Why Mark McGwire’s Apology Would Not Have Fooled Sartre

The most striking statement in Mark McGwire’s confession of steroid use was “I wish I had never played during the steroid era.” To feel that one’s life is so alienated from one’s times is to feel a profound isolation and loneliness, for it is a wish to have lived another life.

Why Mark McGwire's Apology Would Not Have Fooled SartreOne might suspect that such a feeling implies deep regret, and an acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions.

But as French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would have known, that suspicion would be wrong.

For Sartre, the self is created- and so defined- by the choices and actions it performs. To imagine, as McGwire does, that his self could be removed from his actual life is to imagine a boundary between who he is and what he has done. It is to suppose the self is something that exists- and is defined- independently of, and prior to, choices that are made, and actions that are taken. For Sartre, this a false abstraction, a metaphysical mistake. (In Sartre’s often puzzling terminology, it is to falsely believe “essence precedes existence.”)

Sartre diagnosed the wish to separate oneself from one’s context as the wish to avoid responsibility. To wish for another life in another time is to relinquish responsibility for this one, not to accept it. It is to blame one’s context rather than one’s self: If only I had lived in another time, I would not have been faced with this horrible choice! It is to blame the world, not oneself. It is to pretend we are not free, and so it is to pretend we are not responsible for what we do. For Sartre, it is to live in bad faith.

Of course, McGwire did not find himself comically dropped into the steroid era after being kidnapped by Keanu Reeves and the Other Guy in a time-travelling phone booth. McGwire helped create the steroid era- he admitted to taking steroids as early as the 1989/1990 off-season, and his feats throughout the decade were the most visible. But by distancing himself from the times, he denies responsibility for the world he helped to create.

That McGwire did not take responsibility- did not truly apologize- is born out in his other comments as well. Besides the bald assertions of culpability as part of a planned media strategy, the story McGwire told implied his innocence. McGwire never said why he should have to apologize, or explained why he thought what he did was wrong. Instead, he justified the use of steroids.

“During the mid-’90s, I went on the DL seven times and missed 228 games over five years. I experienced a lot of injuries, including a ribcage strain, a torn left heel muscle, a stress fracture of the left heel, and a torn right heel muscle. It was definitely a miserable bunch of years and I told myself that steroids could help me recover faster. I thought they would help me heal and prevent injuries, too.”

If McGwire was right that steroids could help him recover faster and prevent other injuries, this is a reason to take them, not not take them. But if he was wrong, then he’s only prescribed himself the wrong medicine, not done anything immoral. If he was wrong, he’s only failed to use effective means to achieve a virtuous end – health.

McGwire’s further talk of “health” exposed underlying views on the nature of the self that are designed to buffer him from any responsibility worth apologizing for; a Sartrian no-no.

In claiming as McGwire (and also Andy Pettitte) did, “I did this for health purposes. There’s no way I did this for any type of strength use,” McGwire distinguished moral and immoral uses of steroids, and claimed his usage was of the former type. And in his interview with Bob Costas, McGwire claimed that steroids do not improve one’s “hand-eye coordination,” and that there’s “no pill or needle” that allows one to hit a baseball.

Underlying these assertions is the idea that there is a true, inner self that was given to McGwire by “his parents and God,” an essence of McGwire that preceded anything he did. If steroids improve health, they only function to restore the self to its true, original state, just as medicine does. This, in McGwire’s (and Pettitte’s) eyes is legitimate, and so it’s what they claimed to intend. It is altering the self, as the addition of strength from an external source would be, that is morally dubious, and that McGwire (and Pettitte) deny having done.

Why Mark McGwire's Apology Would Not Have Fooled SartreBut why?

By denying that steroids changed him, but only restored him, and by claiming that a foreign agent cannot provide the skill to hit a baseball, McGwire maintains the idea that he alone is responsible for his baseball achievements. While he can claim credit – responsibility – for whatever flows from himself – from his true essential nature – he cannot claim credit for that which resulted from something outside of himself, or from anything that changed who he is “naturally.” So he denied that steroids helped him hit home runs. He said they only allowed him to be healthy enough to do so. This is to say that he, and not steroids, are responsible for his home runs.

So why is he apologizing? If he realized that steroids were responsible, then he should be sorry. Then he would have cheated, as he would have had he used other foreign agents, such as a corked bat or snot on the ball in pursuit of his goals. But if he does not think they are responsible, but that he is, then how is he cheating? What is he apologizing for?

It is clear that McGwire, in drawing these boundaries between himself and his actions, between his natural state and his altered state, refuses to take responsibility for his actions, no matter how many times he utters the words ‘I’m sorry.’ McGwire may not actually owe anybody an apology. But if he does, this wasn’t it.

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McGwire photo here

Bill and Ted 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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