'But Everybody's Doing It!' Lance Armstrong and the Philosophy of Making Bad Decisions

When body enhancement is the norm, is there any other way to be competitive?


Lance Armstrong's decision not to fight the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has drawn mixed response: supporters and detractors wasted no time before airing their views. While some supporters maintain lack of incriminating evidence is key, others have stated that Armstrong still deserves our sympathy even if he is guilty of using banned substances. It is crucial to understand why this might be the case, as the implications of the judgment extend well beyond feelings directed at a high-profile athlete.

The sympathy-for-a-possible-cheater argument is expressed clearly in "Pillorying Armstrong: Complete Nonsense," a piece co-written by Arthur Caplan -- one of the most famous bioethicists in the U.S. -- and two other NYU professors. The authors write: "Shouldn't Armstrong, especially because of the inspiration he is to cancer survivors or anyone on the short end of the advantage stick, get a pass for being no more dirty, but a whole lot better than everyone else in his sport? Armstrong isn't being investigated as the only cheater. He is in all likelihood just the best, most talented one." In other words, we should feel bad for Armstrong because LiveStrong promotes so much social good that it blunts part of the cheating stain, and because professional cycling is rotten to the core, filled with so many cheaters that breaking the rules is the only viable way to compete.

For the sake of argument, let's say this assessment of the state of cycling is correct. Why should its constraints incline us to be sympathetic for a cheater? Why shouldn't we instead appeal to the lesson about individual responsibility and peer pressure that we learned in Kindergarten -- the one that ends with not jumping off a bridge because Johnny did?

Michael Shermer gives us the answer to this in his 2008 Scientific American article "The Doping Dilemma." In the context of professional sports like racing, moral choices are perceived as economic decisions, and the stakes are simply too high for it to be rational not to cheat. To illustrate this point, Shermer models the decision whether or not to dope upon the game-theoretic problem of the prisoner's dilemma and shows how the relevant variables can be broken up into clear payoffs for the strategies of abiding by the rules and cheating. A significant divide separates the two -- one big enough to make the honest competitor looks like a sucker who fails to grasp the incentives and expected values associated with the basic options. While the cyclist who wants to be a clean competitor can win the moral contest of clinging to high principles, he or she won't win the Tour de France.

The sympathy for a possible cheater argument thus comes down to the fact that Armstrong isn't a poseur. Even if he cheated, he still worked incredibly hard; his accomplishments spit in the face of both the fake-it-till-you-make-it and the I'm-good-because I-believe-in-myself crowds. Armstrong isn't like the competitors who lack singing ability but nevertheless audition for American Idol, believing they stand a chance at becoming pop stars.

If we could end the story here and focus solely on cycling competitors being stuck in a Nash equilibrium (in which no player has anything to gain by unilaterally changing strategies), things wouldn't look too bad. We could follow Shermer's advice and advocate for structural changes that make "competing clean" the game-theoretic solution (e.g., create immunity for past infractions, stiffer penalties for future ones, rewards for scientists to create better drug tests, etc.). Or, we could we could listen to bioethicist Andy Miah and seriously consider the advantages that might come from changing sports through medically supervised doping and nanotechnologies, potentially leading to events like the "Enhanced Olympics."

The problem is that once we feel sympathetic to Armstrong because he's stuck in a game theory problem, we might very well have to extend it to others dealing with comparable dilemmas. This takes us beyond sports, to a range of issues, especially ones in sustainability. To see what I mean, consider this political cartoon. As I wrote with Tom Seager, Susan Spierre, and David Schwartz:

The opening panel presents two well-dressed men in an office, with the first saying, "The [financial] crash is psychological. If everyone makes a leap of faith and starts spending again, we'll be fine!" The second replies, "What if no [one] else starts shopping? You'll have sunk deeper into debt as your income shrinks." Determined to prove the skeptic wrong, the first man sets out to lead by example, but not before making a green analogy: "It's like recycling. If everyone does it, the world is a clean place." Unfortunately, the last panel depicts the man as unshaven and homeless, living on a garbage-strewn street, declaring, "Sure is a lot of litter out here." What the cartoon illustrates, then, is that whenever people make decisions that affect others, or act in response to actions, or even expected actions, of others, they are playing a game.

Without realistic options for bringing about desired collective action, the game is over before it begins.

There is a sense, then, in which feeling sympathy for Armstrong even if he cheated is like feeling bad for the present state of the world: a time where collective action problems, like global climate change, loom large, and we're tempted to feel sympathy for countries that don't want to drastically lower CO2 emissions without other competitors doing so, too. The U.S. doesn't want to be a sucker in the race against China, and vice versa. Let's hope for the sake of cycling that fixing the sport is easier than fixing the world.