What’s Wrong With Steroids?
I can see three possible answers. The first is that, since steroid use is currently banned, the athlete who uses them is breaking the rules, cheating in a competitive game. That leaves unanswered an obvious question: Why are steroids banned? Absent the ban, using steroids is no more unfair competition than practicing on the weekend.
The second answer is paternalistic. Steroids can have undesirable long run effects on their users. If athletes, many of them young and inexperienced with the world outside their profession, are free to use them, they may do so even when they should not. That is especially likely in the competitive world of sports. A carpenter who performs ninety percent as well as a competitor can expect to receive about ninety percent of the competitor’s income. A professional football player who runs ninety percent as fast as his rivals is no longer a professional football player.
Given the paternalistic assumption, the argument seems plausible, but it is strikingly inconsistent with how we treat other competitive sports. Taking steroids may indeed reduce your life expectancy, but so does driving a car around a racetrack at something over 200 miles an hour. In that case too, a ten percent reduction means, not that your salary as a race driver goes down ten percent but that you are no longer a race car driver.
The third and most interesting answer is that competitive sports are special because what is being consumed is relative not absolute output. We reward a race car driver not for driving faster than 230 miles per hour but for driving faster than any other driver in the race. It is at least arguable that our pleasure from watching our favorite baseball team play depends not on how well it plays but on how much better it plays than the opposing team.
If that is true, then a change that makes one driver faster or one team better produces a benefit for that driver or that team, but a change that makes all drivers faster or all teams better produces no benefit for anyone. A change that makes all athletes faster and cuts three years off their life expectancy makes nobody better off and makes all athletes worse off. That sounds like a plausible reason for preventing such changes, insofar as we can.
Comments? Is that a plausible explanation? Is there a better one?