Why cheat?

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).

  1. “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.”

    Then the next question is why is it wrong to cheat?

    “We want the rules obeyed, whatever they are, and some of those just happen to concern drug use.”

    Why do we want that?

    “One plays for its own sake, and consequently we should expect game-playing to be the centrepiece of any imagined utopia.”

    Not for everyone. Winning is often a goal that supersedes everything else. We might ask what value a cheater finds in a win that is unfair, undeserved? Well, perhaps that has no bearing in their consideration. Perhaps the adulation and riches of a win from a hidden cheat is what is wanted. Why would such a person care anything at all about how others feel when the others feel cheating is wrong? If you want it, and can get away with it, why wouldn’t you?

    I don’t think we take seriously enough the variation in human psychology and the real variety in neurology that gives rise to it (perhaps we have to wait for better science to convince us). We know by now that some brains have signs that correspond to sociopathy, but that many other factors cloud he issue (as is usual with humans), so you might not be a mad killer, but you might be a self-interested cheat who sees no value in ‘fair’ sport, or business. It’s easier to cheat in business, where winning is actually all and fairness is only a wet liberal ideology.

    And that’s just one brain characteristic. Who knows how internally conflicted, dissonated, denying, a brain can become when opportunity leaves you one small step away from glory and riches, while fair play leaves you miles away, even when you have a ‘normal’ brain – that is one that is pretty central on the distributions of so many traits.

    This is a cultural phenomenon, which, while present in English football before ‘foreign’ players where allowed into the our game, is perfected (badly) by predominantly Latin cultures. The ‘British’ attitude for fair play would probably result in Ronaldo getting a yellow card, for attempting to fowl, and the red, and total disgrace and ridicule from the whole of the British press, would have been reserved for the atrocious acting of a ‘big sissie’. Plenty of quoted stereotypes in there, if only to emphasise cultural differences on cheating.

    With that in mind consider this little fiasco …

    I’m really curious as to what is happening in the heads of players like this, and the observers. Watch this:

    Is that the sneaky Ronaldo again, taking the opportunity to ‘accidentally’ swipe the guy in the face?

    But hold on, watch this at 25s in: http://youtu.be/rYN9sCgc5-c. Was there actually any contact?

    Note that this clip is on a British TV program (this regular slot takes the piss out of ‘diving’) showing what looks like clear fresh air between boot and face – no sign of contact. Yet search on youtube for “Ronaldo red card” and several clips fail to show that one angle.

    “And would they really have “won” the race if they did so? Arguably not. ”

    No arguably about it, because according to the rules they would not. They would have only been ‘perceived’ to have won the race, when in fact they did not. Fact! They would not, by the definition of what the race is, which all participants publicly agree to, even if at some point some privately do not. What they would have won was all that comes with actually winning, which is more important to them at that time, presumably, than actually winning. When you win a competition you win the competition, and the medal, the glory, and any riches on offer. These are separate wins that are not inevitably coincident.

    “But if someone willingly stops playing, while adopting the appearance of playing, doesn’t that show that something has gone wrong with sport?”

    ‘Gone wrong’? It always was wrong, in the sense that all (human) sport has the presupposition built in that the rules will be followed. Some sports have separate public rules and implicit rules that all participants, spectators and players, agree to. In many cases the rules are public ones, plus what you can get away with, and while the crowed will object when an opponent cheats many will often be happy enough to take glory from their own side cheating. If a dive wins a penalty that wins the cup final, do the fans not rejoice, do they not turn up to the town’s victory parade?

    And if you want obvious implicit rules, then that these guys (http://www.wwe.com/) can wrestle is pretty clear, but that the events are theatre and fake is also pretty clear. This crosses the line, from sport to theatre?

    “Why graduate knowing that it is not one’s own achievement?”

    For the benefits! Cost-benefit-risk analysis. If the benefits are high, the risks and costs low, cheat! Not everyone values honesty over personal benefit. You know this from politics. Why should sport or academia be any different? In practice it isn’t. If you’re a paedophile why would you not want to be a teacher or a priest, where the role is an invisibility cloak for your intentions. It is only revelations over the last decade that has been making us wake up to the fact that when someone tells us they are honest they just might not be. Why do we not see this: “Of course I’m honest”, “The Bible is the word of God, because it says so.”, “Of course my win isn’t drug enhanced.”… or

    “Veteran BBC presenter Stuart Hall denies indecent assault” – And so he should. Such a nice man. Who could believe these stories?

    “Stuart Hall admits indecently assaulting 13 girls, one aged nine” – You know I always thought he was a bit too familiar.

    “Stuart Hall put home in wife’s name ‘to avoid pay-outs to victims’ … less than a fortnight after Hall denied indecently assaulting …” – Disgraceful, trying to cheat justice like that. Hold on! Well, he’s been hiding assaults all these years, and now I’m shocked that he’s doing this? What am I thinking?

    “Why Stuart Hall would never have been convicted in the US” – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/04/stuart-hall-statutes-of-limitation – I’ve stopped being surprised.

    Back to sport… where I’ve also stopped being surprised, and lowered my expectations.

    The simple problem with sport is about which members of society get to dictate what sport is. For what seems like a majority (at least what will be publicly admitted) the desire is for ‘fairness’, and sport needs to be regulated to prevent the cheats playing.

    So, in this respect it’s very simple. Define the sport, define the rules. Win by the rules and you’ve won. Cheat, and while you may get away with it to your own satisfaction you have not actually won – but do you care. The rest of us have to life with that possibility only to the extent to which we’re not prepared to make the sport unplayable by regulation and control, and cost.

    But this is technical detail of managing sport.

    There is the very issue of ‘fairness’.

    In traditional perceptions of sport and competition ‘fairness’ means playing with ‘God given’ abilities, plus all the natural hard work one can put into developing one’s game. But this then becomes problematic in the light of ‘fairness’ in other areas, such as the place of affirmative action in discriminations of race, gender, sexual orientation. Shouldn’t affirmative action be used in sport? Well it is, in horse racing, where weights are added depending on the jockey’s weight. And in various sports classified by weight – boxing, wrestling, weight lifting. But not in the high jump? Why does a five foot athlete have to compete on ‘equal terms’ with a six foot athlete? Are they ‘equal terms’? In football (soccer), if an attacker can run much faster than a defender, should the attacker carry weights so he doesn’t ‘unfairly’ outpace his opponent? Have you looked at the rules in F1 motor sport?

    We are trying to work with simplistic traditional notions of fairness in a complex technical world where there are regular advances that give benefit to competitors that seem ‘unfair’. On top of that we have, for various social reasons, started to question what fairness means, in that making the conditions equal does not mean everyone has an equal chance, because some people are disadvantaged by their ‘natural’ abilities. And what’s fair about being born with the potential to be an athlete, while some of us are born to be natural couch potatoes? In what sense is a natural athlete’s success a virtue? It’s great watching a champion. Who could not enjoy watching Usain Bolt use his unfair natural ability to outrun opponents?

    By the way, my rhetoric above where I ask what’s wrong with cheating shouldn’t be taken as though I condone cheating. I was merely playing devil’s advocate. Or was I?

  2. Matthew Schlosser Gore

    What does fairness and appreciation have in common, then? Construed broadly?? As I sit here, my recently deceased father was a world class triathelete. Like most, they’re are colloids drugs and them that seem unwary with other drugs. I do not believe Lance is aiming about the edge in sports. Pot its not a performance enhancer, but chai tea is tested for in biker sports. My worry for health, my own and others, is for opiates, steroids and the like. Roal models are nice, but remember it was methamphetamine that killed one Tour DE France a hundred meters from the finish… not a joint at a rock show.

  3. All sport is systematic cheating. And in a world which confers celebrity status and lots of money on winners, its just a question of setting some kind of enforceable rules and enforcing them.

    With a gyro stabilised golf club, I might be able to actually hit a golf ball.

    For sure I am more likley to be able to design a golf playing robot than actually play myself :-)

    I cant see the moral angle at all.

  4. Leo,

    I’d say there is no inherent moral angle. But then there isn’t in anything. Humans decide what is important to them and invent morality around that – as individuals, as like minded groups, as developing and evolving cultures.

  5. Ron: I wish you would convey that to people – especially in politics and philosophy, who absolutely insist there is an abstract moral angle to everything, and ram it down my throat.

Leave a Reply