Published 5 September, 2013

Every Sunday, The New York Times Magazine runs a column called "The Ethicist" in which Chuck Klosterman prints a reader question—some sort of moral quandary—and issues a ruling, usually about whether some action (or inaction) is moral or ethical. I thought I’d make a few remarks about Klosterman’s answer to this week’s question, which I reproduce here in its entirety:

The argument against performance-enhancing drugs in sports is that the drugs give players an unfair advantage. But how do P.E.D.’s differ from Tommy John surgery? Or pre-emptive Tommy John surgery? What about rich kids? Is their access to superior coaching, facilities and equipment a similarly unfair advantage? In a society that embraces plastic surgery, Botox injections, Viagra and all kinds of enhancements, what moral line do P.E.D.’s cross? LYNN MOFFAT, SLEEPY HOLLOW, N.Y.

Summarizing, Klosterman answered that P.E.D.s basically don’t cross any obvious line and that theydon’t differ from these other ways that you can improve performance, and, therefore, that there’s no moral justification for banning them, writing: “Virtually all moral arguments against P.E.D.’s involve contradictions.”

Why, then, are P.E.D.s banned? Klosterman explains that it has to do with the fact that sports and life differ because sports are a realm of fantasy:

Sports, unlike life, need inflexibly defined rules. Any game (whether it’s the World Cup or Clue) is a type of unreality in which we create and accept whatever the rules happen to be… So how do we make an unreal exhibition meaningful? By standardizing and enforcing its laws, including the ones that don’t necessarily make sense.

He concludes with:

The motive is to create a world—or at least the illusion of a world—where everyone is playing the same game in the same way. P.E.D.’s are forbidden because that’s what our fabricated rules currently dictate. In real life, that’s a terrible, tautological argument. But in sports, arbitrary rules are necessary. The rules are absolutely everything, so the rules are enough.

I have two bones to pick with this answer.

Here’s bone number one. It seems to me he hasn’t quite paid out why games need rules. The issue isn’t just creating a fantasy world. It’s more than that because games—sports—have functions. Many sports let you practice skills which might come in handy in real conflicts, for instance. And one function of sports is not unlike the displays of non-humans in the real world: to see who’s better. Bull elk fight with their antlers in a game that is anything but fantasy. Still, these fights have “rules”—no using your antlers against the opponent’s flanks—and allow both participants and observers to make inferences about who is top elk while limiting damage. The rule lets the contest be decided in a truth-revealing way that also (usually) minimizes damage to the participants.

Is he using P.E.D.s?

Related, a key element of “rules” that is missing here is that many rules in games make the task harder. Consider “rules” that you make when you play by yourself. Let’s see how many times I can throw this ball up without catching it… but the ball has to go at least a few feet in the air. Without such rules, tasks are too easy, limiting their ability to hone skills, and thus their utility.

But the bone I’m more interested in bone number two. Are rules in games and sports so different from moral rules in life? Why is ok to have sex with someone who buys you dinner, but not OK if you explicitly pay someone the cost of dinner for sex? Why is it not ok to have sex with someone for money ... but you can make it OK if you make a video of it? Why can you sell your hair and eggs (if you have any), but not your kidney? Why is killing 100,000 people with regular weapons less deserving of punishment than killing 1,400 of them with non-conventional ones?

There are contradictions aplenty embodied in the law as well in people’s personal moral stances, and the literature in moral psychology has a lot of fun with such things. The last decade or so has seen an ebullience of work on the famous Trolley Problem, in which people say it’s not OK to pitch the guy with the backpack off the footbridge to save five others, but it’s fine to kill one to save five if the means of doing so involves pulling a switch instead of pushing someone. The person is just as dead either way, yet our moral intuitions differ drastically. (Another trolley problem paper just came out, by the way.)

Is it true that “sports, unlike life, need inflexibly defined rules?” Life seems to have some inflexibly defined rules as well, as embodied in Immanuel Kant’s notion of a categorical imperative. The convolutions of moral rules both in law and our intuitions don’t seem all that different from the rules of games and sports.

Why might that be? Klosterman gets it right, I think, when he points out that the point of rules is to make sure that “everyone is playing the same game in the same way.” A key aspect of rules and morality is impartiality, that the rules apply to everyone equally. People who break the rules are taking advantage, whether in sports or in life.

The arbitrariness of moral rules, and the contradictions among moral rules, is important to notice in the context of the function of moral psychology. As I and others have argued elsewhere, if moral psychology were, as some would have it, designed around making people better off, then the patterns of moral judgments we see in which people are happy to endorse welfare-destroying rules—such as the prohibition against eating certain foods or against pushing one to save five – are deeply puzzling anomalies. If, on the other hand, moral intuitions serve a different function, then this similarity between moral rules and rules in games is less of a puzzle.

In this sense, then, the prohibition against performance-enhancing drugs is really not so different from the sorts of rules that we outside of sports contexts, rules that can’t be easily justified but exist nonetheless, such as the prohibition against eating one’s own pets.

In this sense, I’m no more satisfied with the more or less vacuous idea that “P.E.D.’s are forbidden because that’s what our fabricated rules currently dictate” than I am with similar justifications for moral rules in the real world that are little more than references to history, tradition, or, often, a general feeling of malaise. In the P.E.D. case, it could be that allowing the drugs would make the sport more interesting—more home runs and all that—but at the expense of the health of the players, to the extent that the drugs have harmful side-effects. Owners, players and spectators might well have different positions on this; lots of rules are already in place that some people think make the game less interesting to the benefit of the participants. (Safety equipment generally falls into this category.) By the same token, the debate about puzzling moral rules in real life could—and I would say, should—have the same character: what trade-offs are we making under each candidate rule regime?