The Ethics of Performance Enhancement

In class today we talked about the prevalence of performance-enhancing substances in academic and professional settings. I think this question tugs at something essential in our societal value system. It raises the following question: do we prefer “natural” humans or do we want the best performance possible from all members of society? Performance-enhancement is vastly different from genetic engineering because it is voluntary. I think this is the key difference and the factor that ultimately separates it from eugenics agendas. Performance-enhancement is what humans have been doing for their entire history. Now we just have tools that directly affect our electrochemical impulses, and perhaps down the road we will have tools that can modify our genetic blueprints.

To briefly address Robert’s post below, I think what bothers people about performance-enhancing drugs in sports is that sports, in their purest sense, are an artistic/aesthetic endeavor that tests the limits of human capabilities. Additionally, these athletes are damaging their bodies in the long run, those very same bodies that we as a culture believe worthy of praise and emulation. If those bodies are being damaged for short-term gain and we ignore it in light of our love for the spectacle it provides, what does that say about our aesthetic values in sports?

Although there is money in sports and certainly financial incentive to dope, I think the marginal benefits would be paltry compared to a real performance-enhancing substance in the academic and professional world. I think the reason that there is not widespread use of such a substance is that no such substance exists. So we’re safe from really evaluating this question as a society. As much as people complain about Ritalin and Adderall in professional and academic settings, there is still very little empirical data for its effects on people who aren’t prescribed.

Just as a brief thought experiment, though, what would it be like in a society of doctors, executives, lawyers, bankers, etc. that all doped up for their brainstorming meetings or surgeries? Would we approve of this culture if performance really was better?  If, because of some substance, we made more money, saved more lives?  What if we could read, write, and do more over the course of a lifetime?

For instance, the Air Force endorses voluntary use of dexedrine to pilots in order to increase alertness and response times. Assuming it does indeed give the pilots an edge, should we as Americans also endorse this practice so we have the best possible pilots? I think if you answer in the positive, it’s very easy to translate the practice into the academic and professional worlds. Indeed, I think the question is not so much whether performance-enhancing substances would be used rampantly, but rather how they would be regulated.

Here’s a quick article on dexedrine use in the Air Force that paints performance-enhancing substances in a less than positive light. I’m sure you can find plenty of good arguments on both sides of the issue.  I think conclusions on the subject are largely indeterminate because of the speculative nature of the subject, but it’s interesting for thought on a Friday afternoon.

-Eric D.

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~ by HV on April 2, 2010.

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