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Ethical Issues of PEDs


About This Page

This page is one of several each providing a detailed analysis of one or another of the chief claims about the use of PEDs (Performance-Enhancing Drugs) in baseball. Though each, including this one, can be read "stand-alone", you really should first read the main page here, which summarizes all of the findings and sets them out them in a coherent presentation.


Surveying the Ethics Field

man at a crossroads marked with blank directional signs

In considering the rights and wrongs of PED use, we at once encounter a threshold question, one that has received very little treatment. Exactly why is using PEDs "wrong"?--which is really to ask is it wrong?

In the witch-hunt fervor sweeping the land right now, asking such a question openly is sort of like asking the shade of Joe McCarthy if communism is really so bad after all. But consider that if the answer to a question is "self-evident", there should be no pain in supplying it, and no disagreement once it is supplied. That is by no means the case here.

As with all else to do with PEDs, sane, qualified voices are hard to pick out from the screaming cacophony of viewpoints which almost all boil down to "in my opinion", with no qualifier about why that opinion should be taken with any more weight than that of a poodle trimmer. Professional medical ethicists--yes, such folk do exist--have spent years both in the trenches of medical care and in the contemplation of the scope and meaning of ethics. They are trained thinkers on the topic. That doesn't make them oracles, invariably delivering truth and wisdom, but it does put them light years ahead of the lads down at the Dew Drop Inn as plausible sources of food for thought.

An excellent overview of the nature of the issues in performance-enhancement ethics can be found in a 1997 article "Fooling Mother Nature: An Ethical Analysis of and Recommendations for Oversight of Human-Performance Enhancements in the Armed Forces" by Dr. Evan G. Derenzo and Richard Szafranski; as the title makes clear, the context is military, but the principles are sufficiently general to apply to sports (which is often cited in the article). Here are some lightly edited (for brevity) extracts:

Ethical arguments for and against PED use fall into four separable but sometimes overlapping categories: (1) harm and coercion, (2) moral boundaries, (3) coherence, and (4) normative systems.

The harm and coercion arguments are straightforward. They necessarily presume that human-performance enhancements create the potential for unacceptable risks of harm. It thus follows that tolerance of their use is coercive because it may force others to undertake risks they otherwise would not, merely to assure their competitive capabilities. The literature of the philosophy of sport . . . has thoughtfully explored this concern, but after almost 20 years of abundant debate, there seems to be no consensus.

The moral-boundary argument focuses on the boundaries of "natural" versus "unnatural" properties. This argument suggests, for example, that caffeine may be allowable but that amphetamines are not; or that amphetamines or opiates may be allowable under some conditions, but hallucinogens never. These boundaries, however, are often difficult to draw with precision and even more difficult to maintain in practice.

Coherence arguments address issues of whether or not an action is consistent with our idea or understanding of the "essence" of an endeavor or phenomenon. In sport, much writing articulates what is integral to our appreciation of what it means to play games and to be engaged in athletic competition. Thus, a coherence analysis asks if drug-enhanced athletic performance is consistent with our notions of what it means to engage in sports. According to some observers, sports can be defined as a mutual search for excellence through competition that is designed to bring out the best in each competitor. Given that definition, the argument follows that "drugs circumvent this ideal by showing only whose body responded best to performance enhancers". If, however, the "essence" is something else--say, entertainment value--the argument shifts.

Normative-systemic arguments point to the moral rules which exist in a society and ask if the action or phenomenon under consideration strengthens or weakens faithfulness to those moral beliefs. For example, a norm or rule our society upholds is that it is important to protect the safety of our nation's citizens.

As a generality, it is much easier to feel disturbed and repelled by these enterprises than it is to give a coherent account of precisely what the objections are.

Vade mecum in hand, we can now turn to specific arguments on PEDs in sports.


Some Statements of the Issues

A Quick Demolition Derby

Let's look in on Norman Fost. Who is he? He was awarded an A.B. by Princeton, an M.D. by Yale, and an M.P.H. (Master of Public Health) by Harvard; he is not only a practicing pediatrician (and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin) but also a widely recognized expert in medical ethics, being Director of the Program in Medical Ethics at the University of Wisconsin and Chairman of the Hospital Ethics Committee; he heads the Child Protection Team, and is a former Chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Bioethics. Last year he received the William G. Bartholome Award for Excellence in Ethics from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Or, in shorter form, he is a practicing physician who is highly expert in medical ethics. Now let's see what Dr. Fost has to say about some of these matters.

In an online article from the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, "Steroid Hysteria: Unpacking the Claims", Dr. Fost focusses on the ethical aspects of PED use. The essence of his position is embodied in this statement:

"[I]t is the business of ethics to present justifications for actions, and the claims that have been made for prohibiting the use of anabolic steroids by competent adults appear to be incoherent, disingenuous, hypocritical, and based on bad facts."

Dr. Fost then analyzes and demolishes a number of commonly made claims about PED use; while I strenuously recommend the entire article, which is short enough (and non-technical enough) that you can easily read it all, here is a summary of his points using mostly his own words (more on each point later):

  1. Steroids result in unfair competition: there is no coherent argument to support the view that enhancing performance is unfair; if it were, we would ban coaching and training. Competition can be unfair if there is unequal access to particular enhancements, but equal access can be achieved more predictably by deregulation than by prohibition.

  2. Steroids are coercive--if your opponents use them, you have to: "coercion" is the use or threat of force, or the threat of depriving someone of something he or she is entitled to. No one in American sports is forced to use steroids. Nor is anyone entitled to be a professional athlete. It's an opportunity, often involving high risks, which everyone is free to walk away from.

  3. Steroids cause life-threatening harms: good ethics starts with good facts, and the claims on this point are, to understate the case, seriously overstated. In any event, we regularly allow adults to do things that are far riskier than even the most extreme claims about steroids: the claim by the leader of the National Hockey League that they test for steroids because they're concerned about the health and safety of the players is, well, hysterical.

  4. Steroids are unnatural, and undermine the essence of sport: Sports are games, invented by humans, with arbitrary rules that are constantly changing. Since the beginning of recorded history, athletes have used an infinite variety of unnatural assists to enhance performance, from springy shoes to greasy swimsuits, bamboo poles to better bats, and endless chemicals from carb-filled diets to Gatorade drinks. Should vaulting poles be banned because they undermine the essence of the high jump? Why is there not a ban on training in high altitudes, or sleeping in a hypobaric chamber?

  5. Steroids undermine the integrity of records: we on this site have dealt elsewhere with that one at much more length than Dr. Fost does.

  6. Fans will lose interest: it isn't clear what the moral issue is here, other than the likely dishonesty of the claim. Chicks dig the long ball, and the "steroid era" has been accompanied by record-setting attendance.

  7. It's bad role modeling for kids: Baseball is presided over by the former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, who play in Miller Park, where beer is consumed in prodigious quantities. Professional hockey promotes illegal violence and infliction of injury, and it is taught in the junior leagues; professional football glorifies hurting your opponents. But steroids are a moral disaster?

Fost's #1 addresses the "coherence" issue. His #2 is the "harm and coercion" issue, and #3 addresses its implied basis. At #4 is the "moral-boundary" question. Point #6 is really pragmatic rather than ethical, as Fost notes; so is point #5, though it is distantly related to coherence. His #7 is the "normative" issue.


Another Derby

book titled Ethics lying on its side

Another place one can look is in the book Sports Ethics: An Anthology, in particular at Chapter 17, "Good Competition and Drug-Enhanced Performance" by Robert L. Simon (p. 175 et seq), Chapter 18, "Enhancing Performance in Sports: What is Morally Permissible?" by Laura Morgan (p. 182 et seq), and Chapter 19, "Sports and Drugs: Are the Current Bans Justified?" by Michael Lavin (p. 188 et seq, no online preview available). I will not here try to tease out each of those essays' points (in part because the online versions are only partial, except for Morgan's). But even what one can see on line is certainly thought-provoking.

By and large, those essays deal with the same themes Fost presents. Morgan, reviewing anti-use arguments, after rightly dismissing as hopelessly weak The Usual Suspects, tries--in her quest to mimic politicians and invent a justification for what one wants to do anyway--to adduce an argument based not on implied coercion for personal benefit (which argument she, like everyone else, has already discounted as specious) but on implied coercion to be a "worthy opponent", in effect to be all that you can be for the sheer glory of the sport. She seems to be trying to translate the "harm and coercion" line to a "coherence" line, but it just doesn't take. How or why implied coercion to achieve "worthiness" is in any morally qualitative or quantitative way different from implied coercion to achieve personal benefit exceeds my capacity to understand. Ipse dixit, I suppose.


And Yet Another

Dr. Charles E. Yesalis, one of the nation's best-known experts on steroids in sports (and, as also noted elsewhere on this site, no apologist for steroids), in the book Anabolic Steroids in Sport and Exercise, which he edited, sets forth what looks like what George Mitchell later regurgitated in his so-called "Report":

Our concern over drug use in sport is generally founded in one or more of the following moral and ethical issues:
  • The athlete may suffer physical or psychological harm as a result of drug use.
  • The use of drugs by one athlete may coerce another athlete to use drugs to maintain parity.
  • The use of drugs in sport is unnatural in that any resulting success is due to external factors.
  • The athlete who uses drugs has an unfair advantage over athletes that do not use them.

My point in setting forth what must seem like a lot of repetitious material is to emphasize just that: the repetitiousness. By that, I mean I want it to be clear that the question of what the issues are is not something that will produce as many answers as there are experts to give those answers. The ethical points at issue are quite well established.

(At least the grown-ups in these fields, like Dr. Yesalis, avoid the silly "leads kids down the road to Hell" argument.)

Some Analysis of the Issues

They are, I think, best labelled in the more general form in which Derenzo and Szafranski laid them out.


Harm and Coercion

First, the necessary basis, that PEDs are a substantial risk is, as Dr. Fost noted, itself something of a wet squib. As Dr. Yesalis himself notes,

The rationale of banning drugs to protect the health of athletes assumes that performance-enhancing drugs are harmful under all conditions. In the case of anabolic steroids, this assumption does not appear to hold.

Mind, the falseness of that assumption is really a practical matter, not an ethical one per se. But it in effect makes the ethical issue of harm largely go away. PEDs are by no means guaranteed harmless; indeed, there may be long-term harms of which we do not yet know. But they are not simply poisons, or anything close to it. They are powerful medications that, under proper medical supervision, are probably about as safe as any other medication.

And keep firmly in mind that the one thing that keeps athletes from getting proper medical supervision for PED use--and that also keeps the medical profession from acquiring good field data on the effects of PEDs in supraphysiological doses--is that very illegality for which there is no medical justification (as the American Medical Association testified to Congress).

But put that aside: it remains so that every player who participates in any physical sport undergoes risk of bodily injury, and often very great risk (consider boxing or football). If people want to play those sports, they take on those risks; if they don't want to take on those risks, they don't play those sports. To make a po-face claim that in our never-ending battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way we must do everything possible to remove as much risk of harm as possible from the game is to make milk spout from the nostrils. Checked outfield padding lately? The rules on batting helmets?

Also keep in mind that the coercive force exists largely because steroids are banned--so that using them is not a universal opportunity, for when something is banned, many will avoid it, for a variety of reasons. Consider conventional exercise, which is an augmentation method that is available to all: many top athletes exercise strenuously, some mind-bogglingly so. Do their regimens "coerce" their peers to like regimens? Do all athletes in a given sport exercise about as much as the most rigorous exercisers do? Let's not be silly.

Again, Dr. Yesalis gives essentially the same reasoning as Dr. Fost:

[T]he final decision to use steroids or to participate in the sport still lies with the athlete. Heavy weight training, a basic requirement of most strength and power sports, is itself a health risk that athletes are pressured to endure. Furthermore, this ethical dilemma is not peculiar to sport. If a scientist wishes to do laboratory research on virulent strains of viruses or bacteria, he or she must accept certain risks; the only way to completely avoid such risks is to not participate in this type of research.

That's the long and the short of this ethical issue: if drug use is a characteristic of full participation in a sport, in the same way that exercise or the everyday risks of performing in the sport are characteristic, then that's that: it's part of the risk package involved in playing that sport. Play the sport, take the risk; avoid the risk, avoid the sport. It's that simple.

To especially select performance-enhancing drugs as an element of the game that will not be allowed when they bring some benefit (which we know that for baseball they don't, but we'll assume it for the argument, because in many sports they do), unless they are more or less poisonous (that is to say, a highly probable risk of major harm), is arbitrary and silly. One might as well argue that tackling be eliminated from football, because exactly the same arguments apply pro and con: football, tackling; no tackling, no football. There are only so many ways to state this simple, clear, overarching truth. And obviously, from the quotations above, serious thinkers on the issue agree.


Boundaries

The "Boundaries" argument focus on "natural" versus "unnatural" properties. The thrust of the position is that PEDs should be banned because they are "unnatural" aids to performance, the implication being that sports are otherwise pristine Greek exhibitions of pure natural bodily endowments.

cartoon of lasik-enhanced batter cartoon of lasik-enhanced batter

This is another milk-out-the-nose fountain. Do we ban eyeglasses, contact lenses, or Lasik surgery for ballplayers? Do we ban ice packs for pitchers arms? Do we ban cleats? Or, closer to target, do we ban carb loading or high-calorie diets or the Atkins plan? Can a man with a sore throat take a cough drop? Can a man with a headache take a Tylenol? Do we regulate the amount of exercise they can do? Only 10 squats a day? Maybe no exercise at all other than actual play? Well, obviously one could string this sort of foolishness out forever, but the very reason it is foolishness is that it reflects the inherent foolishness of the "unnaturalness" theory of prohibition. As Dr. Yesalis says:

Moreover, is there a difference between athletes' using anabolic steroids and their using vitamins, aspirin, amino acids, or corticosteroids, all of which are allowed by most sport governing bodies? The use of fiberglass poles, synthetic track surfaces, lifting suits, and high-tech tennis rackets raises similar questions of unnaturalness.

Not to mention compound bows for archery--but what's the point of going on? You get it or you don't.


Coherence

Coherence arguments address whether an action is consistent with our idea of the "essence" of a given sport. What I guess is the guts of the position was set forth by Dr. Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, an ethics institute, and Dr. Don Catlin, who operates the Olympic drug-testing lab at UCLA, when they wrote that drug testing in the Olympics seeks to--

preserve what is beautiful and admirable in sports and to ensure that all athletes compete on a level playing field.

Sounds swell, doesn't it? Who could argue with "beautiful and admirable"? Um, perhaps someone with an IQ bigger than his hat size?

As Dr. Fost pointed out in the quotations above, sports are games, invented by humans, with arbitrary rules that are constantly changing. When the American swimmer Janet Evans won a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, she wore a so-called "slime suit", a greasy swimsuit that had been developed in secret, which slashed her time. At that same Olympics, the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal because he had failed a test for steroids. Evans won praise for using an unnatural assist, Johnson was vilified for using an unnatural assist. Drugs are chemicals that change the body, but so are special training diets; so is Lasik surgery; so, for that matter, is Gatorade.

In what way does the ability of an athlete to perform his or her sport at a better level somehow destroy what is "beautiful and admirable" about that sport? The only sane answer possible is the presumption that though what he or she did was the sport at a higher level, the "beauty" is tainted by the thought that he or she was not entirely unaided in the performance. Oh, dear.

This is, in reality, only the "boundaries" argument in a new clown suit. If athlete A has Lasik surgery while athlete B takes steroids, in what way has the body enhancement man A underwent, which with no effort on his part raised his ability to perform in his sport, remained "beautiful and admirable" while the enhancement of man B (who has to continually work hard at taking advantage of it) destroyed "beauty"? Really, folks, this is just insanity.

James Bakalar, associate editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, put it this way:

One of the feelings about drugs is that they somehow make the athlete superhuman, as opposed to getting a better bicycle or a better pole vault. When you analyze this, it doesn't work out too clearly.

Let that be the punch line on this one: When you analyze this, it doesn't work out too clearly.


Normative Systems

This, of course, is where it all really comes from. It is our centuries-old Puritan heritage, the heritage that famously redlined when "recreational drugs" became faddy. Thereafter, anything that could be deemed a "drug" got swept up by the riptide, including PEDs, which have nothing to do with psychic recreation.

It has been said that a Puritan is someone who regularly wakes up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat of fear from a horrid nightmare in which someone, somewhere in the world was having fun.

Hark back: the American Medical Association, the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the National Institute on Drug Abuse--all those, and many other experts besides, strenuously opposed adding steroids to the controlled-substances lists, and told the Congress so as forcefully as they could to its collective face during the hearings on the subject. But no: "normative systems" triumphed against medical, criminological, and jurisprudential expertise.

Of course, no one will stand up and say "I'm against steroids because I don't like people having fun, and drugs help people have fun, and steroids are drugs." Even diehard Puritans might choke on that pseudo-syllogism. But such folk come from a tradition that does not allow them to ever be wrong. So, they instead stand up and say "kids will do steroids because pro athletes do." They forget or look away from the evidence that the lads are doing it for reasons older than baseball, or even than the human race.


The Crux

Morgan (cited farther above) has put into sharp focus what is perhaps the ethical crux: in a free and moral society, as a matter of basic principle we do not prohibit things unless there is a manifest nontrivial risk of harm from it to someone who is not knowingly and willingly accepting that risk. Or, as Morgan puts it,

As long as [a] person's acts do not harm or constitute a threat to the welfare of others, we ought not to interfere.
Prohibition crusader Carry Nation and her famous bottle-smashing axe.

Besides which, as a practical matter, every time we do try to "protect people from themselves", as with Prohibition, we not only breach the basic tenets of a free society but also inevitably wake up with a splitting headache the next decade.

And finally, to argue that PEDs are immoral because they are banned is such a true classic textbook example of circular reasoning that it obviously needs no further comment.


Ethics Summary

The ethical questions are plain, simple, and pretty much universally agreed on. Among ethics experts--but not the press, the public, or the Congress--so by and large are the answers. In sum:

  • PEDs are not "health risks" to any greater extent than the average prescription medication of any sort; that is especially true if users have reasonable medical advice and oversight in their use, but it seems true even when they are used "cowboy style". There can be no honest ethical issue of "harm".

  • Risks--often of a serious nature--are inherent in all physical sports. If, in a particular sport, PEDs are a significant aid to better performance, then they, and whatever risks they may or may not represent, become an inherent part of that sport, just as are its other risks. Individuals can pursue a sport if they are willing to accept all its risks; if they are not, they are free to avoid that sport, as many avoid, say, boxing or football. No one is "coerced" into playing any given sport, nor does anyone have an inherent right to demand that the nature of a sport be significantly modified--say as by converting regulation football to a game of touch football--just so he or she can play it at a risk level acceptable to him or her.

  • There is nothing "unnatural" about PEDs because there is, in reality, nothing that is pure or "natural" about any sport, sports being wholly of human devising. Even in the purest imaginable competition--say, just throwing a weight--training, learning, and coaching will materially advantage one competitor over another. Why are those "natural" and PEDs "unnatural"? If the argument is that they are "unnatural" because they cause changes in the athlete's body, then the whole edifice collapses under the weight of its absurdity, because training, diet, and such universally accepted aids as Lasik surgery, aspirin for headaches, ice packs for limbs, "Tommy John surgery"--and a like laundry list that anyone can readily extend--also cause athletically significant changes in athletes' bodies.

  • If there is an unfairness about PED use, it is that owing to their tabu status, they are not equally available to any who might want them. Those who are willing to risk detection or opprobrium can obtain whatever advantage they may or may not confer in a given sport, while those equally interested but cowed by the regulatory and acceptability climate are denied whatever those gains might or might not be. Athletes cannot make choices on the merits as they perceive them.

baseball-style cap with word Ethics on it

There is simply no plausible case, ethical or practical, to be made for prohibiting PED use, not in law, not in sports-organization codes. The strong tendency to regulate or ban arises largely from old instincts, not reason, which makes discussion on the issues difficult, for it has been famously said that reason will never get someone out of a position that reason never got them into in the first place.

It is supposed to be a basic tenet of any society daring to call itself "free" that it is not to regulate conduct that is not risky to those not willingly accepting the risk, whether that is oneself or others; many would say that it ought not even to regulate conduct that is risky unless that risk is material.

The rest of what it seems to me appropriate to say on these matters I have put on the main PEDs page here under "Conclusions".


This page is one of several each providing a detailed analysis of one or another of the chief claims about the use of PEDs (Performance-Enhancing Drugs) in baseball. Though each, including this one, can be read "stand-alone", you really should first read the main page here, which summarizes all of the findings and sets them out them in a coherent presentation.




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  • Overview and Summary
    a summary presentation of what appears in much more detail on the pages listed below

  • Actual Baseball Effects of PEDs
    two distinct, detailed analytic examinations of how PEDs might affect baseball statistics and of whether they have in fact done so, and why or why not, with links to several other such studies

  • Changes in the Baseball
    full discussions of the methods and results of two unrelated laboratory examinations of baseballs from several different years to see if there have been performance-affecting changes in the ball over time

  • The "Spliced" Power Factor
    a more detailed graphic explanation of what the "spliced" power factor graph is and how it is created

  • Medical Effects of PEDs
    comprehensive reviews of all the medical-side-effect claims about steroids, hGH, and other PEDs, supported by extensive citations from the established scientific literature of medicine

  • PEDs as Healing Agents
    looking into the claim that PEDs augment count-type records by allowing players to participate in more games than they could without chemical help

  • Adolescent Use of PEDs
    hard, scientific data from multiple extensive, long-term surveys of adolescent use of PEDs, detailing the actual extent of use, the established reasons for such use, and the true significance of "role models" in PED use

  • Ethical Issues in the Use of Performance-Enhancing Substances
    what professional medical ethicists have to say about how PED use in sports should be evaluated and why

  • Baseball and PEDs: Further Resources
    a select list of thought-provoking articles, essays, and books, a number of which are not cited elsewhere in these pages

  • Drugs in Sports: a Bookshop
    a collection of books relevant to drugs and sports, available for sale from this site

  • Eric Walker: Links
    baseball-related web pages by, about, or citing the webmaster of this site


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