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What We Can Still Learn From Lance Armstrong

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Way back in the day, like before 10 October, when USADA released their full report damning Lance to sporting hell, a kid could be forgiven for asking him or herself WWLAD (What Would Lance Armstrong Do?) when facing a tough ethical conundrum. Sure he might have taken EPO, synthetic testosterone, a bit extra of his own blood and God knows what else, but give the guy a break, he survived testicular cancer and tumours the size of golf balls and then went on to win the Tour De France seven times against a bunch of guys who were on at least as much junk as him. The man was a bonafide hero; you were either for Lance or for cancer.

True, the French never trusted him, but that just made us Yanks love him more. So great was our love for Lance that even when he gave up the fight against doping allegations, top American philosophers defended him with more vigour than before, arguing that his doping made him an even bigger hero, this time for the whole species! Lance had embraced his 'cyborg nature' and so should we! Here's what UC Berkley philosopher Alva Noë had to say: "He is a trailblazer. One of the greats. He didn't win races on his own. No, like each of us in our social embeddings, he created an organization, one drawing on other people, and the creative and effective use of technology, the mastery of biochemistry, to go places and do things that most of us never will, and that no one ever had, before him."

Then the levee broke. We found out what we had kind of suspected all along. Lance was really not a nice guy, I mean really not a nice guy. He bullied, threatened and coerced his teammates, rivals, and support staff into either becoming 'friends of Edgar' (Edgar Allen Poe, the surprisingly cultured codename for the performance enhancing drug EPO) or keeping very quiet about his literary proclivities.

So does Lance still have something to teach us about ethics and doping? I think so. I pretty much agree with Noë when he says that humans are technological creatures through and through. In almost every aspect of our lives technology of some sort makes us what we are, think of the written word, perhaps the greatest invention of all time. There is no getting around our 'cyborg nature' and certainly no getting back to a nature where we all run around naked in the woods hugging each other without checking our twitter feeds every ten seconds. Those days never existed. Before EPO, iPhones and tumblr, there was papyrus, caffeine and the domestication of cattle. But just because we're totally technologized doesn't mean that the social, political and economic context in which technology is used doesn't matter. At the end of the day, the final straw for Lance was that he coerced others into doping or covering it up. More so than the doping itself, it was the coercion that really makes him ethically suspect.

Now let's look at another kind of technological enhancement and see if the same kind of thing is at work. There's been a lot in the media recently about students taking 'smart drugs' to do better at school, go to a top university or college... basically succeed!

Many bioethicists shrug and say, good on'em, there's little difference between some extra tutoring, four cans of Redbull and popping a few of your narcoleptic cousin's Modafinil. We should use every aspect of science that we can to progress as a society and get smarter. But like EPO or synthetic testosterone, taking smart drugs may have unintended side effects, and we don't really know what they'll do to otherwise normal brains in the long run.

On a social level there is the risk that socio-economic conditions will lead many to 'enhance' their cognition in the same ways, leading to a kind of de-diversification of mental life on a broader scale. Some say that these are the risks of progress and everyone is free enhance themselves or not. But just like many young cyclists felt they had no choice, regardless of the health risks, many students today (or in the future) might feel the same.

In the peloton, Lance was the explicit enforcer of an 'enhancement culture', this is what makes him ethically problematic. Outside the bubble of elite sports, the coercion and pressure to enhance in various ways may be less direct, but just as real. And it's the coercive element, being pressured into unnecessary and undesirable risks, that makes doping morally problematic in a general sense, on and off the bike. It seems it's not all about the bike after all.

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