Cyborg Ethics

Deb Tolman pointed me to an NPR article decrying the attacks on Lance Armstrong, because it’s our intimate relationship with technology that has created the modern age, and that includes biochemical technology.

The article is interesting, but misses the ethical point. First off, she’s right about tech and us. Modern civilization is an emergent from technology. We are different from the people of the 18th, 19th, and even 20th Centuries because of things like the Internet and ubiquitous computers (your car is a computer you sit in, a hearing aid is a computer you stick in your ear…). And she’s right that this emergent raises new ethical issues. For example, the old style crime of walking into a store and stealing a movie DVD raises different ethical issues than downloading a pirate copy of a DVD that the manufacturer has chosen not to sell in your market.

However, Lance isn’t the best example of this. He’s an example of good organization and management in the service of bad ethics. You see, the winning bicycle races part really isn’t much different from what it was like a hundred years ago. Yes, there’s lighter frames and slicker suits, but that’s a difference in kind, not degree, so the ethical issues raised are the old ones of violating agreed-upon rules.

The fact is, his organization skills included finding the right supplier of the right drugs (as she admits). If we go down that road, we end up rewarding the person with enough money to buy the best chemist. It’s the same reason why Barry Bonds has an asterisk after his name. Armstrong’s actions would be OK if the goal was to complete the Tour de France in minimum time using any means possible, and if the rules made that clear. By that standard, he’d be rewarded if he strapped a rocket to his pillion. And if we limited it to personal enhancements, then next year’s TdF would see people who had skull ablation surgery to become more aerodynamic, or those who embedded a cyborg radio control system for handlebars in their brain so they could chop off their arms and drop an additional ten pounds.

But the rules are that it has to be an unassisted bike (do what you want to make it a better bike) and an unassisted body (do what you want beforehand to make it a better body).

As for the standard defense, that the test was inaccurate, that it produced a false positive, well, some recent Scientific American articles on sports doping point out that the tests that are currently done don’t actually produce a lot of false positives in those cases that have been followed up. From a statistical standpoint that means we are producing a lot of false negatives — people are still getting away with doping. It also means that if you test positive, you’re almost certainly guilty.

What the attacks show is that we ultimately do have standards, however poorly we apply them. What the need for them shows is that our win at all costs culture is not teaching the right ethical principles.

I’ll save my tears for Neil, not Lance.


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6 Responses to “Cyborg Ethics”

  1. Kurt Kremer Says:

    With Lance, I think, he used the drugs because all of the premiere racers were using them–so to compete at that level, you took them, too. There’s also a tide of ego, money, culture, and other aspects of competition that drove that behavior. He didn’t get caught because it’s easy not to get caught. Many racers have said that racers are only caught by the tests because they make “stupid mistakes” or get “careless.” There were other tests that showed his body normally had much higher levels of blood oxygen than most people–without drugs. So did he need to take them–probably, to win with the kind of margins we saw year after year.

    No tears, although it’s very disappointing to see a positive role model for human achievement go down.

    • FoundOnWeb Says:

      It’s a natural result for a culture that combines the belief that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”, with a religious ethic that says the rich are beloved of God, because they are rich. To me, the most American of games is bowling, because if you’re not perfect your score is horribly low.

  2. Kurt Kremer Says:

    Tears for Armstrong, sure–some out of nostalgia, and some for the space program that was and is not. Years ago, when my oldest son was about 10, we were at the Beaverton Powells the same day Buzz Aldrin showed up for a book signing. I hadn’t known in advance, just saw the line as we left the store, then saw the guy behind the table, a very fit 60-something in moon-boot style sneakers, and not nearly a long enough line. I said the Travis, “Son, that guy right there, he walked on the moon.” I could barely keep my voice level. I wanted an eye popping response. Instead, he nodded, said, “Cool,” and wanted to leave for home with purchases. He was a smart kid who’s grown into a very smart man, but space science wasn’t part of his generation (other than the occasional shuttle launch.) You, along with De Grasse Tyson and a bunch of other articulate science writers have already covered that problem and what we’ve lost.

    • FoundOnWeb Says:

      The first man to walk on the Moon is dead. The last man to walk on the Moon is 78. If we had spent on space one tenth of what we spent in useless wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we’d have a Mars colony by now. The dream isn’t dead, but it’s faded. The singing sword just hums, and it’s too much trouble to pull it from its scabbard.

      I don’t know what inspires kids today — it’s not space, and the dot com bubble has burst.

      Tom Murphy, over at Do The Math, talks about the Energy Trap — that by the time we are convinced there’s a problem, it’s too late to fix it. That tracks with what Jerry Pournelle used to say, that we have one shot at becoming a spacefaring planet, and if we don’t take it, resource limits will keep us at the bottom of this gravity well forever.

  3. Sandra Says:

    Technology being knowledge, I do not see why the ethical issues have changed with the new knowledge. The issues remain the same–do we want to allow stealing? do we want to allow professional athletes to use technology to improve their abilities? It really does not seem to matter what the tech is, the question is what does a society wish to allow (and then how does the society define “stealing”, or “enhancements”. The answers to that question will define the societal morality as it moves through technologies. Not to say that the answers will not change over time, but it does seem that the basic ethical questions remain pretty much the same.

    • FoundOnWeb Says:

      I think we’re in agreement on the core of the essay. Armstrong unethically violated the agreed-upon rules, and should be punished. I think the original author was arguing that technology had changed the game, so the application of ethics should change.

      I also concur that the ethics don’t change, but you hit the nail on the head when you said the definitions will change. If we perfect brain backup technology and I shoot someone, should I be charged with murder, or with discharging a firearm within city limits and forced to pay a $50 fine, plus reformat and restore costs, plus the cost of the shirt?

      I can see a Cyborg Olympics where healthy people do strap springs on their feet, install muscle kicker hardware, or take extreme drug cocktails, and that’s OK. It’s a new game and a new set of rules, and if you want to play you abide by them.

      Armstrong’s sin was to play by a different set of rules without telling anyone.

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