What kind of ethical thinker are you?

Ethics is more than simply determining right from wrong. Sometimes it's important to understand why something is right or why it's not.

About a year ago I wrote about the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in youth sport. As happens frequently with this topic, some commenters argued that PED use should be legalized in sport; athletes should be free to use performance enhancers if they want; testing should be ended, and governing bodies should stay out of it.

This libertarian view is usually not supported by any kind of serious argument, and, thankfully, it does not seem to be shared by many. Its only real use is to draw attention to the proponent, and to accidentally highlight that one doesn't know what they're talking about.

Whenever I hear that argument I wonder what reasoning process could lead to such a belief. On what basis could someone think that allowing performance enhancers in sport would be a good idea? Arguments I have heard go something like this:

  • Why are we policing something that happens outside the typical sport environment? Wouldn't it be easier, cheaper, and less stressful to just stop worrying about athletes using PEDs?
  • Everyone should have the same chances. Since the testing regimen will never catch all athletes using PEDs, we should stop trying and just let everyone who wants to use them do so.

These arguments don't address the problem though, they just ignore it or try to pretend that it doesn't matter. Asserting that PED use should be left up to the athlete is a libertarian view devoid of ethical scrutiny. If performance enhancers were to become legal or uncontrolled then the choice not to use them would put athletes at a competitive disadvantage; and using them would put their health at risk.

This would change the basic assumption that sport is a healthy, social good. Allowing athletes to use PEDs would not only put their physical well-being in jeopardy, it would destroy any perception that sport is a healthy pursuit. What parents would encourage sport participation if they knew that their child's success would depend on using PEDs at some point in their athletic career?

Nature of sport and the rules that govern them

Sports are often touted as being able to teach values like perseverance, team work, and honesty. Hyperbolic claims describe it as a microcosm of life where one can simulate the ups, downs, and challenges of real life without the consequences. In many places sport is seen as a national unifier or international peacemaker. Many claim that sport builds character.

But sport is or does none of those things, and despite claims that paint it as a universal good it is nothing more than an empty vessel to which we assign whatever qualities we want. It does not inherently possess any particular characteristics by itself. Sport is what we make it. If we're careful and pay attention we can make it what we want it to be. The good qualities and values we want to be characteristics of sport depend wholly on the people who operate sport programs: Administrators, coaches, athletes, even spectators and fans. What we currently consider an important, culture-bearing social institution could easily be something else depending on the values and ethical reasoning demonstrated by sport practitioners.

There are three things that distinguish a sport contest from a recreational activity:

  1. A goal or objective. The end goal in all sports is to win the contest. If you're not playing to win then you're not engaged in sport.
  2. Means to achieve the goal. These are described in the primary rules that outline how the game is played. Secondary rules, sometimes called punishment rules, control what happens when infractions of primary rules occur. Rules governing fouls in basketball are an example of secondary rules.
  3. An agreement between the players to follow the rules. Vicious fouls, lack of effort, or using PEDs, for example, are kinds of infractions that break the agreement between athletes. In the lingo, the agreement to follow the rules is called playing with a lusory attitude. Winning the contest is known as the pre-lusory goal as it is the goal that exists before the game begins.

Four approaches to ethical decision making

Ethics is more than simply determining right from wrong. Sometimes it's important to understand why something is right or why it's not. While instinct can be right in some situations, difficult ethical dilemmas require a framework to consider the elements involved and the questions to be asked in reaching a decision. Frameworks also provide an established procedure so that similar dilemmas are solved consistently.

Here are some examples of ethical approaches commonly used in sport:


The utilitarian approach considers consequences of actions. It is probably the most used approach and the one most people are familiar with. The phrase "the greatest good for the greatest number" represents utilitarian thinking. A utilitarian thinker will ask, What are the consequences of allowing PED use in sport? Who benefits? Is there greater benefit by allowing PED use or by controlling it? The danger inherent in utilitarian thinking is that sometimes it leads to an ends justifying the means kind of solution or inappropriate majoritarian decisions.

Deontological (duty)

The duty approach is often associated with Immanuel Kant and his well-known but poorly understood categorical imperative (something you must always do, no matter what). This approach is important for teams and groups. Kant rejected the consequence-based utilitarian approach because he believed that humans were not good at predicting the future (consequences) and that the ends justifying the means, typical of a utilitarian decision, could disrespect the value of individuals.

Instead Kant believed that ethical behavior lies in duty and with proper reasoning we are able to determine what our duty is in a situation. One part of the categorical imperative states that when we make a decision we should accept others making the same decision in a similar situation. The key is to understand that duty exists beyond consequence, and sometimes in spite of consequence.

The three formulations of Kant's categorical imperative

Universality: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

Respect: Treat others as ends in themselves never as means to something else.

The Kingdom of Ends: Imagine oneself as a member of a group of ethical beings who live by universal laws and who treat their fellowmen as ends in themselves.


The virtue approach is associated with Aristotle, and is best described as ethics of the pursuit of happiness. In sport it means doing what you do to the best of your ability. Aristotle makes a distinction between understanding virtue and actually being virtuous, which is something we can achieve only through practice. In other words, actually doing the things we know to be virtuous. If Aristotle spoke English (fun fact: he didn't) he could have coined the phrase, "Just do it!" This thinking was also echoed in American television when the doctor on NCIS says (paraphrasing), "The ethical man knows what to do; the moral (virtuous) man does it."


The communitarian approach looks at duties and responsibilities that individuals have to groups they're members of. This approach attempts to balance individual rights with group responsibilities. Communitarians argue that ethical duties stem from relationships. They recognize that sometimes individuals have responsibilities to groups they are part of that do not come with concomitant rights.

Amitai Etzioni is at the forefront of communitarian thinking. He believes that we must pay more attention to common duties and responsibilities than to individual rights; that our relationships to our families, communities, and other social groups carry with them inherent responsibilities. This is a mindset that makes sense in many sport contexts, but often faces headwinds in modern societies.

There are other approaches to ethical reasoning but the four listed above are probably most relevant to issues we encounter in sport. Learning to reason ethically can help maintain the current perception we have of sport as a social good.