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November 27, 2007

Comments

Nato

Not to belabor the obvious, but overuse of steroids causes a great deal of damage. Even moderate use does have significant health consequences, though of course these are merely mixed rather than overwhelmingly negative. My knee-jerk reaction is to let people poison themselves if they want to, but I'm not totally certain because at high levels of usage people become explosively violent. This differs from, say, heroin in the sense that a smack addict to a very significant extent loses both long and short term self control, while 'roid rage is momentary only, and presumably a person can reduce one's usage without enduring horrible cravings.

Subsidizing certainly seems a step too far. Perhaps in the case of people who have unusually low natural steroid levels this would pay society back, but on balance it would probably be a mistake.

Thomas Reasoner

Could you site some studies that show that steroids have "significant health consequences" and cause people to become "explosively violent"? The wikipedia article seems to suggest there are few to no credible studies indicating such.

Thomas Reasoner

Or I should have said "moderate use of steroids". Because clearly, excessive use of most substances will have significant bearing on health. But plenty of people moderately use steroids with the most severe side-effect being a little more body hair growth.

Nato

I think I definitely overstated the "roid rage" angle, but this is because it's the only one where a user (potentially) loses self-control in a way that affects others. If one does damage only to oneself, the state's motivation for intervention drops dramatically. The state still probably has a legitimate interest in preventing rafts of people killing their hearts and livers, but it's harder to justify interfering in others' access to a drug just because some will abuse it in a way that ultimately costs society.

re: The side effects - the cardiovascular side-effects alone are enough to cause a great deal of danger to people with heart conditions or propensity to stroke. This is probably less of an issue for young people, but it's worth noting that regular drugs with these kinds of effects are pretty much all prescription-only.

Probably the appropriate thing would be to allow doctors to prescribe steroids for non-medical use.

Nathan Smith

I don't know much about the medical side of the question, but on the philosophical side it seems like you have (a) a conflict between paternalistic utilitarianism and libertarianism, and (b) an issue of possible harms to non-steroid users from steroid users' bad behavior. Even if (b) is serious, it might not justify banning steroids: it might be better to allow the drug and only punish those who commit crimes under its influence. Whether that's practical I'm not sure.

If (for the sake of argument) it could be shown that there was a utilitarian case for laws against steroids-- that the health damage caused by steroids abuse outweighed the benefits from cost savings on enforcement and from people who used steroids in a beneficial way-- would you still support steroids legalization on the basis of natural rights?

Nathan Smith

I don't know much about the medical side of the question, but on the philosophical side it seems like you have (a) a conflict between paternalistic utilitarianism and libertarianism, and (b) an issue of possible harms to non-steroid users from steroid users' bad behavior. Even if (b) is serious, it might not justify banning steroids: it might be better to allow the drug and only punish those who commit crimes under its influence. Whether that's practical I'm not sure.

If (for the sake of argument) it could be shown that there was a utilitarian case for laws against steroids-- that the health damage caused by steroids abuse outweighed the benefits from cost savings on enforcement and from people who used steroids in a beneficial way-- would you still support steroids legalization on the basis of natural rights?

Joyless Moralist

I don't know how important this will seem to you all, but legalizing steroids would be a serious problem for professional sports (and probably other competitive fields that require great strength, but sports is the obvious one.) Of course, steroids are already causing a lot of problems in this field, especially in baseball. But if they were legalized, it would be a mess. Athletes, obviously, are a group with an especially strong incentive to use/overuse the drugs. Since sports are tightly competitive, using steroids would become more or less obligatory once others were using them. I suppose you could try to impose a limit on the amount of the drug used... seems hard to enforce, though. And obviously there would be no upper limit to how much people would want to increase their strength. It's a shame when success in your sport basically requires destroying your body in the long run, and the "roid rage" effects could become particularly frightening in that scenario. Athletes would be, almost by necessity, antisocial freaks. That is distressing.

I also think it would sort of ruin a lot of the pleasure in watching the games. In my mind at least, there's a philosophical difference between "natural" talent (even if it is developed by vitamins and weight rooms and special diets) and skill that is obviously artificially supplemented. Steroids seem to cross the line. Of course, you could still allow atheletic organizations to enforce their own standards, so for example the NCAA, NBA or NFL might now allow *their* athletes to use them. But again enforcement would be hard, and you'd have to figure out what to do with folks who were using them up until the time they tried to get into the league. It would also have the curious effect of making athletes *not* the most physically impressive people around.

Again, I don't know how much you care about saving professional sports, but it really would be a mess. And that might also serve as a kind of case study of why some people are opposed to this kind of thing in general. That's not to say, obviously, that the penalty currently imposed is reasonable or fair -- I have no particular feelings on that subject.

Nato

I understand in an academic way that pro sports are important to people, but it's not something I've ever felt viscerally and I've generally only even encountered it at some distance. Tom, however, has actually cared in some sense, so he probably has more insight. I'm guessing he has at least contemplated solutions.

Side note re: "roid rage" - this appears to occur only in a small fraction of cases, at least for moderate users. Of course, if it's truly as described, where affected users lose the ability to modulate aggressive impulses, this still amounts to a real worry. It doesn't take very many people to wreak a lot of havok.

Nato

By "moderate" in the most recent post, I meant "at the levels athletes tend to use steroids." Also, for the purposes of 'roid rage' I substituted symptoms of agressive hypomania - whether the "explosive violence" to which I blithely referenced in my original post would actually eventuate isn't perfectly clear. Obviously it does happen sometimes, but it's hard to say in most cases how much was the result of the steroids and how much the result of preexisting psychological characteristics.

Joyless Moralist

I do care somewhat about pro sports per se; I enjoy them and would even go so far as to say that I think they have certain healthful effects for society as a whole. But I also think the case can illustrate certain more general things about how legalizing steroids might affect society.

In the first place, they seem to diminish in some ways our appreciation of the human body and of human capabilities. One thing that's good about professional sports (or, say, the Olympics) is that they allow us to appreciate the goodness of the human body, and its capabilities. Steroids provide an "unnatural" or "illegitimate" enhancement of those capabilities, which makes is harder to enjoy or appreciate the human body as such. Let me quickly say that I fully realize that much philosophical work would need to be done to explain why steroids are "illegitimate" while, say, protein drinks or weight rooms are fine and natural. I don't have time to flesh this out fully now, nor have I completely worked it out in my own mind, but I think it's abundantly clear at least that a great many people have this intuition. Working out or eating a healthy diet merely actualizes potential that was already there; steroids seem to change the nature of the thing itself. If that's so, widespread and accepted use of steroids might change considerably the way we think about the body, and ourselves qua physical beings. Before lobbying to make the drugs easily available, I think it would be good to at least work out the ramifications.

But here's another point (which in my mind is actually relevant to what I just said, though the connection may not be apparent to you.) Improving the health of the body through "natural" means (working out, etc.) is very nearly an unqualified good. Sometimes there might be trade-offs that result from the methods used (for example, jogging a lot helps your heart but hurts your joints) but for the most part, the things one does to *naturally* increase fitness, also improve health and quality of life in other respects. Obviously strength can be used in bad ways, but in and of itself it is a good -- you might say, if the person who has it is virtuous, it will be an unqualified good. Steroids put a wrench in the works. Past a certain point, making oneself stronger in this way will have serious negative effects on overall health. Athletes in particular would be affected, because the sports world is one of cutthroat competition, so legalized steroids could lead to a kind of race to the bottom -- you can't afford to use less than your competitors, even if you know you'll ultimately suffer bad consequences. But other things could be this way to a lesser extent. In any field that prizes physical strength (certain military jobs, construction, etc.) we might quickly reach a point where participation de facto requires a willingness to increase one's capabilities through drugs.

Tom

JM raises a lot of important issues. The "natural" vs "unnatural" issue seems to me to be the driving force behind opponents of steroid use (perhaps in general, but especially with regard to sports). My argument is that the stuff that steroids are made of is already produced by the body naturally. Taking steroids is essentially equivalent to increasing hormone levels. Now, steroids have a fairly benign effect on health when used in moderation, but when taken in excess they can cause serious health problems (though, they won't kill you unless you *really* overdo it). JM fears that if steroids are legalized and accepted, athletes will undertake a steroids-based arms-race in order to best the competition, and that will lead to athletes severely hurting their health. But surely healthy athletes will tend to outperform unhealthy athletes. Correct? I mean, if an athlete has severe liver and heart problems due to steroid use, they're not going to be very competitive. So, in an ideal scenario, because athletes want to best the competition, they will use just enough steroids to not negatively impact their performance. I imagine most athletes would give their trainers and coaches the responsibility of regulating their steroid usage (as has been done historically). Body building is one example of a sport that has embraced steroid use with hardly any negative consequences. They even have a league for body builders that don't want to use steroids, and they have another league that is just for body figure, not body mass.

Hypothetically, if steroids could be used in a healthy manner to improve performance, no matter the person, no matter the activity, no matter the profession, then why shouldn't people use steroids? We have all sorts of tools and methods that allow man to exceed his "natural" abilities. Why are steroids so different?

On the other hand, if steroids were deadly, would it be the government's responsibility to keep people from killing themselves, or is that an unreasonable breach of personal liberties?

There are some good ethical problems surrounding this issue.

Nato

It's worth noting that steroids are very good at inducing (temporary) sterility, and there could be tension between jobs requiring chemical augmentation and the ability to have a family. Not a fatal blow, but something to consider.

Nathan Smith

From the point of view of libertarian theory, the professional sports question has at least one easy answer: the leagues could make private contract arrangements with athletes disallowing steroid use for them specifically, even if it was legal for the general population to use them. I don't see why this would be any more difficult to enforce than restrictions on athletes using steroids are at present.

Of course, the leagues may or may not choose to make those private arrangements with athletes. It might be in their interest to do so. A lot of good athletes might refuse to participate in professional leagues where steroids use was the norm. Talent would be crowded out by artificial muscle. A lot of viewers might also be morally offended and refuse to watch. So profit maximization might cause the leagues to develop and enforce their own rules against steroid use-- or perhaps to moderate steroid use.

Or it might not. It's a difficult market analysis question.

Joyless Moralists analysis of natural/unnatural behaviors evokes in me a combination of bemusement and admiration. Probably the normal ethics which regulates our individual and social lives in important ways requires some of this kind of reasoning. Probably there is some meaning in it. And yet how can "nature" be a moral criterion? Rape is certainly natural, in the sense that other species do it, humans do it sometimes in response to what are surely natural impulses, and humans did it more when they were closer to something like a Hobbesian state of nature. In nature, humans would typically live much shorter lives; life expectancy before modern times was typically 30 or 40. I'm not denying that nature can be a moral criterion; perhaps it can in some way I don't understand; perhaps it's even a necessary assumption underlying a lot of principles we take for granted. But how can we justify it, and (perhaps this is the same question) what does it mean?

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