The Ethics of Enhancement Drug

Home » Blog » Philosophy » The Ethics of Enhancement Drug
Does the Use of Enhancement Drug Diminish Our Agency?

The use of performance enhancing drug calls individuals’ contribution to their achievements into question. The seven times Tour de France winning cyclist, Lance Armstrong lost all his titles after being found out that he has been doping massively. Duke University has recently included, in their academic honesty policy, “unauthorised use of a prescription medication” as part of cheating. All these seem to suggest that individuals who used performance enhancing drug do not deserve claiming credits for their results.

This paper examines the argument that human enhancement undermines authenticity. This argument is a common objection to the use of enhancing drug, suggesting that it diminishes our human agency in authoring the achievement (Juengst & Moseley 2015). This paper closely examines such argument, pointing out that it fails to establish that the use of drug supersedes one’s agency in the authorship of one’s achievement. This paper also considers Cole-Turner’s rejoinder. While he admits that enhancement may help us relocating human struggle, he also raises the worry that it may overlook important values of the traditional means. In response, this paper argues that enhancing drug per se will not undermine such value, only the abuse of such drug will.

The Case of Enhancing Drug Hampering Authenticity

Prima facie, there is an intuitive case against the use of performance enhancing drug. Usually, the enhancement will significantly increase one’s ability to perform a task. When it comes to competition, it gives one a competitive edge over the opponents. If one achieves a victory upon using such consuming enhancing drug, it seems that the reason why one wins is due to the use of drug, but not one’s performance. After all, when one’s ability diminishes markedly without taking such drug, one will for sure achieve an inferior result. As Lance Armstrong admits, he would not have won Tour de France consecutively were it not for his massive doping (Simpson 2015). Hence, enhancement renders the actor's contribution to the performance irrelevant to the actor's agency. As a result, the actor cannot claim any personal credit for the victory. As Sandel (2015) puts it, our admiration for any accomplishments fades as the role of enhancement augments. We may even begin to shift from admiring the accomplishment of the agent to the pharmacist (Sandel 2015).

Even not in the context of competitions or public performance, the use of enhancing drug strikes people as problematic because we often think that determination, perseverance, and the striving for improvements are quintessential to our pursuit of achievement. One may suggest that using enhancing drugs to avoid all the hardship and gain an easy success necessarily undermine the value of achievements, rendering our accomplishments meaningless, since such avoidance misses the whole point of human effort and the striving of excellent. By using performance enhancing drug, we are alienated from the natural process in which we acquire our ability. As Kass (2003) points out, an agent can at most feel its effects but can never apprehend their meaning in human term.

In short, the accusation can be summarized as follows: 1) the actor who relies on performance enhancing drug cannot claims legitimate credit for success; 2) the enhancing drugs, as Kass (2003, pp.22–3) succinctly puts it, disrupt the relationship between “the knowing subject and his activities” and between “his activities and their fulfillments”.

Objections to the Arguments from Authenticity

However, I will argue that the authenticity argument does not undermine the value of enhanced performance in the way that the opponent of enhancing drug wants.

To begin with, saying that performance enhancing drug takes away our credit for our accomplishment seems misleadingly suggests that such drug has some sort of magical power that makes one become an invincible or a genius. However, one does not acquire an incredible strength or a high level of intellect simply by undertaking such form of enhancement. For sure, enhancing drug plays its part in boosting individual’s capacity. But the mere fact that it levels up our ability does not take away our credits. Without intense training, doping massively will not make one a competent athlete.

What is more, there are many existing practices that seek to increase our performance in a way that is alien from our direct human effort, and yet they are widely regarded as legitimate. Swimming suit is a case in point. It serves as an external form of enhancement that helps swimmers to perform better. There are also examples of acceptable forms of biomedical enhancement such as consuming caffeine that enhance athlete’s performance in endurance sports. Hence, the mere fact that enhancement is involved does not render the consumption of such drug morally problematic.

Moreover, one essential reason why doping is widely considered to be problematic is only that the existing regulations prohibit so. Given that the rules do not allow doping: if one participant dope massively for the sake of victory, this will be a clear case of cheating. However, the problem of such situation lies in the fact that the participant violates the rules but not doping per se. In such case, we find doping problematic because the violation of rules gives one an unfair advantage that increases one’s chance to win. If one wins, the victory is likely because one violates the rules, rather than solely on the basis of one’s ability. Thus, one does not deserve to claim credits for such victory. Yet, if the rule explicitly permits the use of drugs, it becomes unclear how doping can be regarded as cheating.

One may insist that as the technology increases, the effect of doping will be so enormous that the effect of drug may outweigh individuals’ effort. In such case, it seems that the contribution of someone who dopes pales when comparing to that of the pharmacist. Nonetheless, as Mehlman points out, as a person is enhanced to have a stronger starting point, our expectation of one’s performance will increase correspondingly. The increasing standard by which we judge their performance will still require them to devote substantially in order to keep up with the standard.

Furthermore, the significant roles of performance enhancing drug does not render an actor not deserving one’s achievement. Consider the following analogy. When it comes to the rapid speed of the sports cars in a car race, the car manufacturers no doubt can claim most of the credit pertaining to the speed of the cars. However, the drivers are the spotlight of the race because what car racing about is the skill of the driver to control the car at a very high speed. Hence, the winner of a race can legitimately claim that his record is “his” instead of belonging to the car manufacturer. Similarly, the efforts and skills of an enhanced agent are the ultimate determinants over how far the enhanced the ability can go. The above analogy is even more compelling if we accept that Derek Parfit’s (2008) argument that personal identity is nothing but an overlapping chain of psychological connectedness. What matters in sports will ultimately be how well our physical body is controlled in attaining certain achievements.

Cole-Turner’s Rejoinder: The Value of the Traditional Means

Cole-Turner (1998, pp.8–12) does acknowledge that an enhanced individual can take credit for their achievements; nevertheless, he emphasises that traditional means do have its unique value. When one takes an enhancing drug, one’s prime focus is on the achievements that it might bring. In contrast, Cole-Turner (1998, pp.9) argues that the traditional means do have their value independent of the end they achieve. Take the example of mountain climbing for instance. The value of climbing a mountain peak lies not simply in being at the summit. Rather, Cole-Turner (1998, pp.10) observes that it is more about having “the physical and mental discipline, the experience of the gradually opening vistas, and the sense of personal accomplishment”. Simply by narrowing the value of an activity to specific end fails to appreciate the multiple values independent of the end. Hence, Cole-Turner (1998) emphasizes that there is a sense of “thickness” in our human experience that cannot be captured by a “thin” description.

By “thin” description, it refers to a specific measurable end (Cole-Turner 1998). As for the “thickness” of human experience, it encompasses a variety of values and experience that we may ignore when we solely focus on the “thin” description (Cole-Turner 1998). These include efforts and discipline. Cole-Turner (1998) invites us to consider whether losing some of these values and experience through enhancement that may result in a poor trade off.

Cole-Turner (1998) also draws the distinction between core struggle and secondary aggravations. For instance, for scientific research, while the good use of scientific knowledge belongs to the category of core struggle, striving to stay focus and attentive are only secondary aggravations. Cole-Turner (1998) urges us to consider whether the sacrificed values and experience are part of the core struggle of not.

The Relocation of Human Struggle

Based on Cole-Turner’s observation, I re-formulate a two-fold criterion in considering whether there is a genuine case of relocating human struggle, and it comprises of the following two components:

    1. What kind of values and experience do the use of such drug hampers;

    2. Whether they are part of the core struggle of the activity.

If the effected values and experience are crucial parts of an activity, it will only be a case of an elimination of human struggle. Such use of obstacles avoidance seems to have an inferior value. On the flip side, if they are rather trivial, it does not simply eliminate the necessary struggle that one normally has to go through, but “relocate our human struggle” so that we can place our efforts focusing on what matters.

While I acknowledge such test’s value in considering the issue of enhancement in general, for the case of performance enhancing drug, however, I believe that enhancing drug per se will not eliminate of human struggle since such drug essentially helps us only to better cope with the core struggle, but it does not help us to avoid such struggle.

In the following, I will consider the application of the test on scientific researchers and heavy weight lifters. The first one is a simple case that aims to illustrate the application of the test. The later one is a harder case aiming to show that enhancing drug will not amount to eliminations of necessary struggle.

Scientific Research

The case of using enhancing drugs in doing scientific research is a fairly straightforward case. In order to have the ability to concentrate for a long period time and maintain one’s mental sharpness, some researchers may use cognitive enhancers such as Modafinil. Traditionally, the advised way of maintaining a good shape is to have sufficient rest and appropriate diet. A person who can constantly maintain a sharp mental shape in such a way can claim credit for one’s regulated life. While the use of cognitive enhancers does not imply an unregulated life, the person cannot identify one’s mental sharpness to one’s effort. Here, the linkage between one’s cognitive fitness and one’s effort is hampered.

However, as Olsen (2006, pp.228) points out, “There is no reason to assume prima facie that effort is valuable in and of itself.” Indeed, when it comes to scientific research, what ultimately matters is the result. The ultimate point of doing scientific research is to produce a valid research that brings a contribution to the scientific community as well as the society. Efforts pertaining to the mental sharpness of a person seem to have little relevance here. As Mehlman (2004) asserts, “You deserve to win a Nobel Prize if you discover the cure for cancer, whether or not you do so with the aid of cognitive enhancing drugs.” It seems to be pretty clear that the cognitive fitness is only a matter of secondary aggravations. Hence, the use of cognitive enhancers is a genuine case of relocating human struggle.

Heavy Weight Lifting

For sports, however, things are more complicated. Going beyond the mere use of cognitive enhancer, the use of enhancing drug in sports sometimes involve the use of doping substance that has an impact on the physical constitution on the body, which is far more controversial.

Here, I would like to focus on the uses of steroids in heavy weight lifting. Such competition is basically about finding out who has the strongest strength by comparing the maximum weight of barbell the athletes are able to lift up. A possible criticism based on the Cole-Turner’s test may suggest that the use of steroid is that it hamper a core struggle of heavyweight lifting, namely to build up sufficient strength. Unlike boosting cognitive function for scientific research, the use of steroid has a far more direct impact on the strength of the athletes. One may suggest that it is a form of obstacle avoidance.

However, I believe that such line of reasoning does not work because the muscles do not grow automatically after injecting steroid; the athletes still have to work out heavily in order to utilize the impact that steroid brings. A more accurate characterization is that steroid further pushes human limits on physical strength to another level.

The Elimination of Human Struggle

Nevertheless, while for some people, enhancement is used to reach another human limits, some may simply treat enhancement as a short cut to avoid obstacles. For instance, if whenever one has difficulty in staying concentrated, one resort to cognitive enhancer without any attempt to pull oneself together, one is clearly over relying on the drug. While taking drugs to enhance one’s cognitive ability will not hamper the core struggle of developing a research, over-reliance of cognitive enhancer weakens the willpower of a person. Nonetheless, this is not a problem for cognitive enhancer per se, but just an instance of misapplication.

A Final Note

One may, nonetheless, insist on a difference in value when comparing enhanced achievements and non-enhanced achievements. Imagine two persons deliver the exact same performances, but one is enhanced while the other is not. While the former one relies substantially on enhancing drug for the performance, the latter relies solely on training and hard work. Although they both achieve the same result, one may maintain that there is some critical moral difference. After all, it is intuitive to associate efforts with moral desert.

However, as I have noted above, “there is no reason to assume prima facie that effort is valuable in and of itself” (Olsen 2006, pp.228). To further elaborate on that, a person’s intellectual achievement might be substantially affected by his abnormally high IQ. A highly successful basketball player’s achievement may have owed his success to his gene that makes him incredibly tall. The mere fact that an influential factor in the achievement is not part of one’s effort does not make it morally problematic.


To wrap up, performance enhancing drug per se undermine neither individuals’ authenticity nor the values of traditional means. Rather it is helpful for us to relocate our human struggle, allowing us to focus on the core struggle of the activity and can take less emphasis on the trivial ones. Nevertheless, over-reliance on such drug in overcoming our obstacles can be detrimental.


Cole-Turner, Ronald. “Do Means Matter? Evaluating Technologies of Human Enhancement.” Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly. Vol 18. No 4 (1998): 8-12. Print.

Juengst, Eric and Moseley, Daniel. "Human Enhancement", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford U, Apr 7, 2015. Web. 20 Dec. 2015.

Kass, Leon. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. Washington, D.C: President's Council on Bioethics, 2003. Print.

Mehlman, Maxwell J. “Cognition-Enhancing Drugs.” The Milbank Quarterly 82.3 (2004): 483–506. PMC. Web. 20 Dec. 2015.

Olsen, J.M. Depression, SSRIs, and the Supposed Obligation to Suffer Mentally. Kennedy Inst Ethics J 2006; 16: 3. Print.

Parfit, Derek. “Personal identity” in Personal identity, ed. John Perry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Print.

Sandel, Michael J., “The Case Against Perfection”, The Atlantic. April 2014. Web. 20 Dec. 2015

Simpson, Connor. “Lance Armstrong Admits Using EPO and Blood Doping to Oprah Winfrey”, The Wire. Jan 17, 2013. Web. 20 Dec. 2015.

Further Readings

Is AI a Threat to Humanity? 4 Facts You Should Know

Act vs Rule Utilitarianism: A Critique of Harsanyi’s Assessment

Jumpstart Your Productivity with These Hacks

WeLab | The Future of Hong Kong as a Leading Fintech Hub

Blog Search