Lance Armstrong As The Status Quo: An Unethical Essay From An Ethics Expert

Don’t worry, Lance. Braden Allenby understands you. You were just ahead of your time, that’s all.

There are many things to learn from Prof. Braden Allenby’s Washington Post essay, “Lance Armstrong’s fall: A case for allowing performance enhancement,” none of which have anything to do with Lance Armstrong. Among the lessons:

  • “Everybody does it “really is the most seductive and sinister rationalization for unethical conduct.
  • Someone really shouldn’t write about sports ethics when they know nothing about sports.
  • If you only understand an author’s bias after reading the short biographical sketch at the end of the article, then he wasn’t responsibly correcting for his bias in his article.
  • When someone uses the worst of all rationalizations, the deplorable, “It’s not the worst thing,” neither their judgment nor their argument can be trusted.
  • Some ethics experts have appalling judgment in regarding ethics.

Allenby’s essay takes the position that all sports should allow athletes to take whatever performance enhancing drugs that become available, beginning with the tragedy of Lance Armstrong’s final disgrace as a cheater and corrupter of his sport. Seldom do you see an argument clothesline itself so quickly: here is Allenby’s opening sally:

“In the past month, cyclist Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. His commercial sponsors, including Nike, have fled. He has resigned as chairman of Livestrong, the anti-cancer charity he founded. Why? Because the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the International Cycling Union say he artificially enhanced his performance in ways not approved by his sport and helped others on his team do the same. This may seem like justice, but that’s an illusion. Whether Armstrong cheated is not the core consideration. Rather, his case shows that enhancement is here to stay. If everyone’s enhancing, it’s a reality that we should embrace.”

Astonishing. “This may seem like justice”? Armstrong did break the rules, not only helped others to do the same but bullied them into it, worked to undermine the testing procedures, used the false narrative that he had succeeded as a cancer survivor on raw determination and strength of character to make millions of dollars for himself and to persuade donors to give to his charity on false pretenses, and lied to the press, his sport, his fans and the public about his innocence. Of course stripping him of his titles and his endorsement contracts constitute justice.

Having established that he believes that such misconduct as lying, cheating, fraud and inducing others to break rules and laws for one’s own gain does not warrant punishment, Professor Allenby launches a breathtaking series of ethically or factually flawed arguments:

1.  Everybody’s cheating in sports, so we should “get over it.” “In an earlier time,” he writes, “rules limiting the use of such technology may have been a brave attempt to prevent cheating. Now, they are increasingly ineffectual. Humans are becoming a design space. That athletes are on the cutting edge of this engineering domain is neither a prediction nor a threat. It is the status quo.”  Allenby’s argument would extend to allowing students to plagiarize material on the web and present it as their own as well. The theory that the “status quo” must be accepted as the ethical starting point is systemically suicidal as well as philosophically invalid. The purpose of ethics is to make things better. The author’s assessment of the status quo regarding sports is also false: everybody in sports are not cheating. It is true that virtually everybody in Lance Armstrong’s sport is cheating, thanks in great part to Lance Armstrong, and the sport is in tatters as a result.

This is also the first appearance of Allenby’s bias. His field is engineering and technology; naturally he believes that more is better. He and his colleagues are the people who develop the technologies athletes use to cheat. Of course he thinks they should be allowed to do it openly and legally, and the more the better.

2. What matters most in sports is levels of performance. “Can you imagine Babe Ruth using a low-oxygen chamber that simulated a high-altitude environment to increase his red-blood-cell count and improve his respiratory system’s efficiency? That’s just one new way a player can get an edge,” Allenby writes.

Wow, how exciting. I think it’s more impressive to realize that Babe Ruth outperformed his competition, re-wrote the record book, transformed his sport and thrilled a nation as an undisciplined, sometimes drunk, poorly-conditioned orphan out of the slums of Baltimore using nothing more than the talents he was born with and the skills he perfected with practice and determination. Allenby really thinks that sports lovers care most about how well athletes can perform. Undoubtedly, some would be happy to watch freaks and robots compete, but the love of sports is fueled in most fans with admiration for human beings competing using their own abilities, perfected to the level that they can perfect them, without artificial, not to mention surreptitious, enhancements.

3. “Why not add drugs and other technologies to the list of legal enhancements, especially when most of us are enhancing our workplace concentration with a morning coffee or energy shot?” Yes, this educator, scholar and lawyer really makes this fatuous and hackneyed argument. To begin with, it’s a non sequitur. How does the widespread use of coffee argue for the legalization of human growth hormone? At best, it is a poor excuse for allowing amphetamines in sports, so athletes can be alert too. The real foolishness of this argument is that most people’s performance in the workplace isn’t a competition in which fairness the appearance of integrity is paramount. Nor does a cup of coffee or two translate into success or failure, with non-coffee drinkers doomed to the latter.

4. False definition of the opposing position.  Ah, what unethical argument would be complete without a straw man? “Mischaracterizing a fundamental change in sports as merely individual violations of the rules has serious consequences,” writes Allenby.  “For example, this thinking has led to inadequate research on the risks of enhancement technologies, especially new ones. Why research something that can’t be used?” Who has ever characterized the problem of cheating in sports or anywhere as “merely individual violations”?  It is a cultural problem, created by societal emphasis on tangible and monetary rewards over values and character, nurtured by weak leadership and negligent oversight, and endorsed by irresponsible authorities like Allenby.

5. “My anecdotal class surveys show that students have significant skepticism about the reported side effects of such treatments and drugs, as well as perceptions of bias among regulators against enhancement. As a result of such attitudes, there’s a tendency to play down the risks of some technologies. Call it the “Reefer Madness” response — ignoring real risks because you think the danger is exaggerated. This is ignorance born of prohibition.” I give the professor kudos for a truly original crack-pot justification. Make something legal so you can prove that it’s more dangerous than we already think it is. Bravo! Those who resent authority prohibiting any conduct will naturally rationalize their violation of the prohibition by questioning the legitimacy of the reasons behind the prohibition, whether the conduct is heroin use, child labor or discrimination against gays. Allenby’s solution: legalize the conduct. Then scientists will be motivated to prove that the regulators were right all along!

6. Hey, we do worse than this already! Finally, Allenby’s thesis and reasoning rock bottom with the full-throated endorsement of the most nauseating rationalization of them all: “It’s not the worst thing.”* He writes, “If we allow football players to take violent hits and suffer concussions so that we might be entertained, why not allow them to use substances that might cause them health problems? It’s their decision.”  Why? Because it is wrong, that’s why. It is wrong to induce athletes to harm themselves by making it profitable for them to do so. We shouldn’t allow football players to take violent hits, suffer concussions, and be cognitively and critically damaged, their lives shortened and their family life devastated, “so that we might be entertained.” Educating the public so that it understands that is what applying ethics to sports is supposed to accomplish. Allenby, the ethics expert, argues instead that we should encourage more athletes to harm themselves for our amusement, because, after all, allowing performance enhancing drugs may not destroy as many lives as the NFL’s concussions.

7. This is an ethics expert who doesn’t comprehend the importance of integrity to sports, and doesn’t think anyone else does. He writes,

“In professional sports, normal people do not compete normally. We watch athletes who are enhanced — through top-notch training, equipment and sometimes illegal substances — compete for our amusement. And, despite our sanctimonious claims that this is wrong, we like it that way. So we do athletes a deep disservice by clinging to our whimsical illusion of reality at the cost of their livelihood. If you yearn to watch “purer” athletes, check out a Division III football game. Visit the minor league ballpark near you. Set up an amateur league. Better yet, train for a marathon sans enhancement. But don’t force the Tour de France to cling to outdated ideas of how athletes pedaling for their professional lives should behave. Cyclists have enhanced, are enhancing now and will continue to enhance.”

And cycling, as a spectator sport, is reeling. Fans want to know who the better athlete is, not who has the best chemist. Sure, there is a significant segment of the sports viewing public that doesn’t care about integrity and character; look at the popularity of professional wrestling. Integrity and character, however, are inseparable from sport, and the public does care about them, even if Allenby doesn’t. Declaring cheating to be legal won’t necessarily stop a practice from being viewed as wrong and corrosive to a sport and its spirit.

The essay closes with this:

“In his stubborn refusal to admit guilt in the face of the evidence, maybe this is what Armstrong is trying to tell us.”

No, Professor Allenby. In his stubborn refusal to admit guilt in the face of the evidence, Lance Armstrong is telling us that he is a liar, a fraud, an unapologetic cheat, and a fake champion who refuses to be accountable for the fact that he succeeded not because he was faster, stronger and more courageous but because he had better drugs.

Your kind of guy, in other words.

*  From the Ethics Alarms rationalizations list: 

21. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.” If “Everybody does it” is the Golden Rationalization, this is the bottom of the barrel. Yet amazingly, this excuse is popular in high places: witness the “Abu Ghraib was bad, but our soldiers would never cut off Nick Berg’s head” argument that was common during the height of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. It is true that for most ethical misconduct, there are indeed “worse things.” Lying to your boss in order to goof off at the golf course isn’t as bad as stealing a ham, and stealing a ham is nothing compared selling military secrets to North Korea. So what? We judge human conduct against ideals of good behavior that we aspire to, not by the bad behavior of others. One’s objective is to be the best human being that we can be, not to just avoid being the worst rotter anyone has ever met.

Behavior has to be assessed on its own terms, not according to some imaginary comparative scale. The fact that someone’s act is more or less ethical than yours has no effect on the ethical nature of your conduct. “There are worse things” is not an argument; it’s the desperate cry of someone who has run out of rationalizations.


Source: Washington Post

Graphic: Freaking News

7 thoughts on “Lance Armstrong As The Status Quo: An Unethical Essay From An Ethics Expert

  1. If I made the rules, I would not care if cyclists doped. Doping per se is not immoral.

    Armstrong explicitly agreed to a set of rules, and not only did he willfully break them, he assisted others in doing so. That is what makes it wrong.

  2. When I look at the list of Tour de France winners, I only see three years since 1999 where the winner wasn’t someone who was caught doping. This shows the sport has no integrity. If you are the tour organizers or the sport of cycling, I don’t know how you can keep the charade going. Your winners are all cheaters because cheating works and you don’t/can’t stop it. If you have any athletes who aren’t cheating, they aren’t able to compete with the winners. I can see the temptation to allow doping or at least allow it in an “unlimited” class. The “sport” of cycling is on the line. There aren’t that many people in the world who will watch for weeks to find out who is the best cheater.

    I just don’t see how they are going to fix the mess on their hands. They may give up on trying to enforce rules and integrity and allow doping, but that is not an ethical thing to do. Who is going to administer the blood packing, the steroids, the hormones? There are laws and medical protocols about these things and they don’t allow it even if cycling says its OK. That is the additional layer that makes the whole thing thoroughly immoral.

  3. There are all sorts of enhancers that become commonplace in sports (shoes with boingier rubber, for example). But none of these become accepted through clandestine use. If someone wants to use an enhancer, they should say, “Hey, I’m using this — is it ok?” BEFORE they compete. They shouldn’t use it, lie about using it, and then say “Ok, I used it, but it wasn’t wrong” AFTER it has been explicitly declared not to be ok. There are genuinely interesting questions about where to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate enhancers, but I am unpersuaded that the difficulty of answering those questions means efforts to do so should be scrapped.

  4. It is a myth that even MOST cyclists are dopers. I recall reading that only about a third of the tour athletes were users. Those cheaters gained a distinct advantage, Lance included. Lance especially.
    That’s why the thing that drives me nuts about the Armstrong fiasco is people saying “everyone did it.” Everyone didn’t, and if Armstrong and the other juicers hadn’t cheated, some more deserving cyclist would have won some of those Tours. To claim otherwise is a slap in the face to all the poor saps who kept their word and played by the rules.
    Including the poor fellow who was rejected from Armstrong’s team, almost certainly because of his personal convictions against using.

  5. …This is consistent with the essay’s author, I had to listen to him give an hour-long anti-morality speech at an ethics symposium recently. Seeing him on a website called “Ethics Alarms” made me die laughing, but it’s fitting considering how many alarms went off while he was talking…

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