Sunday, February 10, 2013

Philosophy and Cheating in Sports, Pt 1

A few weeks ago, I was lamenting about how I, like many liberal arts and humanities majors, have very few tangible, marketable skills. All you need to do is look at the vague descriptions on my LinkedIn to figure out that there's nothing I can quantify that I can do the way a finance major can use the Black-Scholes equation for option pricing, a naval architect can design a 200-foot ice-breaking oil tanker, or even a music performance major can provide a sample of his flawless playing of Mozart or Bach. As a government major (essentially a more theory-based political science, less of the methodological or quantitative aspects), I don't really think I have anything like this to offer. I do, however, have a substantial background in various moral and political theories. Some may like to criticize this as putting a name to a common sense concept, but I think it gives a specific lens with which to view international relations, developmental politics, and yes, even cheating in sports.
Some of the recent revelations in doping (Australian football and rugby, Lance Armstrong/the whole cycling debacle that unravels a bit more every time I open my laptop, baseball's anti-aging clinic dilemma) are just one aspect of something that probably has been around since the very, very beginning of athletic competition: cheating. As I alluded to in a previous post, I'm not sure it's possible to completely eliminate all forms of cheating. I think we can approach and approach it, but we're not going to hit it. If you remember from your calculus days, it's like a limit. I'm going to reach back to my days of philosophy and political theory to apply some of those basic ideas to what we can do in sports, though. I refuse to apologize in advance for any verbosity; I'm writing about philosophy, so it comes with the territory. I emphasize that this interpretation is merely that; this is not necessarily my viewpoint on the matter, but it is my interpretation and application of a theory to the problem. I believe it has value to have multiple theories because then to some degree, we pick and choose from the best to figure out what we should do in real life (as opposed to academic life or in this case, speculative internet life)
Kantian/Normative approach: I think the best way to summarize Immanuel Kant's theory (aside from watching the video) is to provide you with the Categorical Imperative, which is really the central tenet of Kantian theory: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law without contradiction." Under this idea, we have to think of our actions as though they were universal, and what that would mean. The example I like is lying. If we propose the idea "tell the truth," well then this works. It doesn't really present any logical contradictions. On the other hand, if we propose "telling lies is morally acceptable," we end up with a logical downward spiral. The idea of a lie is based on a presumption of knowing the truth. Therefore, if people universally lie, then knowing the truth is impossible (this of course, notwithstanding ideas like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and its applications to metaphysics...ok, now my brain hurts). These are perfect duties I have described; they are things we can constantly do, and we are blamed for not abiding by the maxim "tell the truth" and "do not steal" and so on. As it pertains to sports, we have the idea of "stay in bounds," "take only approved substances," "go around the cone at the out-and-back," and other maxims that are perfect duties. With respect to imperfect duties, these are duties that we are not blamed for not doing, but praised for doing. The example in the Wikipedia article on the Categorical Imperative is "cultivate one's talents." One cannot perpetually do this of course, or else you're not actually doing your talents. Nobody is going to fault you really for not cultivating your talents (except your mother, of course, and mothers preempt all philosophical discourse). The best analogy I can come up with for sports is to help beginners. Of course we cannot do this constantly as athletes, but it is something we should do, and if we will universally that experienced athletes help new athletes, I fail to see any logical conundrums that would result (aside from having Ironman races cost $1,000...oh wait...)
So if my rambling has made any sense thus far, you can see that Kantian ethics revolve very much around universality. Especially with regards to cheating, this of course flies in the very face of it. If athletes universally cheated, then you find yourself watching professional wrestling on television, because sports would be nothing more than a soap opera for fans to watch, rather than a contest of human strength, endurance, agility, and intellect (threw that in for golfers). What does this mean for how we deal with cheaters, though? Fortunately for the centuries' worth of philosophy students since his time, Kant took the time to apply his theory to justice so we undergrad humanities majors did not. Kantian justice operates on the principle of retributivism; punishment is required and ought to be proportional to the crime. In this idea, without punishment, law becomes unstable and a logical contradiction in and of itself (much in the same way property does if we allow stealing, truth if we allow lying, sports if we allow cheating, and so on). It's merely another maxim by which we are to act: "Punish those who break the rules/law." It seems simple enough, but it's far from the most common approaches to attacking cheating in sports. As I understand it, this would mean Kant would not be as inclined to be ok with plea bargains and reduced sentences for cooperation like we are seeing in cycling today. Instead, retributivism would favor an approach of punishing every athlete who ever cheats. This means everybody, from the doping ring leader and the gamblers who fixed the 1919 World Series all the way down to the local 5k stroller runner who cuts a corner. Of course, they receive proportional punishments. Maybe the stroller runner course cutter gets a small time penalty or at the very worst perhaps a DQ from the race results. The doping ring leader deserves a much more stringent penalty. In some ways, by fostering an atmosphere of making it necessary to cheat to compete (cycling in the 1990s, women's swimming pre-Berlin Wall, etc) they have made it impossible for other athletes to ever compete, "killing" them as athletes. Therefore, as in the same way the the only logical Kantian punishment for murder is the death penalty, the only logical punishment for an egregious doper, one who made it impossible to compete without cheating, would be a lifetime ban. I'll reiterate what I said earlier though: this is not my view, but merely my application of a theory to the problem.
Because of its focus on universality, a Kantian approach allows for no leniency on the rules as they are written. This means that the masters-level cyclist who is taking testosterone for diagnosed low-T but without a Therapeutic Use Exemption is potentially subject to the same scrutiny as the Pro Tour rider who is having a blood transfusion after every stage of the race. I know there are people in the sports world who see this as completely perfect, yet there are others who find this to be completely asinine. There is the potential for a middle ground, though.
This approach of a punishment proportional to the offense seems common sense, but it certainly has its complications. After all, there is a lot of interpretation about what's proportional, such as my example in the previous paragraph. It seems impossible to decide what the magnitude of an infraction of the rules of play, whether course completion, spying on the other football team, taking a dive in hockey, or using banned substances. It only begins to approach a feasible task if we include circumstances, intents, and other factors, yet this is counter to the very idea of universal maxims for moral behavior because it removes their universality. So for that reason, we cannot abide strictly by a Kantian ideal of sports ethics (or anything for that matter), but it still leaves us unsure as to how we should proceed in this mess. Fortunately, we have other theories at our disposal that may shed a better light on this, which I will cover in a follow-up to this.
Sorry, philosophy tends to be about words, not silly line drawings or embarrassing  photos of me and/or my girlfriend.

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