“Natural” Talents and Dedication—Meanings and Values in Sport


Blog Editor

Publish date

June 4, 2018

This post also appears as an editorial in the June 2018 issue of The American Journal of Bioethics.

by Thomas H. Murray, Ph.D.

“Good ethics begins with good facts” is a mantra I learned in my early years at The Hastings Center. The relevant facts include, of course, scientific and medical ones. But just as important are the forces that shape perceptions, motivations, and outcomes. The importance of understanding those factors—call them grounded realities—soon became clear in my first major research assignment: the ethics of performance enhancing drug use in sport.

The bioethics literature circa 1980 led me to expect to find athletes struggling against the unjustified paternalistic restraints of anti-doping zealots. Listening to elite athletes, their coaches and others in that world, I heard a very different story. Where drugs made a palpable difference—and they had no doubt that anabolic steroids and amphetamines did—athletes faced three unhappy choices: compete without doping and face nearly certain disappointment; give up competing at the level their talent and dedication warrant; or dope like their competitors hoping thereby to “level the playing field.” The relentless competitive dynamic of sport coupled with the reality that performance enhancing drugs can overwhelm differences in talents and dedication has profound consequences for health, values, and meanings.

It takes no special insight to see that excellent performance in sport requires both raw talent and the virtuous perfection of that talent. Our sense of marvel at extraordinary athletic feats is a combination of wonder at the talents embodied in that particular athlete, and admiration for the effort, dedication, discernment and other morally praiseworthy attributes that shaped their performance.

The idea that “natural” talents should be valued at all can seem strange. Natural talents are not earned or deserved in any way; why should they be celebrated, honored, rewarded? Loland’s argument in this issue is particularly helpful. Descriptively, it provides a scientific rationale for distinguishing between “natural” methods of enhancing a person’s athletic capacities and other methods, such as drugs, that directly modify one’s physiology. Normatively, it demonstrates the connection between the morally unearned natural talents, and the hard, dedicated and morally admirable work of training, which is essential to the development of that talent and, ultimately, to performance.

At its heart, the debate over PEDs in sport is an argument over what sport is about. One possible answer to that question was supplied in the famous Seinfeld episode “The Pitch,” in which George suggests to Jerry that they propose to network executives a show about their everyday lives and conversations—in other words, about nothing. Or, if not nothing, perhaps sport is merely entertainment, or as some have suggested of modern athletes, “Their ideal is superhuman performance, at any cost.”

Loland defends an alternative: Sport as a testing ground for “the admirable development of natural talents towards excellence”—a reformulation of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s description of the “spirit of sport.” The quarrel isn’t over “admirable development” or “excellence”; rather, it’s over the moral significance of “natural talents.” Why should natural talents make a difference in the outcome of sport competitions? And why should we celebrate them rather than do all we can to neutralize their impact in favor of morally praiseworthy attributes of persons?

The first hurdle to clear is conceptual: Given that the idea of “natural” is ineliminably contestable, can it bear any moral weight at all? Loland cites Kaebnick on behalf of the value of “serviceable” moral concepts such as kindness, cruelty, generosity and integrity. It’s worth following Kaebnick further: “In deciding whether the concept of nature is coherent, then, the question is not whether there is some one clear definition of it that lets us sort out every case, but whether it is serviceable, in roughly the way that many other morally significant terms are. How the term is applied to the world must be more than mere smoke, but need not be black and white”.

Loland and Hoppeler propose a distinction grounded in the science of human performance, specifically in how individuals respond and adapt to the physiological stresses involved in training. The problem with performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) such as endurance-boosting biosynthetic erythropoietin (EPO), then, is that they are biochemical shortcuts—they modify bodies directly rather than relying on the normal, natural processes of adaptation to training. Training comes about through dedication, perseverance, the willingness to suffer in the pursuit of a worthwhile goal—things we find morally admirable.

There are many ways to run or swim faster, jump higher or throw farther. Take swimming: you can train assiduously, eat healthy food, and attend carefully to your coach’s instructions. You can wear super-slippery full-body swimsuits made of impermeable fabric that increases your buoyancy by trapping air against your body. Or you can take performance enhancing drugs. FINA, the international organization that governs Olympic swimming, applauds dedicated, smart training, but, after years of record-shattering times enabled by the special swimsuits, banned them from competition. The suits, it seemed, had changed the nature of the sport in the judgment of people most familiar with it, making outcomes more a function of technology than of the talent and dedication of the swimmer. PEDs, like special swimsuits, are technologies that enable swimmers to go faster. But how much of the credit goes to the athlete and how much to the people who created and supplied the drugs? East Germany dominated women’s Olympic swimming for years. We now know that dominance was rooted in a state-run program of systematic doping that blighted the lives and the health of many young women.

Every sport competition faces this question: Of the myriad of factors that could influence performance and outcomes, which are the ones we hope are decisive? We then do what we can to reduce the impact of everything else. That is why teams switch sides of the field or court during the contest; why we place limits on equipment, so that superior technology cannot dictate the outcome.

The International Paralympics Committee (IPC) uses four “fundamental principles” in evaluating equipment: Safety, Fairness, Universality, and Physical Prowess. They explain what they mean by fairness: “…the athlete does not receive an unfair advantage that is not within the ‘spirit’ of the event they are contesting.” Universality dictates that the technology must be “reasonably commercially available to all.” Physical Prowess describes what should be decisive: “human performance is the critical endeavor not the impact of technology and equipment,” thus the prohibition against technologies that “enhance performance beyond the natural physical capacity of the athlete”.

Paralympic competitors want results to reflect talent and effort, not differences in equipment, doping, or type or level of impairment. The IPC recognizes ten impairment categories and, within categories, “classifications” representing degrees of severity. That is why, while the 2016 Rio Olympics held two final races in the 100 meter sprint, one for men, one for women, that year’s Paralympic Games required 30 finals so that regardless of type or severity of impairment or gender, every competitor has an opportunity to win according to her or his talent and dedication.

Immersion in the realities of sport can also play a positive philosophical role. Good Sport: Why Our Games Matter…And How Doping Undermines Them is an effort to understand what gives sport its meaning and values. It explores critically how sport’s rules and practices reflect underlying beliefs and values about fairness, the wonders and frailties of our bodies, and the crucial importance of virtues in bringing natural talents to competitive fruition. The analysis relies on close observation of how and why people play, and how sport strives to foster fair and meaningful competitions.

In Spheres of Justice, Michael Walzer described a similar approach to a different problem: “Another way of doing philosophy is to interpret to one’s fellow citizens the world of meanings that we share.” In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls writes: “We start…by looking to the public culture itself as the shared fund of implicitly recognized basic ideas and principles. We hope to formulate these ideas and principles clearly enough to be combined into a political conception of justice congenial to our most firmly held convictions. We express this by saying that a political conception of justice, to be acceptable, must accord with our considered convictions, at all levels of generality, on due reflection, or in what I have called elsewhere “reflective equilibrium”.

Shared meanings within the communities that play and love sport include ideas, principles and firmly held convictions such as a profound commitment to fairness in competition and great respect for the admirable dedication athletes must show to develop successfully their natural talents. The talents themselves are not earned or deserved or worthy of moral praise; either you have them or you don’t. On the other hand, it matters very much morally whether and how you perfect those talents. In Good Sport, I argue that the likely outcome of such a process is a conception of sport that celebrates the virtuous perfection of natural talents. This conception renders intelligible our considered judgments, practices, rules and customs in sport.

In his extensive and influential scholarship on philosophy of sport, Loland has made many notable contributions. His article in this issue of AJOB provides a persuasive account of how a contestable yet “serviceable” concept of natural talents can buttress useful distinctions and help resolve controversies over various methods of improving performance.

Loland’s sport-specific version of the Fair Equality of Opportunity norm demands that we eliminate or compensate for inequalities we can’t control or be held responsible for. Natural talents, of course, are just that sort of inequality. He asserts that competitive sport is “primarily meritocratic.” This is true, but only against the reality that athletes competing in elite sport all possess abundant natural talents. Among those of roughly equal talents, hard work, courage, and intelligence shape the outcomes. In that sense, competitive sport is indeed meritocratic, but it is undeniable that sport also recognizes and celebrates natural talents.

Those of us lacking great natural talents for sport need not despair. If we wish to compete, we can usually find communities of competitors at our talent level so that morally relevant factors such as dedication and preparation prevail. Even if we don’t want to compete against others, we can channel that dedication into improving our own performance, pushing ourselves to discover what our body and our will can accomplish.

When I first began investigating the ethics of performance enhancing drugs in sport, it soon became apparent that individuals and organizations surrounding athletes—what I came to call the doping ecosystem—were also responsible. Doping is a threat to what is meaningful and valuable to sport, to be sure; it thrives in an environment of weak governance along with other corrupt practices such as the abuse of young athletes and match-fixing. For the sake of justice and meaning, we must hold all those involved in sport—not merely athletes—accountable.

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