Chemically Enhancing Society

In recent months there has been one revelation after another in relation to doping in sport. But doping is not the preserve of elite athletes alone. Many students and professionals have taken so called ‘smart drugs’ to help with their performance at university or in work. As a culture, we seem to be moving towards a situation where anything goes, provided it works. My question is, where do you draw the line?

Most of us, if pushed, could separate the different aspects of our lives into categories. For me, I would probably separate the different areas of my life into physical pursuits, intellectual pursuits, creative pursuits, spiritual pursuits, and social pursuits. Almost everything I do fits into one of those categories. Some things fit into more than one category. I think most people would have similar categories in their lives which may vary to some extent. But one thing is certain, no matter what categories you might separate your life into, you won’t have perfected a single one of them. In every single case you will know there is room for improvement, even if you don’t know how to go about it.

To use myself as an example again, I am reasonably fit, but nowhere near as fit as I was a couple of years ago. I’m not as strong, I’m not as fast, I don’t have quite as much stamina, and I take longer to recover. Part of this might be down to the ageing process, but it is mostly down to me not eating or exercising as well as I was. But I could improve again. I could get back to my peak performance, and I could probably surpass that. If I did so with commitment it would probably take me about six to nine months. However, if I did it with drugs then I could probably be stronger, faster, and fitter than I have ever been before within three months of training.

Similarly, my focus and my memory recall are not what they used to be. Perhaps this is ageing, or perhaps it is because I don’t engage with such a wide variety of intellectual activities as I used to. I could work really hard to get back to where I was, or I could use smart drugs to surpass that. And people do things like this every single day. Even if you have never taken smart drugs, you have probably resorted to a caffeine fix to get you ready for work. As a society we don’t frown on such everyday drug taking, and let there be no mistake, drug taking is exactly what this is.

We take drugs for all sorts of things. Headache, back pain, insomnia, indigestion, ADHD, depression, erectile dysfunction. The list is endless. But none of these things will kill you if you don’t take drugs to treat them. And we don’t just take drugs for the sake of it. We take drugs so that we can get on with things. Physical pain can be distracting and inhibiting so we take painkillers to treat it so we can get on with what we really need to do. Indigestion, insomnia, ADHD, and depression are all similar. They result in inhibiting effects if left untreated. The same is true of erectile dysfunction. And never has a pill been so suitably defined as a ‘performance enhancer’ than Viagra. But we don’t see taking Viagra as cheating when it comes to sex.

Performance enhancing drugs symbolise, for me, the difference between envy and jealousy. I actually think that jealousy is quite healthy. On the other hand, envy is deeply unhealthy. Jealousy is just looking at someone who has got something you don’t or who can do something you can’t and saying “I wish I could do that as well as you.” Envy is looking at that person and saying “I wish I could do that instead of you.” Jealousy is wanting things to be fair. Envy is wanting any unfairness to be stacked in your favour. And that’s what cheating is all about.

In the context of a race, if it is generally understood that performance enhancing drugs are forbidden then it is certainly immoral to take them since this gives you an unfair advantage. However, if it is generally understood that some people choose to take them and others choose not to, then it is not immoral to take performance enhancers at all. Everyone has the same opportunity. So, if we look at the London 2012 Olympics, it was generally understood that no one should have been taking drugs. I agree that, if anyone was found to have performance enhancers in their system, they should be stripped of their medals. Not because taking those drugs is immoral in itself, but because they broke the rules they agreed to. But if you look at the Paralympics, there are various different 100m races. There is one for blind people, one for people with one missing limb, one for people with two missing limbs, and so on. The playing field has been levelled for the athletes by separating them into groups of similar ability. Why can the same not be done with regard to drugs?

If we were to have a drug free 100 meter race immediately followed by an enhanced 100 meter race, athletes could choose to take drugs or choose not to and would be allocated to one race or the other, winning medals for their efforts on equal terms. No one is given an unfair advantage. That is the meaning of jealousy over envy: “I (a drug free athlete) wish I could have a gold medal as well as you (a drug taking athlete), not instead of you..” So, if the problem is not that performance enhancers themselves are immoral, but that lying about using them is immoral, then where do we draw the line? If I was the managing director of a company and I had two candidates for a job in front of me, including one who openly admits to using smart drugs but who received better grades at university and has performed better in real world work since then, would I be bothered that they had used drugs to do it? Probably not. I want the person who will perform best for my company. If all else is equal, the drug taking candidate gets the job.

If physical pursuits (sport), and intellectual pursuits (work), can both include performance enhancing drugs without there necessarily being a problem, are there other areas of our lives which could include them too? A fair few -musicians have been known to write their songs when under the influence of one drug or another, so do some drugs act as performance enhancers in creative pursuits? And various religious beliefs over the centuries have been known to promote the use of drugs too. Certain kinds of Buddism are an example of this. European paganism (which, I should point out, is not one single set of beliefs but a group term for a variety of systems of belief) is another example. Many native American tribes have similar traditions. Do some of these drugs enhance performance in spiritual pursuits? In most countries around the world drinking alcohol is actively promoted and treated as a social lubricant. Is this not a drug which is already widely accepted as a performance enhancer for social pursuits? Granted, it is a performance enhancer which it is very easy to overdose on with devastating effects on your social pursuits, but even in low doses it does lower inhibitions and increase social cohesion.

Why are we so obsessed with separating drugs into those which are legal and those which are not, those which are acceptable and those that are not? Not forgetting, of course, that there are certain drugs which are legal but yet seen as unacceptable and some which are entirely illegal and yet seen as completely acceptable. Testosterone used by athletes and cannabis used by MS sufferers being two such examples. Heroin is no worse than methadone. Even ecstasy and cocaine could have some benefits in a social situation. So why are any drugs illegal at all? The only logical reason is that the negative effects of certain drugs on society completely outweighs any positive effect. But if this were truly the priority of legislators, why are alcohol and tobacco legal? Both of these have far more negative effects than positive ones.

Every drug is a performance enhancer in one way or another. But most have negative consequences too. When people campaign for the legalisation of certain drugs it is often on the grounds that people will take them anyway, so why not reallocate the resources used on prohibiting them and use those resources to mitigate any negative effects instead? We already do this with alcohol and tobacco (where the chief justification for keeping them legal is that the taxes raised from them more than pay for the increased healthcare resources needed because of them). We have already seen that a change in the way we handle performance enhancing drugs in sport could actually lead to increased fairness and a more level playing field for athletes. And if we did free up resources used on prohibition, at least we could refocus those resources on helping people who really need them, without those people ever feeling at risk of punishment if they do ask for help.

And, for the record, I don’t take drugs, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I don’t like coffee. I don’t even like to take medication unless I absolutely have to. I am arguing this from the viewpoint of someone who would rather that no one took drugs of any kind at all. What I do wish was that we could actually focus on helping those whose addictions have become a problem for them, whilst leaving those who are functioning without any issues to get on with their own lives. They don’t need the rest of us to tell them what they should do. If they want your help, they’ll ask for it.


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