Utilitarianism and drugs in sport

Simon Smart explores the way the drugs in sport scandal reveals the limits of utilitarian thinking.

Last year’s release of a Crime Commission report promised to shine a bright light into some dark corners of Australian sport. Penalties handed out by ASADA to both the Essendon Bombers and the Cronulla Sharks have once again highlighted a murky story plenty of sports-lovers would rather just forget. 

But should we really be surprised if needles and chemical concoctions prove to be as much a part of our favourite team’s successes as a mercurial halfback, centre-half-forward or striker?

When the dominant ethic of our age tells us to do “whatever it takes” to achieve our desired outcomes (even if those are good outcomes), we live with the implications of the belief.

These days professional athletes know they are commodities and their bodies the tools of a corporate machine. Even if they “make it” their time in the sun is extremely limited and many operate in an environment where the slightest advantage in dynamic power, speed and endurance can be the difference between getting that coveted contract and sponsorship, or not. Temptation must be great.

But there are other more foundational reasons why this sort of practice ought not be a shock to us. The ethic of Utilitarianism has increasingly dominated our society’s understanding of right and wrong ever since the 19th Century when European intellectuals tossed aside God but remained interested in what constitutes a good life.

Utilitarianism is in the air we breathe from a young age and unsurprisingly that includes our sports stars and those who look after them. Utilitarianism essentially asks that we assess our actions on the basis of whether or not they will lead to more or less happiness—we are taught to decide whether something is right or wrong solely on the results of the action. This sounds fine to a modern ear and is not all that easy to criticise. We all resonate with the desire for more happiness and less suffering.

But a Utilitarian ethic promotes a mentality in which the ends justify the means in a way that can have serious repercussions. The Utilitarian will say that no action is right or wrong in itself. It is usually wrong to steal or cheat or break a promise but it’s not always wrong. The test is whether there will be more or less happiness as a result of an action. I imagine this explains how, until his spectacular fall from grace, Lance Armstrong was able to curl up under his doona and sleep soundly at night, believing his elaborate hoax to be justified through the joy it brought to millions and the attention it gave to his Livestrong cancer foundation.

Armstrong admitted to Oprah that he had used banned substances during all seven of his Tour de France titles, but in a show of breathtaking linguistic gymnastics, Armstrong denied that his actions made him a cheat. Everyone else was doing it so it was a “level playing field,” according to the fallen King of Le Tour.

And while Armstrong may simply be prone to stunning self-deception, in his story we begin to see some of the many limitations of Utilitarianism and the residue of its influence. It is, for instance, very hard to measure or predict the outcomes of an action and sometimes we simply get such calculations wrong. We are not always very good at judging the potential results of our own choices and their impact on others.

But we have swallowed this way of thinking and its influence is everywhere. Utilitarianism is evident in bioethics where desired outcomes frequently outweigh other complex ethical considerations and unintended consequences that are not easy to calculate. Australian philosopher Peter Singer believes that it is right to kill severely disabled babies because they and their families will suffer terribly if these children are allowed to live. But plenty of disabled people and their families disagree and are very glad they have been granted life.

It is Utilitarianism that makes it possible for the U.S. Government to use drone strikes to obliterate not only the life of a suspected terrorist but his entire family and entourage—and for there to be little outrage in response to these actions of the champion of democracy. It was Utilitarian thinking that energised and enabled the era of post 9-11 “enhanced interrogation” techniques—“Whatever it takes” being the explicit mantra of the Bush administration.

It’s Utilitarianism that allows economists to make decisions to decide the fate of whole companies and even communities using only models of growth to guide their decisions. Instead of asking “Is it right?” we can simply ask, “Will it work?”

If we have nothing beyond ourselves to provide wisdom for how to live, we become prone to an ethic where the strong and influential simply decide what’s right and wrong. History shows that such an environment does not augur well for the weak.

When such a feeble moral framework holds such sway in our culture, is it any wonder that some of our young sportsmen and women might lack the ethical resources to say no to the promise of better performance? The short sightedness of Utilitarianism fits neatly into the murky snatch-and-grab world of performance enhancing drugs and even match fixing, which may also be part of the landscape to be unveiled.

When these scandals hit the headlines the sporting tragics among us find ourselves disillusioned and increasingly cynical. We yearn for a past era when words like truth, faithfulness, loyalty, and trust still had a place in the athletic arena. Yet while we bemoan the selfish egoism of our times, perhaps the thing we ought to most regret is the influence of a system of ethics that has removed the foundation upon which a person might choose to resist pressure and temptation. It isn’t easy to settle for actions that cost dearly in the short term, but maybe that’s a price worth paying if ultimately one’s moral, even spiritual, integrity remains intact.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

This article first appeared at Online Opinion.