The Only Good Reason to Ban Steroids in Baseball: To Prevent an Arms Race

A philosophy scholar investigates six dumb lines of logic—and one really compelling one—for opposing performance-enhancing drug use among MLB players.

AP / Kathy Willens

Major League Baseball is reportedly on the verge of the largest drug bust in sports history. Some 20 players, including Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, allegedly purchased performance‐enhancing drugs (PEDs) from BioGenesis, an "anti‐aging" clinic in Miami. The office of baseball's commissioner, Bud Selig, is considering suspending these players for up to 100 games.

Presupposed by this punishment and baseball's ban is the principle that using PEDs is wrong. As a philosophy professor, I can't help but ask: What makes these drugs so bad? Why is it wrong to use them? In spite of all the focus on the use of PEDs in sports, this simple question of ethics is harder to answer than it might seem. Below are six popular yet flawed reasons for rejecting PEDs--and a less-familiar seventh reason that explains what's really wrong with them.

Reason No. 1: Using PEDs is cheating.
A natural first suggestion is that using PEDs is wrong because it's cheating. In an article for Salon titled "A-Rod Isn't a Cheater," the philosopher Alva Noe questions whether it's cheating when "a whole generation of the best and most promising athletes has been doing it."

Of course, it is still cheating. Baseball banned steroids in 1991, so anyone who used them after that was breaking the rules--including A-Rod. Moreover, it is simply false that all good athletes use PEDs. Even at the height of baseball's steroids era, there were those who chose to play clean. Consider former Major Leaguer Doug Glanville, a personal friend who first inspired me to think about these issues. Although Doug had a successful career, playing in the Big Leagues for nine years and managing over 200 hits one season as the Phillies' center fielder, there is no doubt that he would have had more hits, a longer career, and a bigger paycheck if he had followed the lead of many of his peers and used PEDs. But as he documents in his book The Game From Where I Stand (and as his slim frame and modest power numbers would seem to confirm), Doug played drug-free. He was certainly not alone.

But as Plato would have recognized, the real problem with the cheating argument is that it's shallow. In the Socratic dialogue Euthyphro, Plato considers the question of whether an action is wrong because the gods disapprove of it, or whether the gods disapprove of an action because it is wrong. For example, is murder wrong because the gods disapprove of it? Or do the gods disapprove of murder because it is wrong? Most philosophers embrace the latter claim. After all, the gods aren't acting arbitrarily in disapproving of murder rather than, say, knitting. They must have a reason for disapproving of murder.

We should all agree that athletes who use outlawed PEDs are cheating. They are breaking the rules and giving themselves an unfair advantage. But Euthyphro shows that there is a deeper question: Why should PEDs be banned in the first place? Is there really a reason to prefer a sport that bans PEDs to one that allows them? Or is our preference merely arbitrary, like our preference for a game that encourages stretching and singing in the seventh inning rather than the sixth?

Reason No. 2: PEDs are unsafe.
If you told your mom you wanted to try PEDs, her first concern would probably be for your health. Relatively little is known about the long-term effects of drugs such as steroids because, as the Mayo Clinic notes, it's unethical to design studies to test for those effects. But it's unlikely that PEDs are as benign as calcium supplements.

It's not immediately clear, however, why this should count against their use. When it comes to sports, a certain amount of danger is part of the game. Boxers, soccer players, and football players suffer concussions, runners and basketball players blow out their knees, and tennis players injure their ankles and elbows. The first marathoner, Pheidippides, collapsed dead from the effort, and many since have suffered the same fate. We could rewrite the rules to significantly reduce these harms--marathons could be shortened, and the NFL could adopt the playground rules of "two-hand touch"--but we don't. We accept that sports can harm one's health. If PEDs were much more harmful than sports themselves, the argument could be made that they should be banned because they're especially unsafe. But there is little evidence to suggest that the side effects of PEDs are that bad. They're almost certainly no worse than repeated head traumas, and when used in moderation, certain PEDs may be no more dangerous than running marathons. Moreover, as medical research advances and PEDs evolve, the side effects of PEDs are likely to diminish.

Reason No. 3: PEDs reflect an obsession with perfection.
Some philosophers hold that an action is good or bad not because of its effects, but because of the reasons associated with it. If I shoot someone for sadistic pleasure, I've done something wrong; but if I shoot someone to prevent him or her from assassinating the president, I've acted heroically. So perhaps the problem with PEDs is that they are used for the wrong reasons.

Consider Lance Armstrong, who explained to Oprah Winfrey that his use of drugs stemmed from his "ruthless desire to win--to win at all costs." Or consider A-Rod, who used PEDs in the early 2000s "to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time."

There is clearly something disturbing about an obsession with perfection that drives us towards using illegal substances. But we don't always find it objectionable when people go to extraordinary means to reach the top. Cyclists who sleep in a hyperbaric chamber to boost their red blood cells are not invited to acknowledge their sins on Oprah's couch. Ballplayers who immerse themselves in their crafts for 90 hours a week are not tried in the court of public opinion for neglecting their families. We recognize that being the best requires a ruthless desire to win, and often admire that desire. Our disapproval of PEDs is surely more than a disapproval of the hyper-competitive spirit that motivates their use.

Reason No. 4: PEDs create inequalities.
Some have wanted to outlaw PEDs because they create new inequalities among athletes. They're expensive, and not everyone can afford them. This problem is particularly acute in international competitions such as the Olympics, where poorer countries struggle to provide their athletes with cutting-edge technologies and facilities. But even aspiring Major League players can't necessarily afford PEDs when the average contract for a first-year minor leaguer is only $850 per month.

Inequalities can't be the main problem with PEDs, however, since we could just as easily eliminate them by subsidizing PEDs as by banning them. Baseball clubs could hand them out with uniforms and lockers at the start of each season, and the International Olympic Committee could find pharmaceutical companies willing to sponsor athletes. Moreover, from the perspective of equality, a ban on PEDs may be counterproductive since only the wealthiest and best-connected athletes will have access to the most cutting‐edge methods for evading detection.

Reason No. 5: PED users don't deserve credit for their accomplishments.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant emphasized the importance of agency for morality and responsibility. A snowstorm can have bad or good effects--it can bring about traffic fatalities or a cuddly night by the fire--but it doesn't deserve credit or blame for what it does since it isn't an agent. By contrast, you can take credit for your athletic accomplishments, but only insofar as they are caused by you and not your PEDs. If you're only able to qualify for the Tour or hit 50 home runs because you have the latest and greatest drugs, then it's questionable whether you're really responsible for your achievements. It's not you who deserves praise for your athletic prowess, but your pharmacist.

Yet our achievements are never solely our own. Racers do not design and build their own bicycles, batters with poor eyesight do not fashion their own corrective lenses, and no athlete is responsible for the education of his or her coach. Individual achievement is always set against a backdrop of community assistance. So why not add your pharmacist to the long list of people who make it possible for you to succeed? If this seems strange, recall that Metta World Peace (then known as Ron Artest) publicly thanked his psychiatrist when he and the Lakers won the NBA finals in 2010.

Reason No. 6: PEDs make success too easy.
Even if PEDs don't sap all responsibility from your achievements, you might worry that they make success too easy. As Nietzsche observed in his famous discussion of the will to power, much of the value in an activity consists in overcoming obstacles. There is nothing good in and of itself about hitting a home run; rather, what's good about hitting a home run is that it's usually the culmination of a long process of hard work that involves years of honing one's talents, thousands of swings in the batting cage, endless hours in the weight room, and a careful diet.

Yet this worry betrays a misunderstanding of PEDs. They're not magic pills that instantly transform you into Babe Ruth. Athletes who take steroids still need to spend years training. PEDs accelerate the rewards of hard work; they don't substitute for it.

Reason No. 7: PEDs generate a vicious arms race.
This is what I believe is the real problem with PEDs in sports.

Traditionally, an arms race occurs between nations when they compete to amass superior weaponry. During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a nuclear arms race. Each nation built up its own stockpile of nuclear weapons to counter the threat from the other. As political scientists have noted, a traditional arms race is vicious since both nations would surely be better off never amassing arms in the first place. But once started, an arms race quickly runs out of control and everyone suffers.

Sports are competitive enterprises. Not just anyone can play for the Yankees or the Red Sox; you need to be better than almost everyone else. As a result, sports encourage an arms race--not of literal weaponry, but of equipment, training methods, and anything else that provides a competitive advantage. Sometimes this arms race is virtuous, as when it encourages everyone to practice more and train harder.

Other times, however, it is like a traditional arms race in that everyone winds up worse off than if the arms race had never begun. In the Beijing Olympics, swimmers who adopted a polyurethane body suit that was designed with the help of NASA won a disproportionate number of medals and shattered world records. Swimmers who did not have the suit were left in their wakes. An arms race was on. Swimming became as much about swimwear technology as about an effective stroke. Collectively, swimmers recognized that the arms race was vicious. The suits cost over $500 each, could be worn only a limited number of times, and took over 30 minutes to put on. While they made everyone faster, that hardly seemed relevant. If the point were to traverse the pool as quickly as possible, boats would be used. Swimming races are supposed to showcase swimming, not NASA's engineering. Everyone was clearly better off without the suits, yet so long as they were permitted each swimmer needed one to compete effectively. Recognizing the absurdity, the sport's governing body, FINA, wisely banned the suits in 2009.

When a sport is partly about the technology being used, a technology arms race is not necessarily a bad thing. The America's Cup is of interest as much for the engineering of the yachts as for the skill of the sailors. The same is true of Formula One auto racing and, to a lesser extent, the Tour de France cycling race. The technology arms races in these sports are arguably virtuous. But when, as in swimming, the arms race leads to the pursuit of a new technology that does not contribute to the sport and leaves everyone worse off, the arms race is vicious.

The legalization of PEDs in baseball would likewise generate a vicious arms race. The game would become a competition to find the best drugs. Even players who wanted to compete drug free would be coerced into taking PEDs to keep up with their peers. And there is no stable stopping point. If two players are competing for a starting spot on the Yankees, neither player can rest content with yesterday's pharmaceutical technology. Each one needs to get the latest and greatest PEDs or risk losing his job to the other. And so they're off to the races, with the finish line set only by the ingenuity of bioengineers.

Increasing the number of home runs is not in itself a good thing. If it were, Bud Selig would order the outfield walls moved in. Moreover, PEDs carry health risks, particularly when there is pressure to adopt the newest and strongest drugs even before they have been properly tested. As I wrote above, a concern about safety is ordinarily not a sufficient reason to ban something from a sport. But in the context of an arms race--in which the only benefit the "arms" provide is relative to one's competitors--it is. Imagine if the bodysuits used by swimmers not only made everyone faster, but also occasionally caused dangerous overheating. Even if the dangers were no greater than those that accompany running a marathon, the need to ban the suits would be even more obvious than it already was.

It's important to see that using PEDs is not always wrong. Few would object to using steroids to stimulate muscle mass in patients with cancer or AIDS, and even Major League Baseball allows players with legitimate Adderall prescriptions for attention disorders to play under the influence of the stimulant. But when the only point of using PEDs is to obtain a competitive advantage over the rest of the field, we have entered the realm of an arms race where their use threatens to do more harm than good.

In an arms race, there are only two stable scenarios: perpetual escalation, and disarmament--a league where all PEDs are pursued, or a league where none are. The best way to avoid this escalation is to ban the arms outright and enforce penalties on cheaters. Change everyone's incentives, and the arms race will never begin. In a real, international arms race, this is notoriously difficult to do, since internationally sanctioned bodies are weak and few states have the power or will to impose penalties unilaterally. But in baseball's arms race, Major League Baseball has long had the power to punish players who cheat. Fortunately, it now looks like it also has the will.