A Tale of Two Alex-es

Associated Press

On a cold morning in the middle of February, the greatest baseball player of his generation faced the press in disgrace. Alex Rodriguez, the all-star third baseman with 560 career home runs—about one for every $500,000 in his $275 million contract—had tested positive for steroids, casting a Bondsian shadow over his Ruthian accomplishments.

But Rodriguez wasn’t the only man named Alex to make headlines for performance enhancement this year. In April, The New Yorker told the story of a very different “Alex”—a recent Harvard grad whose Adderall habit was the centerpiece of a feature documenting the prevalence of neuroenhancers on campus.

Both drug users garnered their fair share of criticism. Baseball pundits fumed at A-Rod (and later at his unlikely partner in ignominy, Manny Ramirez) for disgracing the game, casting his offense as an affront to the essence of sport. Meanwhile, closer to home, The Crimson responded to the New Yorker article by chastising study drug users for “trying to accomplish more than is within their natural abilities.”

Part of this disapproval centers around simple distaste for rule breaking. A-Rod is a cheater. College students who pop Adderall and Ritalin without prescriptions are, at least technically, criminals. But that can’t be the end of the story. If we had no cause to condemn performance enhancement other than its illegality, there would be little sense in maintaining our bans and proscriptions.

Instead, sportswriters who wring their hands whenever the next superstar tests positive and college kids who cry foul when their roommates buy amphetamines express a more fundamental discomfort with our increasing ability to enhance natural capabilities. But is this unease at the prospect of juiced-up sluggers and pill-popping mathletes a morally legitimate intuition?

This is an important question to ask, because steroids and study drugs are only the beginning. For now, we can cite concerns of safety when outlawing performance-enhancing substances—in the future, it may not be so easy. A new generation of enhancers is on the horizon that will make the current batch look like child’s play. Powerful genetic therapies like IGF-I injections and myostatin blockers promise to fuel the athletes of tomorrow with few negative consequences. Meanwhile, with geneticists identifying correlates of mental attributes and millions of research dollars being poured into drugs that halt cognitive decline, minds as well as bodies are becoming open to augmentation.

The fact is, humans are increasingly capable of remolding themselves in the image of whatever they choose, with fewer and fewer unpleasant side effects. We can either embrace this development or—as the current inclination seems to be—do everything in our power to avoid it. Our gut pulls us towards the second option, but I think our heads should pick the first.

The level of concern over Alex the New York Yankee and Alex the New Yorker interviewee is, in many ways, peculiar. In general, we prize excellence, and encourage our sons and daughters to achieve success through whatever means necessary, whether on the baseball field or in the library. Professional athletes and Harvard students both earn respect for their “enhanced performance,” and the lengths to which they have gone to attain it. The meritocracy doles out lucrative compensation accordingly.

Therefore, our tendency to label performance-enhancing drugs antithetical to our values makes little sense. The spirit behind performance enhancement doesn’t detract from the game of baseball or the game of life. Instead, it represents the apotheosis of an ethic of self-perfection that is at the heart of what we find praiseworthy.

It is hard to fault an intervention that makes everyone better at what they do without an extremely compelling reason. If this power came in any other form, we would not hesitate to use it, just as few complain about how weight training makes athletes stronger and computers make students more productive—even though neither is “natural.” But for some reason, when excellence comes in pill form, it’s hard to swallow.

One school of thought contends that this hesitance originates in the fear that chemical enhancement will undermine the “justice” of the world by decoupling effort and success. But the link between the two was already tenuous. Life’s race is handicapped from the start by genetic and circumstantial factors far beyond anyone’s control. And once things are underway, as the Bible poetically notes, often “the race is not to the swift.”

In a world of ubiquitous performance enhancement, effort still matters, but everyone’s contribution gets them just a little bit further. This springboard effect has the potential to generate rewards for all members of society, because many desirable human attributes—like intelligence—are not merely positional advantages, but also confer absolute benefits, like new cures for diseases or great works of art.

We might have reason to worry about unequal access to enhancement, but it is unclear that greater restrictiveness is the right way to combat this problem. When only athletes willing to bend the rules and students with the money to get their hands on an Adderall prescription can benefit, then inequality results. But if we instead work to make enhancement available to all, we create a level playing field—only this one is several rungs higher than the old, unenhanced version. (This logic led the equality-loving John Rawls to conclude that genetic engineering was a boon, as it potentially improved the endowment of every member of society).

The next step forward in self-improvement may be “unnatural.” But why worry? The fetishisation of the natural displayed by those who draw hard and fast distinctions between chemical enhancement and other forms of striving for excellence is dependent upon a senseless equation of the way things are with the way things must be. The argument loses its appeal when we realize that our bodies and minds were not created by an intelligent planner but by a biological process that sought to maximize the number of viable offspring, not the amount of human happiness and achievement. We need not be content with what life hands us—in fact, we rarely are.

The Olympic motto, “Citius, altius, fortius”—faster, higher, stronger—describes the human project as well as a decathlete’s training goals. What separates us from animals is our ability to refuse to accept the given and break the chains of biological contingency.

So Alex and Alex may be cheaters. But they’re also ahead of the curve.

Daniel E. Herz-Roiphe ‘10, a Crimson editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.