Enhancement in sport

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L159-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

3 Fairness-based considerations

Those who argue against the use of enhancement in sport often make appeals to fairness. Sometimes, this is to explain the wrongness of using performance-enhancing drugs, in contexts in which they are banned. But other times, fairness is invoked in an attempt to justify banning performance-enhancing drugs in the first place. There is a difficulty, though, with appealing to fairness as part of the latter strategy. As many philosophers have pointed out, if everyone is permitted to dope, then doping would not seem unfair. Moreover, bans on performance-enhancing drugs are ‘unfair to honest athletes [who] have to miss out on an advantage that cheaters enjoy’ (Savulescu et al., 2004).

Still, some philosophers have attempted to justify, on the grounds of fairness, banning enhancement in sport. For instance, some have argued that permitting enhancement would give an unfair advantage to athletes who can afford enhancement technologies. This argument, though, is questionable. Economically privileged athletes already enjoy enormous athletic advantages (De Bosscher et al., 2008) and so performance-drugs, which are cheap relative to many forms of equipment and coaching, may mitigate economic inequality in sport rather than exacerbate it. Other philosophers have tried to justify banning performance-enhancing drugs on the grounds that enhancements unsettle the fairness of comparisons between athletes across time, since it is only the present generation of athletes who would benefit from the latest enhancements. But as Douglas (2007: 8) has noted, it is doubtful that ‘inter-temporal fairness’ carries much, if any, moral weight.

A more promising strategy is to appeal to fairness to explain the wrongness of flouting bans on doping that are already in place. But even this approach has its difficulties. For instance, if one’s competitors are using enhancements, then using enhancements oneself could help to restore fairness (Kirkwood, 2012). Or perhaps the ubiquity of unfairness in sport – due to the highly unequal distribution of genetic ability and economic privilege – means that there is no point in even trying to ‘level the playing field’ in the first place (Fost, 1986; Savulescu et al., 2004).

Citing this article:
Thau, Tena. 3 Fairness-based considerations. Enhancement in sport, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L159-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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