One of the more memorable lines from The Dark Knight is when the Joker tells Batman the he “isn’t a monster” but rather is “just ahead of the curve.” If that’s true, it makes one worry for what is ahead.
Is doping the way forward in sports? Is the future of human excellence in the laboratory rather than the gymnasium? Some seem to think so.
I remember watching Michael Jordan when I was a kid. I remember seeing how he made basketball seem so easy. The ball seemed to be almost like an extension of his very body. You couldn’t take that ball from him any more than you could snatch his hand off his arm.
Yet, I didn’t understand how truly good he was until I tried to emulate his actions when I played basketball. I was frustrated when I couldn’t just fake a crossover with the same grace and precision he could, and when I couldn’t glide through defense as if they weren’t there. I learned the hard way-- Michael Jordan worked very hard to be Michael Jordan.
The age of hard work may be coming to an end. In 2010, the L.A. Times reported that “human athletic performance has peaked, and only cheating or technological advances will result in a rash of new world records…Achievement appears to have plateaued throughout the sports world.” In other words, we may have achieved all that can be achieved naturally. The way forward, some are arguing, is to allow regulated, monitored doping. Why the lack of faith in training? According to Denis Cummings, “Through the 20th century, as elite athletes devoted more of their lives to their sports and training and nutrition became more sophisticated, performance progressed quickly. However, training can only improve performance to a certain degree.”
The Olympics have already been marred by accusations of doping. Sixteen year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen has been defending her performance against suspicions raised by American coach John Leonard, who described Shiwen’s performance as "suspicious."
Bioethicist Andy Miah, a proponent of human enhancement, argues in a recent article for Nature, “If the goal is to protect health, then medically supervised doping is likely to be a better route…Better yet, the world of sport should complement the World Anti-Doping Agency with a World Pro-Doping Agency, the goal of which is to invest in safer forms of enhancement.”
Miah offers a truly tempting alternative. Imagine the performances that would be possible in athletics if we were to combine the best of science with the best of training. Super-human would no longer be the domain of comic book movies and sci-fi books. People would truly be reaching unheard of heights in terms of strength and speed. The possibilities are truly astounding.
Still, not everyone is so gung-ho about the prospects of human enhancement. Leon Kass, a medical doctor, public intellectual, and former chairman of George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, contends, "[A] deeper analysis of enhancement should begin not from assessments of the technical means, but from explorations of the desirable ends. Only if we have a clear idea of the nature and dignity of human activity, in sport and beyond, can we see how that dignity is threatened by the age of biotechnological enhancement."
In other words, we need to reflect deeply about the moral meanings behind athletic performance and why we admire and praise athletes. What are the moral and spiritual meanings of human excellence? Indeed, the very question of human enhancement makes us question what it means to be ‘human.’
Kass continues: "The reason that cheating should bother us is not simply our love of fairness but, more fundamentally, our admiration for human achievement. We esteem the human doer at his best, especially when he is engaged in those activities, like sport, that invite all human beings to admire the excellence of the few. How did he--a human being just like me--do that? If the answer is steroids, then we come to feel as if the body we admire is less like ours, and we come to believe that the deeds we admire are mere simulations of the human rather than the human at his best. The concern about cheating and bad character thus points to the deeper concern about the nature and dignity of human activity, in sport and beyond. In short: what makes human activity truly human, and what makes excellent human activity truly excellent?"
Kass’s argument is compelling. If I use some sort of chemical or steroid to amp my ability, in what sense is it even still me performing? It’s the drug that is performing, and it is the drug that is excellent, not myself. Take away the drug, and all you have is just some guy.
Nevertheless, the question is not going away because some are going to disagree. They will want to see more and more spectacular performances. They will want to see what is possible with science and technological advancement. They will want to redefine what it means to be human. So, maybe I am wrong. Maybe they are just ahead of the curve.