Lance Armstrong and the Future of Performance Enhancement

CORRECTS YEAR OF FILE PHOTO TO 2004, NOT, 2005 - FILE - In this July 22, 2004, file photo, overall leader Lance Armstrong rea
CORRECTS YEAR OF FILE PHOTO TO 2004, NOT, 2005 - FILE - In this July 22, 2004, file photo, overall leader Lance Armstrong reacts as he crosses the finish line to win the 17th stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Bourd-d'Oisans and Le Grand Bornand, French Alps. Federal prosecutors said, Friday, Feb. 3, 2012, they are closing a criminal investigation of Armstrong and will not charge him over allegations the seven-time Tour de France winner used performance-enhancing drugs. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours, File)

Stripped of his seven Tour de France cycling titles by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) for using steroids and blood doping, Lance Armstrong is the latest athlete to be tainted by charges of using banned substances. Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and others preceded him. As their example demonstrates, the use of performance-enhancing drugs is not limited to cycling but has been evident in baseball (and football and other sports) as well.

Nor are sports the only aspect of our culture in which drugs are taken to boost performance. Some high school and college students, for example, take Adderall, a drug designed for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), to boost their ability to do well on standardized and other tests. The drugs helps them focus and concentrate, an aid to high performance on these tests that can help secure admission to a prestigious college or entry into a lucrative career.

As the USADA puts it in its mission statement, it is promoting: "fair play, respect for one's competitor and respect for the fundamental fairness of competition." In short, when athletes take performance enhancing drugs, they cheat. This violates a core value, the critical importance of fair competition in the race for success. Performance enhancing drugs put those who play by the rules at an unfair disadvantage.

But it is not just the concern for fair play that raises our scruples about the use of performance enhancing drugs. Would we feel better if all athletes were permitted to take them? Would that not level the playing field? Would we care about Lance Armstrong's actions if all his competitors were allowed (even encouraged) to take drugs as well?

If that thought makes you morally gag, that is because something else is at work. It's not just that performance enhancing drugs are unfair. Nor is it just because we worry about their long term effects on the body and/or mind, though we should and do. It's because, as the USADA puts it, such drugs destroy the "values and life lessons learned through true sport."

As humans, we value accomplishment when it is attained through dedication and hard work. Performance enhancing drugs violate what it means to be human and cheapen human achievement. How do we know what we have really achieved if "we" is defined as "me + drugs"?
This would seem to close the case, but Lance Armstrong is not the end of the matter. He is the canary in the coal mine of performance enhancement through modern technology.

What if the genes for heart size (larger heart, more oxygen pumped through the body) or muscle efficiency, two factors thought to have helped Armstrong, had been inserted into Armstrong through gene therapy? That's performance enhancement too. Would that be more acceptable? What if germline engineering, in which these genes are inserted during conception, could help a parent give their future son (or daughter) the capacity to excel in cycling? No drug or postnatal therapy is involved in that case. We couldn't even fault the child -- later adult -- competitor.

Before you routinely reject that last example by saying that this is "unfair" as well, consider another question. If parents want to ensure their child is as smart as possible, given how competitive the race for success is these days, should they be allowed to insert genes to raise IQ by 5 points? 10 points? 25 points? (See Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben for an excellent treatment of this broad issue.)

In short, the Lance Armstrong case represents a set of questions that goes well beyond sports. What does it mean to be human? What is permissible "enhancement?" What is fairness in the race of life? What values should guide this conversation: the long-term health of individuals and society or the. short-term demands for high performance? the desires of the individual (or a child's parents) or the interests of the broader community? the individual freedom to choose or the goal of equality that may demand the restriction of individual liberty?

The Armstrong case should alert us to something -- a set of value conflicts and questions -- that demands our ethical attention before it explodes and leaves us wondering how we got where we are. There may be no drug to undo any damage when that day comes.