Stephen Mumford explains why it is wrong to cheat in sport. This article appears in Issue 61 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.
Widespread moral outrage has been prompted by Lance Armstrong finally coming clean on his use of performance enhancing drugs in his sport. Some purchasers of his autobiography have demanded refunds on the ground of the work having being bought as fact that is now considered fiction. Armstrong was a cheat; and we feel cheated.
There is a good reason for this. Ethical and aesthetic values can be closely connected, as the case of sport illustrates. In Watching Sport, I argued that moral flaws can detract from the aesthetic value of sport, while moral virtues can increase it, and I used Lance Armstrong as one illustration. Back then, Armstrong fell into the latter category. The beauty of his victories was enhanced by his return from cancer. Now that we know there was a different kind of enhancement involved, the aesthetic is ruined. Ben Johnson’s 1988 Olympic sprint was similarly destroyed aesthetically by its basis in cheating.
If we assume that sporting beauty can be defeated by an ethical vice, we had better be sure that the use of drugs in sport really is wrong. While the judgements of sporting authorities are all or nothing – guilt or innocence – the arguments are not always so cut and dried. Chemicals in bodies come in degrees, and disqualifications do not. Some such chemicals are naturally occurring, such as testosterone. Up to a certain level, an athlete is innocent of wrong-doing. The slightest degree over the limit, and they bear absolute guilt. Might an athlete then try to get as close to the legal limit as they can, without exceeding it? Some other cases are claimed to have been a result of accidental ingestion of a drug, as in the case of British skier Alain Baxter, who was stripped of his 2002 Winter Olympic medal after the use of a shop-bought inhaler. And although the drug in his body was on the banned list, it was acknowledged to be an inactive variety of it. The drug had no performance-enhancing value. The wrongness of drug-cheating in sport does not, therefore, rest only on level-playing field considerations or unfair advantage. And it is not always a question of protection of the athletes either. Some performance-enhancers are damaging to health, but not all are. Maybe the harmless ones should be allowed.
Here is a different approach. Perhaps the wrongness of drugs in sport resides in nothing more than that it is against the rules. It’s wrong because it’s cheating. We want the rules obeyed, whatever they are, and some of those just happen to concern drug use. After all, some of the arguments above could apply to other cases of cheating in sport or violation of the rules. A snooker player cannot hope to escape sanction just because a hanging sleeve knocked a ball accidentally, and nor would it matter if the ball’s movement was of no advantage. It’s a foul either way. And in football, the ball can be taken as close to the boundary of play as one likes, but once it crosses that line – no matter how little – it is out of play absolutely. All or nothing calls are frequently essential in sport. At least the rules for drugs in sport are relatively clear.
Why, though, would anyone knowingly cheat, even if they thought they could escape punishment? In one of the finest books in the philosophy of sport, Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper, the playing of games is defended as an end in itself. One plays for its own sake, and consequently we should expect game-playing to be the centrepiece of any imagined utopia. It follows, argues Suits, that one accepts the rules of a game precisely because it is a precondition of the playing of the game. One accepts a lusory goal in sport, an inefficient means of achieving some task, precisely because without the constraint of rules, game playing would not be possible. Thus, one accepts that one has to jump over the bar, rather than walk under it; one has to run all the way around the track instead of cutting across the infield; and one has to get the ball in the hole by hitting it with a club instead of carrying it and dropping it in there. Some of these constraints are fairly arbitrary. Games can and do evolve in all sorts of ways. But unless one accepts those rules, one is not playing. You may get to the other side of the bar, but unless you have done so by jumping over it, you are not playing high jump. And similarly, it can be contended, if one breaks the rules of drug use, one has opted out of the sport.
Assuming that is right, what tempts someone like Armstrong to knowingly opt out of the sport? Why did he voluntarily stop competing in cycling? Indeed, why would anyone cut across the infield in a 400-metre race, even if they could do so undetected? And would they really have “won” the race if they did so? Arguably not. But if someone willingly stops playing, while adopting the appearance of playing, doesn’t that show that something has gone wrong with sport? It is no longer befitting Suits’ utopia. It is not being done for its own sake but, rather, for the rewards of finance and fame. In that case, something has gone wrong in society’s institutionalisation of sport.
And here is a more general lesson, for cheating does not occur only in sport. Academics are acutely aware of incidents of plagiarism. One website was found offering to write undergraduate essays, with a pricing scale determined by length and class of the essay. The same site even offered to write PhD theses, for a price. Why would anyone want to take up that offer? Why graduate knowing that it is not one’s own achievement? Just like sport, learning should be its own reward. If we reach the point where the instrumental value of such achievements outweighs their intrinsic value, then we have created a defective society and a recipe for cheating.
Stephen Mumford is professor of metaphysics in the department of philosophy and dean of the faculty of arts at University of Nottingham, as well as adjunct professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He is author of Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics and Emotion (Routledge, 2011) and Metaphysics: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2012).