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Let athletes dope: a moral case


If media reports are to be believed, doping is rampant in sports and bans are ineffectual. Inefficiency and hypocrisy, however, have never proven strong enough rationales to lift such prohibitions. What follows is a more principled case: Doping bans must go because they promote a sense of justice and fairness that we reject in society at large. One that, when we uphold it in sports, is harmful to us all.

However incomplete, for my purposes here it is enough to say that doping means the enhancement of one’s skill, in relation to a sport, with artificial means.

Why is there a ban on doping?

We often meet the argument that since doping jeopardizes the health of the athlete, it must be prohibited. This is not a good argument.

Many sports, such as boxing and mixed martial arts, are inherently extremely dangerous. As a matter of fact, in those sports it is possible to gain the victory by killing your adversary. And there are many sports where, as a side effect of the normal practice of the sport, sports practitioners get seriously hurt and sometimes killed. Just think of sports such as ice hockey or American football. Even if the only means of enhancement allowed were those no more dangerous than the sports themselves, there would be a wide margin for doping. We should bear in mind that if it took place in the open, under medical surveillance, many of the risks now attached to doping would just go away.

All this means that, if we want to find a sound rationale behind the ban on doping, we must search somewhere else. The ban has nothing to do with health. It has rather to do with what one could call the ethos of elite sport: He who is the winner of the genetic lottery should also be the winner of the sport competition.


The ethos of natural talent

I suppose there was a time when only natural talent was decisive, when people looked with suspicion upon effort, let alone on systematic training and preparation. However, this is not so any more. It is impossible to assess who put the most effort into winning. All participants are allowed to put as much effort into winning as they see fit. Moreover, it is impossible to assess who has trained and who has not. All are allowed to invest as much time on training as they like.


Not long ago, even economic compensation for work as an athlete was considered a kind of cheating. It is now part and parcel of the sport ethos that elite practitioners take on their task as a professional career.

All these concessions are made rather easily, since if every competitor puts effort into the task, trains as hard as he can, eats what is proper to eat, and practices full time, then the result will still be that those who are naturally most talented will excel. After all, it takes a kind of talent also to be able to do all these things. In order to train efficiently, you need a body that can tolerate the training and gain from it; in order to go on when training is boring, you need special mental capacities, and so forth.

However, if any of these skills — physical or mental — are enhanced with certain, specific artificial means, and you win, then you have cheated. As a matter of fact, even if you set a world record and ran faster than anyone else in the competition, you are not the winner. If exposed, your record will be struck from the list and your medal will be taken away from you. And even if you get away with it, you are not, under a realist understanding of what it means to cheat, the winner.


Is it crucial then that the one who is naturally superior should win? Why is this so? In order to answer this question we need to ponder a bit about what it means to win an elite sport contest.

The meaning of winning

In the 100-meter dash, for example, to win is to cross the line before your competitors, without having violated any rules of the game. But this is only part of what it means to win.

It is clear to me, that in the context of a contest such as an Olympic final, being the winner takes on a moral sense as well. To be the winner is to deserve (and to receive) our admiration. It means to deserve prizes and praise and even considerable economic remuneration, i.e. not just compensation for the job done but also an extra amount because of the excellence you have exhibited.

The idea that what deserves our admiration is natural strength or talent is familiar from aesthetics. It is not uncommon to admire beauty or strength. But ordinarily, aesthetic admiration is one thing and moral admiration another.

It is true that we sometimes apply aesthetic criteria in our dealings with fellow human beings. But when we realize that this is what we do, we typically feel ashamed. Few would admit, without being ashamed, that they have chosen a spouse because of that person’s beauty or strength, let alone for his or her natural beauty or strength. Few would admit, without blushing, that when they realized that the beauty or strength was a result of artificial means, they chose divorce. The most we are, and should be, prepared to admit, is that it was the natural beauty or strength that first struck our attention. Only when true moral qualities surfaced, we fell in love.


Indeed, the notion that natural strength deserves moral admiration is utterly strange. We do not accept this line of reasoning outside of elite sport.

Consider how students are accepted at a musical conservatory. They play before a jury. It is crucial to perform not only well but better than other applicants. Suppose two applicants, Brian and John, play before the jury. Brian is more talented than John. Both are nervous. John, however, has taken beta blockers, Brian has not. The drugs help, and John performs better. He is accepted. This is clearly the wrong decision by the jury. This seems similar to the sport contest. It is very different, however.

The reason why Brian should be accepted and not John has to do with efficiency. It is a waste of pedagogical resources to spend them on John, who is less talented. However, the fact that John enhanced his skill with artificial means is not a problem as such. The beta blockers could have been offered to both or to none. It doesn’t matter.

Once the person has graduated from the conservatory, it matters even less what means he resorts to in order to play well, artificial or natural. In music, and in the sciences and arts in general, we do show admiration, of course. What we admire, however, are the outputs of the artists and scientists, the artifacts — not the artists and scientists in themselves.


There are, of course, Tchaikovsky competitions and Nobel prizes in arts and sciences. But we do not take this quite seriously. And, in particular, it is not natural skill we favor and praise. We don’t give a damn if Einstein used artificial means of cognitive enhancement to make his contributions to science. Our interest is in the contributions themselves, not in the man, and, in particular, not in his natural talents.

A difference in moral deserts

A similar gap arises when we consider how we usually conceive of moral desert in society at large. Even among many different moral outlooks, one thing seems to stand in common: We deserve praise or blame only for things we have deliberately done. We do not deserve praise or blame for those we naturally happen to be.

Just think of luck egalitarianism. According to this view, we should be compensated for our natural deficiencies, if these cannot be fixed (which is the first option). We do have ourselves to blame, however, if, deliberately, we develop expensive tastes.

According to luck egalitarianism, the idea that natural strength should be a moral virtue is a nonstarter. The point of departure can be summed up by John Rawls’s observation: “It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society.”

According to luck egalitarianism, it is perfectly in order for those who are less naturally talented to compensate for this with whatever means are available, artificial or natural.

What if you view desert from a utilitarian perspective? Again, you end up with conclusions similar to the ones defended by luck egalitarianism. According to utilitarianism, we should see moral praise and blame as reactive attitudes, designed to improve human behavior. But then it makes little sense to praise those who are naturally strong or beautiful. It makes very much sense, however, to praise those who improve their strength and natural looks with whatever means available. Once again, the distinction between improvements of one’s skill (or looks) with natural or artificial means does not make moral sense.

Finally, even on a hard-core Kantian notion of desert, there will be a stress on free will. Only if you have deliberately done some good or bad deeds do you deserve praise or blame for what you have done.

On all these notions of desert, you do not deserve praise because of your natural talents. You deserve praise because of wise decisions you have taken, efforts you have made, and so forth. But this means that luck egalitarians, utilitarians, and Kantians, must all agree that there is something wrong with the sport ethos.

Why our admiration for natural strength is problematic

The appropriate attitude to beauty and strength in aesthetics is admiration. What is ugly and weak is looked upon with disgust.

But when such an attitude is adopted toward our fellow human beings — natural strength takes on a moral form — we come close to social Darwinism. A natural thought is that what is inherently weak or ugly should be fixed. If it cannot be fixed, or if we are not allowed to fix it, since this would mean that we had to resort to “artificial” means, we are likely to react in all sorts of nasty manners. We do not want to face what is ugly or weak, we want it out of our sight. In the most extreme cases, we want to see it exterminated.

All these reactions came naturally within a purely aesthetic context. When you are painting, you seek to create something beautiful or in some other way aesthetically meaningful. If you fail, you try again. If there is no way that you can succeed, however, you throw away or destroy what you have created. If the object is rather something natural, not an artifact, such as a landscape, you visit it, in order to admire it. If it is ugly, you avoid it. As G.E. Moore noted, it is better that a beautiful world exists than an ugly one (regardless of whether anyone notices it).

All this is fine when it comes to artifacts and landscapes. It is problematic when the same kind of reasoning is applied to human beings.

Of course, it is unavoidable that we also view our fellow human beings from an aesthetic point of view. However, we should be careful not to allow our admiration to spill over in action. Again, this might be a difficult thing not to do, but still, this is what we should attempt not to do.

A modest proposal

But then it is a problem that the ethos of sport is so different. Here it is assumed that it is a moral virtue to exhibit natural strength. All this means that we should try to revise the ethos of sport. We should get rid of this fascination with natural strength. And if we want to get rid of our admiration of natural strength, the obvious move to make is to allow artificial enhancement of people’s skills in relation to the sports they choose to engage in. The ban on doping must be lifted.

Whatever means that athletes resort to, when they want to improve their skill, should be allowed. Those who are naturally weak should be allowed to improve their talents and complete successfully with those who have a natural advantage on them. An immediate gain would be to avoid the present state of hypocrisy among sport authorities and sport journalists.

In doing so, there will be other consequences. Doping would be healthier and more efficient, the medical ethics around it standardized. If hemoglobin, for example, could be openly monitored and measured, athletes would not be allowed to reach unhealthy levels. Limits could be set and enforced. Skiing already does this. Even other targets such as muscle mass could be measured, although more research is needed.

If limits are set in a manner that levels out the physical conditions among the athletes, it may be necessary to introduce different classes, in the manner we already do, for example, in boxing, where people with different stature, weight, hemoglobin levels, and so forth, compete. This will give new opportunities to athletes of various shapes, and it will enrich the show for the spectators.

All this means, also, that eventually we can put an end to sexual discrimination within sport. Given these classes, it will be possible for women to defeat men in the class to which they both belong. Why this would be possible is, of course, that genitalia does not play any decisive role as such in any sport.

It is an interesting question what this kind of reform would mean for the public interest in elite sport. Would it survive? Would it wither? Either way, I see no problem. There are many other kinds of entertainment that we, the audience, could turn to, if we lose our interest in elite sport.

My guess is, however, that when the performances get ever more exhilarating, we will indeed stay up a night to watch a game, knowing that the winner wins partly because of her own effort but also, to a large extent, because of the excellence of the medical personnel assisting her. We will look upon the athlete in the manner we now look upon the Formula 1 driver. We fancy the way she conducts her perfect (perfected) body. We will view the perfect body of the athlete, knowing that the body itself is the result of a wise choice and hard work, something we can admire and praise without any bad conscience.

Torbjörn Tännsjö is professor of practical philosophy at Stockholm University. He has published extensively in moral philosophy, political philosophy, and applied ethics. His most recent book is “Taking Life. Three Theories on the Ethics of Killing.”


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