Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Is steroid use morally wrong?

Part III of V on steroid use in baseball

Deterrence is never perfectly effective, and is often ineffective; and by logical necessity, steroid penalties will only be imposed when the deterrent effect of those penalties has failed in an individual case. We then consider making the penalties stiffer, even in the face of evidence that the deterrent purpose of the penalties is ineffective. Rather than seeking other preventive solutions, we keep the penalties as they are and simply shift te goal of the penalty, from deterrence to punishment of evil. Therefore, the rule breaker becomes evil, even though the original purpose of the rule may have been to protect the rule breaker from hurting himself. The demonization of the rule breaker serves a two-fold purpose – both to justify the imperfectly effective deterrent and to add the further deterrent of social stigma to the formal penalty of suspension, fines, jail, or whatever. This is the approach we've taken to use of illegal drugs, among other things. And steroids are just the latest example.

Here's where our thinking always goes off the rails. We need to build up a whole ideological superstructure about how steroid use is immoral. This is where you have discussions of "protecting the integrity of the game," "wiping out the records" of steroid users, and so forth.

Steroid use doesn't physically injure non-users in baseball (though perhaps it does indirectly in football and other full contact sports). Steroid use is self-destructive, which is different from evil.

The most obvious basis for claiming that steroid use is immoral is that it is "cheating," in the sense that steroid use breaks the rules to give the user a performance edge. But why is that immoral or evil? Athletes have looked for new ways to get an edge on their competitors throughout the history of sports. Often the rules will ban these tricks of the trade, transforming their continued use into cheating, but unless the competitive trick involves inflicting physical harm on other competitors, the bans are not justified on the ground that the behavior is inherently evil. Many rules are imposed simply for the aesthetic purpose of "restoring competitive balance" to the game. Pitching a scuffed baseball is not inherently "evil," but it is cheating, because it was banned by a rule intended to reduce the dominance of pitching in baseball games.

Perhaps steroid use is dishonorable or unvirtuous because it shortcuts the hard work which, we believe, "earns" the "reward" of athletic success. But that theory is so confused it's hard to know where to begin. Just consider:
(1) Barry Bonds, who is alleged to have used illegal performance enhancing substances, works harder at conditioning than almost anyone in the major leagues.

(2) Athletic prowess is to a large degree a natural endowment that is bestowed on people's bodies randomly, or at least not according to desert.

(3) Athletic success depends on a host of random factors having as much to do with opportunities and life circumstances as abilities. Therefore,

(4) Hard work is only loosely correlated with athletic success. Even among those whose opportunities allow them to pursue athletics, countless hard working athletes fail because they lack natural physical ability, and numerous successful athletes allow their natural physical abilities to make up for skimping on work and practice relative to their harder-working competitors.

(5) You could make an argument that someone willing to sacrifice his future health for current athletic success "deserves" that success as much as someone "blessed" with the right body and the right opportunities. The Faustian bargain arguably reflects at least as much determination and "sacrifice" as years of practice and training.
Looked at one way, steroid use reflects a perverted kind of virtue, but you have to wonder whether it's any more perverted than the family and societal forces that drive athletes to competitive obsession – starting with the sports dads and moms who get into screaming fights with other spectators' at their 8-year-old kids' games.


This gets more convoluted when you take into account that those that are "blessed" with natural athletic ability do steroids too. So the less athletic person that takes roids will still fall short of the athletic person who takes them. But so will the athletic person who chooses not to. So the losers in this scenario turn out to be, not just the unathletic, as was the case before steroid use, but also the athletic that care about their health down the road. Perhaps steroid use should be mandatory.
Awww come on. Morals? Do you think that's what it has to do with. I may have been younger than you but I rememeber that East German women's swim team in the Olympics. Give me a break! Of course natural talent has to be there too. Case in point: the doping problems in cycling. It's a scientific fact that doping gives you the edge ON TOP OF being gifted. Anyway, I think that it's less of an issue in Baseball where they all have fat asses anyway, than I do with sports that involve speed, strength, and endurance.
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