeed rather bleak and grim) human condition as being foundationlessly free.

    We are, I’d wager, condemned to be free, and nothing brings that deeply discomfortable self-understanding more to the fore than the enhancement enterprise, which I’m not really interested in so much because of the ‘enhancement’ according to this or that norm and towards this or that aim, nor for a discussion on the practical feasibility of this or that dreamt-up intervention, but which I do find most compelling as perhaps the most in-your-face, indeed carnal confrontation with the extent to which human persons are circular, self-constituting beings when it comes to finding (or fabulating out of thin air) meaning and purpose. Provided that it is driven by a (tacit) embrace of this existentialist self-understanding, ‘dignified doping’ resounds deeply with the sense of character and dignity as found in for instance Pico della Mirandola’s Renaissance Oratio on the Dignity of Man, and in the general turn towards a disillusioned, excuse-less and ‘autonomous’ as in ‘self-legislating’ self-understanding which, for instance, seems to already be evoked in Albrecht Dürer’s 1500 self-portrait (perhaps a contestable interpretation of the painting, but that doesn’t harm the general point).

    In contrast, the ‘moral outrage’ against doping and against enhancement in general may root in a stubborn unwillingness to accept such an anchor-less existence, a self-serving, comfort-driven crypto-creationist distortion of reality which then goes on to fuel an idolatry of ‘talent’, in casu a cult of talent-driven sports and the glorification of talentocratic hierarchies in which doping deviants are ostracized as entartete ‘phoneys’.

    1. Thank you Pieter for your kind post. I hadn’t listened to your lecture as of my previous posts as I was reacting to specific claims made in the transcript. Let me now address some of the issues you raise in your last post.

      On drug use in sports

      You seem to believe that a good reason for banning drug use in sports relies on drugs’ risk-inducing dispositions; and you seem to believe that the following sentence follows from this idea:

      If one can show that taking a certain instance of a drug does not put the health or agency of the user at risk at one or repeated occasions, then one has seriously undermined the justification of the ban for this drug.

      If this your view, then it seems to me open to the following objection: the consequent of the italicized passage does not follow. Here is an argument showing why (let us call it the “Risk Argument”):

      P1. Risk-inducing dispositions of drugs manifest along a non-discrete, non-linear scale and are very sensitive to other drugs – to the effect that only after many uses with varying quantities and many different combinations of other drugs is it possible ascertain the probability that drugs have negative effects on users’ health (i.e. tissue damage) and agency (i.e. addiction-conducive mechanisms).

      P2. Given this epistemic indeterminacy, most sportsmen will have good reasons to believe that rival contestants will take the risk nevertheless and that, as a result, will outperform them, and thus are likely to use drugs preemptively.

      P3. Drugs come with a “de-sensitivization” threshold (the fact that you need to take more of it to get the same effects), to the effect that those who take drugs will have to take more of them to get the same effects.

      By (P2) and (P3), sportsmen that take drugs preemptively will have to increase their drug consumption in order not to be outperformed.

      By (P1), we are likely to detect hypothetical health and agency issues caused by drug use too late for preventing them and therefore that we should take action right now to prevent those issues.

      But, by (P1) again, the prevention cannot be focused solely on specific kinds of drugs; any substance that have risk-inducing dispositions is a priori concerned.

      Therefore, we should not allow anything with risk-inducing dispositions mentioned in (P1), i.e.we should ban drug use since banning them as of now the best way of doing prevention.

      The Risk Argument explains why the italicized sentence in the first paragraph above does not follow from the sentence just before: the possible undesired effects of drugs considered collectively, combined with group pressure stemming from their desired effects, open the door to losses in health and/or in agency.
      Since the argument is valid, maybe you could tell us which premise(s) of the argument would you reject and why?

      On enhancers in general

      Some premises of the above argument admit of an interesting generalization that collides with what friends of enhancers would have their audience believe (let us call it the “Abilities Should Be Authored by Their Owners Argument):

      PI. Some institutionalized human activities should be constrained by “Abilities Should Be Authored by Their Owners” principles.

      PII. Such principles rule out any enhancers that enhance abilities pertaining to the success conditions of the actions that are part of the activities mentioned in (PI).

      Therefore, some institutionalized human activities should be free of these enhancers, i.e. using such enhancers in situations that the relevant institutions define should be forbidden, to the effect that using those enhancers should be completely banned from certain occurrences of these activities.

      Here is very roughly the idea behind (PII). To do a particular activity, a sport say, you have to go through a bunch of mental operations that collectively bring about the distinct (non-purely mental) actions in which the activity of doing the activity (sport) consists. Now to be good at this sport is to go through similar mental operations and then apply some try-and-adjust operations on these so as to optimize them, that is, so as to make it the case that the non-purely mental actions in which the activity consists come out in a way that it better than the way of other contestants, and in a way that you will remember.

      Of course, how your non-purely mental actions that make up the activity come out compared to other contestants do not depend solely on your mental operations. Your physical constitution matters, too. But by the same token, if you want to improve your physical constitution you have to go through similar mental operations, this time trying to act on your own body as opposed to some conventionally specified goal. So in the end training boils down to this: optimization and remembering via mental operations.

      Now enhancements interfere on this optimization either by decreasing the need for improving one’s physical set-up or by decreasing the need for optimizing one’s mental operations in the course of doing the activity. In either case enhancements do some work of the users that is part of the institutionalized activity for which the user is using enhancements.

      But – and this is the idea behind (PI) – we have reasons to protect the interests of those who engage in the institutionalized activity without having part of or all their work done for them, be it by enhancers or any other kind of help. That is, anybody that participates in those activities and wants to create her own abilities by engaging in the optimization process described above is setting herself constraints that add-up to the constraints created by doing the activity along with other contestants which together determine the standards according to which, putting aside the immediate results in the competitive environment, determine the standards of appropriateness for evaluating her. She therefore has interests in not being compared to enhanced folks whose enhancements mess up those standards of evaluation, and as long as those interests are morally relevant (and they are since the determine how that particular person will be evaluated and then the extent to which she will be offered professional and other kinds of opportunities), they ought to be protected.

      From (PI) and (PII) it follows that we should either ban those enhancers from activities where such interests are morally relevant.

      Notice, though: the conclusion is compatible with these activities having different categories of participants, with one category free of enhanced folks and one category with only enhanced folks. The argument is just not compatible with mixing the two since that would mess up with the moral claims grounded in the interests of the non-enhanced folks.

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