Andrew Sullivan criticizes Jeremy Rozansky’s condemnation of steroid use by claiming that steroid use is perhaps less morally arbitrary than genetic inheritance of athletic ability. I agree with Sullivan that there is no question that part of any person’s athletic ability is not due to choices she actually made, and is indeed morally arbitrary. But, to be fair to Rozansky, Rozansky’s objection to steroids was not solely about fairness. The usual objection to steroid use is a matter of fairness – steroids give those who take them an unfair advantage. Rozansky’s objection is different. It has to do with his concept of sport:
A better way to investigate the moral meaning of performance-enhancing drugs is to ask some fundamental questions: What are athletes doing when they play sports, and what are we watching when we watch? The answer seems to be a certain kind of human excellence. If we just wanted to know who won or lost, we could check the paper the next morning — it is not simply that we are watching competition. Nor is it correct to say, as one recent paper on the ethics of performance-enhancing drugs claims, that “modern athletic sport is entirely focused on finding new ways to break the old records.” If our “entire” goal were to break pitching records in baseball, we could build pitching machines to pitch perfect games. It is worth asking why we would never do this, why we would never substitute our sportsmen with machines, even though machines could easily achieve superior performance. We admire winning and we admire records, but neither in isolation, only as evidence of superior human performance. We don’t admire the fastest cheetah more than the fastest man, even though the cheetah is much faster. It isn’t meaningful to compare Michael Phelps’s performance in the pool to that of a speedboat. Sport is an exclusively human kind of performance, carried out through a combination of natural gifts — unearned, undeserved, and unevenly distributed in the population — and willed activities. An excellent sportsman or athlete must be disciplined, driven, and daring. It also helps to have learned the best methods for how to train and practice. Our games are often intellectual pursuits as well: calling upon quarterbacks to read defenses, cyclists to budget energy, and batters to master the situation on the field. We admire the willed actions, but not only the willed actions. We still marvel at superior performance no matter how much of the performance relies on natural gifts…
One cannot be personally, fully excellent if the excellence stems, at least in part, from a chemical intervention. Rather than cultivate his own individual gifts, he has chosen to have different gifts. Rather than “stay within himself,” he has chosen a different self. So when Dan Naulty exclaims “Look, my fastball went from 87 to 96! There’s got to be some sort of violation in that,” he is intuiting how athletic achievement, once the prize of a full self who toils away at his own betterment in this activity, is corroded by the innovations of laboratories.
Modern innovations will continue to give us small and large opportunities to enhance our native gifts and thus circumvent laborious and praiseworthy craftsmanship at the heart of athletic superiority.
So sports properly done is a matter of being a functional human without the use of technology. Technological enhancement robs sport of its point. So, then, what are we to say to wheelchair basketball players? Sorry, you’re wasting your time? We do not admire you because your functioning in sport is enhanced with technology? Should the person who requires contact lenses, then, not wear them? Is he not personally, fully excellent at sports? Or maybe skiers, too. Hard to ski without technology, and all. And should we object to technological developments in sneakers, swimsuits, etc?
One might say (and some have) that this way of thinking, this insistence on the way of functioning as opposed to the level of functioning, is closely tied to prejudice against people with disabilities. We focus on the atypicality of the way in which a human function is performed (e.g., mobility in a wheelchair rather than walking) rather than the level of functionality which is achieved.
Now, to return to the issue of fairness. Oscar Pistorius presents us with a very interesting case. It seems very possible that his disability has given him an advantage. The prosthetic legs he wears might make him run faster than he otherwise would have. There was controversy about his participation in the 2012 Olympic Games. The thought was that his disability was an unfair advantage. First, allow me to say that, contra Rozansky, I do find Pistorius admirable, technological enhancements and all. And second, I see both sides of this. On one hand, he may have something that none of the other athletes have, i.e., amazing prosthetics. And that’s not a level playing field. On the other hand, is it any more to the the other runner’s credit that they were born with their athletic ability than it was to Oscar Pistorius’s credit that he was born without bones in his lower legs? Both circumstances are morally arbitrary. So why should Oscar Pistorius be ruled out? Because the way he has of doing something requires technology? That is how he achieves mobility. He couldn’t run at all otherwise. I wear glasses to achieve decent vision. It’s a minority of people who are double amputees, and then they would be favorites in running. But, you know. It’s a minority of people who are born to be 6’6″+ and who are thus favorites in basketball.
I really could respect Rozansky’s view had he stuck to the issue of fairness. And, I mean, Lance Armstrong lied and broke the rules. That’s bad enough. But his lack of admiration for the human body aided by technology speaks to something deeper. It suggests, however unintentionally, a view of people with disabilities that has nothing to do with their level of functionality and everything to do with whether the way they achieve that functionality is typical.
[UPDATE]: In the comments, Michael Drew rightly points out that Rozansky has a point about where sports end and mechanics begin. For example, Rozansky’s comparison of Phelps to a speedboat. I’d say sports does have something to do necessarily with bodily effort. That that’s where the source of achievement lies. I disagree with Rozansky that it must be unaided by technology, but it must spring from bodily effort. For example, a wheelchair race between manually-powered wheelchairs seems legit, a race between electrically-powered wheelchairs seems pointless.