Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Alva Noe and the naturalistic cyborg fallacy

The philosopher of mind has a blog at NPR. In one post he talked about Lance Armstrong and performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Noe seems to say in the blog that doing these drugs and thus cheating is not wrong or at least blameworthy. Surely he can't be that nutty? Granted philosophers in the past have said some incredibly crazy things but they often have at least some coherent justification for their claims.

His argument that Armstrong shouldn't be blamed for cheating (granting that the mountain of evidence against him is accurate, as it appears to be) because humans have always used artificial advantages. This seems like a textbook case of the naturalistic fallacy combined with a case of false comparison.

Of course humans always have used artificial modifications (a trend Noe calls a fact about our cyborg nature).

Here I liberally quote from his original article.
For millions of years, our ancestors survived with only the crudest implements. Some 35,000 to 75,000 years ago, a technological revolution took place on an extraordinary scale. Innovation now abounds in the archeological record. Whereas before, generation after generation used the same blunt pounding tools, now we find highly refined instruments for cutting. And we find tools for making tools. We find an increased diversity of building materials and evidence of real specialization in tool use and tool making. 
The point is not just that we couldn't do what we do without tools. The point is that we couldn't think what we think or see what we see without tools. We wouldn't be what we are without tools. Making tools, changing tools, is a way of making new ways of being. Technologies are evolving patterns of human organization. 
So let us turn now to the case of Lance Armstrong. He is a trailblazer. One of the greats. He didn't win races on his own. No, like each of us in our social embeddings, he created an organization, one drawing on other people, and the creative and effective use of technology, the mastery of biochemistry, to go places and do things that most of us never will, and that no one ever had, before him.That we now attack him, and tear him down, and try to minimize his achievements.... what does this tell us about ourselves?
I was pretty surprised that a professional philosopher would make such an incredibly crude and silly argument. Even though Noe is a philosopher of mind, it's no excuse. There has to be more convincing points he made to support his argument right? Check for yourself and read the whole thing. It really seems as stupid as it appears.

Someone in the comments section pointed out that Noe seems to justify using a cannon for the shotput with this "argument" he seems to put forward. It's not that Armstrong received help from tools, "cybernetic" or otherwise that makes people (justifiably) angry and the fact that he deserves punishment, it's that he received help that is banned that is the issue. I can't understand how anyone, a philosopher no less, could have missed this vital point.

But he later posts another blog responding to all the criticisms he received in the comments section. Surely he made the clear, well-supported points in this blog that controverts the common sense intuition that cheating in sports by taking PEDs is wrong which he should have in the first blog doesn't he?

It doesn't appear that way. His second blog seems to be obdurate obfuscation. He claims he was justified because

1. the anti-doping rules are too vague to matter

2. breaking a doping rule is not blameworthy because it is a rule not "within" the game or sport itself but cheating "outside" the sport's "internal" rules.

The first justification is simply ridiculous and I will not even address it other than to say that positive drug tests (or equivalent positives) is about as clear cut as it gets. It's not that vague. So Noe's point seem to stumble and fall right out of the gates. I can't even imagine a charitable interpretation of it.

As to the second justification, how he came to see it as non trivial and not a hairsplitting distinction (and more relevantly, why it matters even if there is an interesting distinction to be made) is puzzling. Here's a quote:

Doping doesn't put you outside the game any more than sacrificing your marriage or getting up at 3:30 every morning so that you can get time at the ice rink puts you outside the game. Athletes are in it for the achievement. Athletes will not say No.

Of course, there is no rule within the all sports of cycling that says you cannot dope. Anti-doping rules are more a property of the organizing bodies that govern world cycling venues. But that just shifts the problem to that arena. Surely you can and be justifiably blamed for cheating there? And in some sense, that would also count as cheating in cycling because it would be taking an unfair advantage over non cheaters within the sport. So this "distinction" seems like hairsplitting and purposeful obfuscation.

The distinction collapses because the point of the rule against cheating is to enforce unfair advantages within the game which breaks the boundary between "outside" rules and "inside" rules. The outside rules are there for a good reason. They are not arbitrary. PEDs such as EPO and many others (and blood transfusions which the USADA also accuses Armstrong of committing) have been found to potentially be deadly. Obviously you don't want people to be encouraged to take these drugs.

On a charitable interpretation, the only point that Noe seem to be somewhat justified in arguing in defense of doping cheaters as far as I can tell is the "everyone is doing it" argument but I'm not sure Noe is making such an argument (in fact, his own words in the second blog suggests otherwise).

I suppose you can make the somewhat weakly plausible argument that other cyclists at the level Armstrong performs against are doping as well. Thus if we define "cheating" as doing something against the rules (in the sport or in the system by the governing body authorized to oversee the sport) and giving one an advantage, Armstrong didn't actually cheat because he had no artificial advantage over the other cheaters but prevailed over them with natural ability, hard work and skill.

But notice that this argument only works if everyone else he competed against were likewise cheating. But that is implausible. Surely there are a few he has competed throughout the years who weren't on PEDs? And notice that Armstrong must have competed against others at the lower levels of competition and surely there are even more of those competitors who weren't on anything at all but used hard work, determination and the rest of what supposedly makes a great American sportsman?

But in doping Armstrong took an unfair advantage over the others who choose not to use PEDs (or couldn't use them because of limited resources, etc). That's why he deserves blame (not to mention the years of public deception and monetary advantages that comes with that cheating). That's why it's cheating. That's why it's wrong.


  1. Could an argument that what he did was not wrong rely on the fact that there are many ways that one athlete can get an advantage over another, and that it is unclear why using PEDs should be seen as an illegitimate way of doing this. The athlete who forgoes his marriage and heads to the ice-rink at 3:30am everyday has an advantage over others, but we do not blame him. Clearly the latter is not outlawed by the codes of the sport (or the organizing bodies), but we are not merely saying that Armstrong broke the rules, but that what he did was wrong. What is it that makes PEDs wrong while sacrificing a marriage and a normal life is acceptable, virtuous even?
    Noe's point is that humans, athletes in particular, do many things in order to get advantages. What singles PEDs out as wrong?
    It is worth noting that merely being against the rules or being dangerous are not sufficient for being morally wrong. Holding penalties in football and handballs in soccer constitute breaking the rules, but are not seen as "wrong." The very existence of boxing and football are sufficient to show that we see no intrinsic evil in athlete's risking their well-being or even their lives for the sake of athletic achievement.

  2. What singles out PEDs as wrong is that it gives AN UNFAIR advantage to those who use them and it encourages dangerous behavior (EPO use is shown to cause heart trouble and even death).

    Some people cannot afford in both economic resources nor in other resources (such as the right social/political connections, technological connections, etc) to cheat.

    Sports is about natural ability and hard work and dedication. It shouldn't be about arbitrary, non sports related criteria like the above mentioned.

    As someone humorously pointed out in the comments, if we can't draw lines between what is and isn't acceptable in rules for athletic competition, shotputers would be allowed to use canons to launch shotputs. Lines have to be drawn as to what are and aren't acceptable for use to enhance one's performance.

    Armstrong knowingly broke those rules. That's inexcusable as Noe seems to think it is.

  3. The problem I believe Noe has was that we have no principled way to determine what makes an advantage UNFAIR. It cannot simply be a non-sports related advantage, for example an economic advantage. Clearly all of Armstrong's competitors could have afforded to buy PEDs. Also, if someone is independently wealthy, they can dedicate all their time to exercising and practicing, while their less wealthy counterparts will have much less free time to improve their athletic craft. This is clearly a huge advantage, based on what you called "arbitrary criteria," but we do not see the wealthy athlete as a cheater in the way the PED user is.
    The dangerous behavior objection seems way off the mark. Professional sports is very often itself a dangerous behavior, and putting one's life at risk in engaging in it is not always seen as cheating. The athlete who exercises until he is dehydrated is doing something very dangerous, but we do not disqualify him for his actions.
    The cannon argument is just ridiculous. The explicit aim of shotput is to see how far one can throw a shot. Using a cannon is not cheating, it is just not engaging in the sport. Lines are indeed drawn as to what is and is not acceptable, and Noe recognizes that PEDs are against the rules, his argument was that they should not be.
    I think Noe's argument is that given that there is no principled way to rule over-exercising in but PED use out, the distinction is based on some misguided notion of what is "natural."
    Neither health-risks or fairness are unique to PEDs, so why should we see PEDs as unacceptable.

  4. "The problem I believe Noe has was that we have no principled way to determine what makes an advantage UNFAIR."

    If this is what he is saying then he'd clearly be wrong. there are principled ways to distinguish between fair and unfair advantages. If there are no ways to distinguish, indeed, if there is nothing to distinguish between fair and unfair ways, then launching shotputs with canons would be allowed in field competition but that is clearly ridiculous. That clearly is unfair. But for some cases, it may be a gray area. But that's irrelevant because if the gray is made into black and white by rules, the rules then ought to be obeyed by everyone (or why else have them?). If only some obey while others cheat, those who cheat would have an unfair advantage.

    I don't think that criticism is what he is saying at all.

    "Clearly all of Armstrong's competitors could have afforded to buy PEDs."

    This is irrelevant. The issue isn't whether they could afford TO BUY THE DRUGS. The issue is can they afford to CHEAT. It costs millions for Armstrong's team to cheat and it also costs in other resources (such as certain social connections to ruling bodies) which many competitors don't have. See here:

    "The dangerous behavior objection seems way off the mark. Professional sports is very often itself a dangerous behavior, and putting one's life at risk in engaging in it is not always seen as cheating. The athlete who exercises until he is dehydrated is doing something very dangerous, but we do not disqualify him for his actions."

    Actually no, few people have died in cycling competitions but the point is whether someone is taking *unnecessary* risks with their health.

    "The explicit aim of shotput is to see how far one can throw a shot."

    Do you have a "principled" way to distinguish between "throwing" and "non throwing"?

    "Using a cannon is not cheating"

    That's silly. If someone used a canon in competition he'd be banned for cheating, he wouldn't be "not participating in the sport" he'd be thrown out for cheating (and rightfully so).

    Besides, it's not just canons. You can't cybernetically modify yourself to give yourself an unfair advantage (and this was his point actually that you can or ought to). Obviously, those wearing robotic arm enhancements that give them an unfair advantage shouldn't be allowed in shotput competitions (and they are not) either. That would be unfair. They are throwing (in your words) the shotput (with their cybernetic arms) but there are rules disallowing such uses. See here

    We saw this with the 400 meter S. African sprinter Oscar Pistorius who was almost banned from running against able bodied athletes because he had prosthetic legs. He was only allowed to compete in the Olympics when it was determined that his legs did not give him any unfair advantage over those who did not have that body modification.