So Why Are Performance-Enhancing Drugs Wrong?

ESPN’s Outside the Lines reports that “Major League Baseball will seek to suspend about 20 players connected to the Miami-area clinic at the heart of an ongoing performance-enhancing drug scandal, including Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun. . . . If the suspensions are upheld, the performance-enhancing drug scandal would be the largest in American sports history.”

It’s worth thinking through the ethics of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). If everyone is doing it, is it still wrong? Would they be okay if they were regulated and administered safely? Do our answers say say something about the nature of the game itself? Do they say something about our view of human nature?

Justin Barnard—director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship and associate professor of philosophy at Union University—has done some helpful work on this and related questions. Here is an excerpt:

Thole point of using performance-enhancing drugs is to hit the ball harder and hence, farther. But while the ability to hit the ball well (e.g., hard) is a good, it is only one good, among many, in the game of baseball considered as a whole. And among those for whom it is morally bothersome, this is precisely what bothers fans when heroes are exposed for having violated the purity of the game.

Specifically, the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball violates the integral relationship that exists among all of the game’s goods considered as a whole by virtue of employing means (i.e., performance-enhancing drugs) which, by their very nature, treat a single good as though it were an exclusive end in itself (i.e., the good of hitting the ball a very long distance or even more basically, the good of raw athletic power or strength). By their very nature, performance-enhancing drugs work so as to maximize a single good (e.g., muscles that are bigger, faster, stronger, etc.). Moreover, the use of such drugs in baseball (or in any other sport for that matter) implicitly treats the single good at which the drug aims as though it were the most important or only good of the game considered as a whole. That this is false about home-run-hitting is illustrated by the robotic baseball thought experiment. If merely hitting the ball (very far!) were the most important or only good of the game of baseball considered as a whole, why not get rid of the players and replace them with machines? After all, we already have the technology to create machines capable of hitting baseballs farther than most steroid-enhanced players alive!

Of course, the thought experiment helps us to realize that home-run-hitting, exciting and important as it is, is merely one good among many in the game of baseball considered as a whole. Activities like the use of performance-enhancing drugs trouble us morally—not merely because of the conventions of the game—but more significantly because they violate the overarching goodness of the unity of the game’s goods, considered as a whole.