Does God Think Using Steroids Is Wrong?

If I’m lucky, when I ask my undergraduate students why you shouldn’t punch a stranger in the face, I hear “because it’s wrong” rather than “because I’d get in trouble.” In either case, though, that question is enthusiastically answered. The follow-up question, “what makes punching a stranger in the face wrong?” however, generates more than the usual number of puzzled faces, and a return to silence. Part of teaching philosophy is pushing past the “it just is” or “I don’t know” answers that students tepidly offer under professorial compulsion.

Asking baseball fans — students of The Game, even — “what makes the use of performance-enhancing drugs wrong?” generates the same puzzled faces and responses.

At least, after the obvious answer “because it’s cheating” is ruled out; though tempting, that is probably not why most believe use of performance-enhancers is wrong. For that answer generates no objection to the claim that performance-enhancers should be made legal, such that using them would not count as cheating. If one believes they should be banned, they are wrong first and illegal second; they are illegal because they are wrong, not wrong because they are illegal.

Put another way, if you believe the answer to “why shouldn’t you use performance-enhancing drugs?” is “because it’s cheating” or “because I might get in trouble,” then you would have no reason not to use them if baseball simply lifted the ban, and no reason to say that baseball shouldn’t lift the ban.

Does God Think Using Steroids Is Wrong?Let’s agree for arguments’ sake that cheating is wrong, and if performance-enhancers are illegal, it is wrong to use them. But the use of performance-enhancing drugs was not cheating in baseball until 2004, which means that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez failing a 2003 drug test does not make them cheaters. And it means Mark McGwire wasn’t a cheater when he hit 70 home runs in 1998, and it means Barry Bonds wasn’t a cheater when he hit 73 home runs in 2001. So why isn’t McGwire in the Hall of Fame? Why is it plausible that 7 time MVP Bonds won’t get there either? There is obviously a moral element involved in the controversy over performance-enhancers that is independent of cheating.

The problem is that it is just not obvious what exactly the moral element is, or what it is about performance-enhancers that people believe is wrong. As my students are forced to recognize (via relentless bullying), nothing “just is” right or wrong. Instead, there must be something about punching a stranger in the face or using performance-enhancing drugs that makes them right or wrong.

Different moral theories give different explanations. Utilitarians, for example, would say that punching someone in the face is wrong because the sum of pain it causes is greater than the sum of pleasure it causes. Kantians would say that David Ortiz (potentially) lying about whether he knew of the results of the failed 2003 drug test was wrong because lying treats the person lied to as a means to the liar’s ends, rather than as the “ends in themselves” that all people deserve to be treated as. But the general point is that in the eyes of the philosopher, any moral judgment or evaluation ultimately must be backed up by an appeal to a theory that accounts for what makes something right or wrong. (Even “because God says so” counts as such a theory, though this leads to the Euthyphro problem). But what is the moral theory or principal that explains what it is about performance-enhancing drugs that makes using them wrong?

Despite all the moralizing and condemnation from Congress, fans, and bloggers, there is remarkably little reflection on this question. In lieu of a more Socratic method, permit me, then, some armchair anthropology — a hypothesis as to the moral theory or principle that underlies the rash of judgments.

Many people operate — implicitly, probably — with what I’ll call the “religious concept” of the person. This religious concept holds that there is a Way People Are, and this Way is Natural and Right. This Way, perhaps crafted in the image of God, is immutable and unchanging, an essence, if you will (and even if you won’t).

If the Natural is Right, then the Unnatural is Wrong. If there is a Way People Are which is natural and right, then there is some other deviant Way People Could Be, which is unnatural and wrong. And because this Way People Are is Essential, and so unchanging, the religious concept of person believes that tampering with- and so changing- what is natural is itself unnatural and wrong.

Does God Think Using Steroids Is Wrong?All these divisions — Natural and Unnatural, Right and Wrong — require a sharp line dividing them. If you hold this religious concept of the person, then, it is rational to worry about Frankenstein’s monster, mutants, and anything that might erase the sharp lines. Republican Kansas Senator and Christian Evangelical Sam Brownback’s recent introduction of a bill to ban human-animal hybrids because they would “blur the line” between species is an exemplar of this worldview. (He also complained that such hybrids would “challenge the very definition of what it means to be human”; unless he just doesn’t want to spring for a new edition of Webster’s, this is an Essentialist’s lament if I ever heard one.)

It should be clear how opposition to performance-enhancers fits into this picture. Because performance-enhancers are artificial. i.e., unnatural, and change the Way People Naturally Are, they are therefore wrong. The drug designers are yet another case of science run amok, as in Frankenstein. These drug designers are able to alter nature and “play God,” able to give the players superhuman or monstrous strength. The ingestion of such unnatural substances into the natural body blurs the line between the natural and artificial, and so blurs the line between what a person deserves due to his own “natural” or intrinsic abilities, and what he is able to do when enhanced by external agents, undeservedly. This appears a crime against the meritocracy that is baseball.

The problem, though, with the moralizing about performance-enhancing drug use is that simply describing — or believing in — the religious concept of person is not an argument for its truth. In other words, simply because the view that the use of performance-enhancers is wrong falls out of (or is entailed by) the religious concept of person doesn’t mean that the use of performance-enhancers is in fact wrong, or that the religious concept of person is true. Needless to say, this view carries quite a bit of metaphysical baggage, and many of its claims are quite controversial, and so the belief that the use of performance-enhancers is wrong cannot simply rely on this picture for justification without significantly more metaphysical and theological argument.

It is true there might be other reasons to object. One might worry about the adverse health effects of performance-enhancers, and argue that Major League Baseball should ban anything so dangerous, especially as any young person growing up hoping to make the big leagues would be forced to take the drugs in order to compete with his enhanced competition. Though this line of thought is reasonable, it generates no objection to the Jose Canseco-endorsed claim that chemists and doctors should devote resources to creating safer performance-enhancing drugs for use by all athletes. If health concerns were alleviated, this argument cannot be employed to object to the advocacy of the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

After reflection, we may be left only with the vague or nagging sense that performance-enhancers are wrong, and that something creepy is going on. At every moment of our lives, we are each faced with the question “what should I do?”. When that ballplayer is faced with a decision whether to take certain chemicals that might allow him to continue to do what he loves, or provide for his family’s long term financial security, and he is wondering if using them is wrong, he should hear more than “it just is.”

Bonds photo here

“Oh God”/George Burns photo here

Jonah Goldwater is a Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York , where he is writing his dissertation in Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science. He als ...read more

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