Arguing Over Nothing

The Athletes-on-Steroids Debate

Arguing Over Nothing:A regular feature on the blog where we argue over something of little consequence, as if it were of major consequence. Arguing is philosophy’s raison d’être, and the beauty of an argument is often as much in its form as its content.Today, we argue about the acceptability of professional athletes using performance-enhancing steroids. Sides have been randomly assigned. Jim argues here for a pro-steroid position, while I take the con.

Each philosopher is granted up to a 500-750 words to state his/her case as well as up to 250-500 words for rebuttal. The winner will be decided by a poll of the readers (or whoever happens to have admin privileges at the appropriate time).

Jim: Arguing for the Use of Steroids

Really? I’ve been assigned the pro position? Dammit. Fine.

Before I present my arguments in favor of this very fine topic, I want to first lay out the purpose of the athlete, showing what I think the athletic endeavor is meant to display or do and what it is not meant for. Once that groundwork has been properly lain, my actual arguments will be easily to see and agree to.

Sports itself is merely a kind of communal physical activity, the doing of which I need not bother defending, as it is patently clear that nearly everyone (and my claim is not affected if ‘nearly everyone’ only picks out a bare majority) desires the company of others (while not every possible ‘other’, at least some people who are not oneself), and it is physically beneficial to take part in physical activities. Watching sports is another matter entirely, and it is here that the role of the professional athlete needs to be made clear.

One claim about athletes is that they show to the rest of us what the human body can do, what an object of grace and strength and fortitude can accomplish. I will not dispute that (though if the topic comes up later, I will be more than happy to give it a shot). I will claim that such displays are well handled by the amateur athletes — those who play college sports or in the olympics, or even in minor league sports. Such athletes are the ones who are competing for, among other things, the glory of the game or to personify the strength of the human spirit, and other such claims. The important aspect to note about such athletes (for the most part) is that they are not payed to play. They compete because of the joy and sense of accomplishment and what have you that they receive from the mere fact of competition. Our being allowed to watch such activities is enjoyable, but their purpose is not solely, I suggest, for our entertainment. Our entertainment is a by-product of their true purpose. Such is not so for the professional athlete.

The professional athlete exists to entertain us, the non-professional (perhaps even non-) athletes. The pro achieves remarkable things, often moreso than does the amateur, but professional accomplishments are the by-product of their athleticism — their purpose is to entertain, and any crossover into the realm of ‘attaining human perfection’ and the display thereof is but icing on the cake. We watch professional sports, if we do, because it entertains us. It entertains us with its athleticism, its drafting us into particular communities of comrades and opponents (our city/division/league is better than yours). We are happiest when our team wins, when we see events that we could not imagine happening otherwise, when we see records broken (records that mean nothing when not used to compare our team to that of another), when we see impressive feats of scoring or the prevention of which — we are happiest when we are entertained.

Professional athletes who take steroids are better capable of amazing physical performances than are those who do not. We watch professional sports because we want to be entertained by amazing physical performances. In fact, professional sports exists solely to provide such a venue. Therefore, athletes should be allowed to take steroids. They should be monitored to ensure they are as safe as possible, of course, but if steroids makes them better serve their purpose, then take them they should.

Alec: Arguing Against Steroid Use

First things first, the line between amateur and professional athlete is quickly evaporating, and we should reframe the argument appropriately. The Olympics, once the exclusive domain of amateur athletes, now allow professional athletes into the mix, because Olympic officials decided to let the best athletes in the world compete, not merely the poorest. There is also more parity than ever between professional and amateur athletes, in that college athletes are not only closer to professional level than ever before, but are also as equally involved in the entertainment aspect of the athletic industry. College football ad revenues in 2010 — for just the top 15 programs in the U.S. — topped a billion dollars.

So let’s dispense with the pro/amateur distinction. The bottom line is that athletes of any sort have two concerns: being the best they can be, and entertaining others. Even a middle-aged weekend warrior worries about looking good in front of the twenty people watching him play a very mediocre third base. The same warrior revels in the glory of an unusually graceful moment in the field. Alternately, the most jaded professional athlete can still revel in his athleticism even in the face of the realization that he is just there to make money. And obviously the professional has to worry about his entertainment value, even as he might be conflicted about it.

Now that the metaphysics are out of the way, we can analyze things more easily. The goals of being an athlete are two-fold (at least): being the best human specimen, and being the best entertainer. And this impacts the steroid debate in two ways.

Being the best human specimen. The key word here is, of course, “human”. What we (and the athletes in question) should be concerned with is developing the human body to its greatest potential. Once we start adding manufactured chemicals into the mix, we are getting into the realm of superhuman, or, perhaps more aptly hyperhuman. You will argue, no doubt, that athletes should be able to take, say, ibuprofen without being considered enhanced to an unnatural degree. And I agree. But surely also there is a line past which we cannot cross. By the time we get to adding bionic body parts to an athlete, we have certainly crossed that line. I argue that steroids have crossed that line as well.

Being the best entertainer. To some degree, it strikes me, no one cares (nor should they) what an entertainer does to enhance themselves for the benefit of the performance. But if we think about it for a moment, we might change our tune. Take, for instance, the extreme case of the singer who lip-syncs in concert. This is the ultimate enhancement to the singer’s biology. (Never mind that the enhancement is external to the singer. Picture a bodily embedded vocal track if it helps you.) But when we discover such an enhancement in practice, we become upset, and rightly so. We want to see live vocal feats — the human body stretched to its limits in a beautiful performance. We don’t want to hear prerecorded “perfection”, just because it’s possible. Similarly with athletes. When we find one cheating (corking a bat, taking steroids, doping), we are rightly dismayed. And this dismay is founded on the same basis of the previous paragraph. We want to see human-ness developed; not hyperhuman-ness.

Jim’s Reply to Alec

I will grant you the pro/amateur distinction is not a large one for this topic, but my so granting is due more to lack of space than to agreement. I will say this before moving on to the bulk of my reply: That various countries (America included) are now including professional athletes in the Olympics does not show a change in the inherent status of what an athlete is or is meant to be, it is instead a very successful attempt to move the Olympics from a showcase of Athletic achievement into something very much like a “our team is better than yours, so nah nah nah” mentality. The athletes that competed in the games were, for the most part, professional in the sense that they often only ever trained for the Olympics to the exclusion of anything else. Be that as it may, let’s move on.

Being the Best Human: This, I think, is, or is traditionally thought to be, the main purpose of the athlete. When we tend to think of the classical athlete, it is the Greek ideal we think of, and their supposed desire to reach perfection with the body. That desire was steeped in the idea of natural perfection, but why must we be trapped in such a conception? You mention a line we should not cross, but where we draw that line is arbitrary. Ibuprofen is allowed, but why? Because it is commonly used? That was not always the case — it only became so over time. Reconstructive knee surgery is not natural, is it? And yet it is quite common among athletes. Apparently taking steroids is the norm among bicyclists. Does that make it natural now? Otherwise, what is your definition of natural? It cannot be, or I suspect you do not want it to be, just whatever naturally (without our intervention) occurs in nature, so what else is it besides what is commonly accepted? Steroids in that latter sense were once unnatural, but are no longer so. Is constant excercise natural? Not in America. Does that disqualify athletes who work out in order to be better? You tell me.

Being the Best Entertainer: I wholeheartedly agree with you about singers being given false aid through the use of auto-tune or whatever the new audio enhancement is going to be called. Those are not biological enhancements though. There is nothing about that which I believe can properly be labeled as a human improvement. Steroids work on the muscles themselves, or so I gather; at the very least, they work on the body directly, and amplify its abilities to do more than what it can presently do. Auto-tune modifies a feature of the body that is separate from biology itself. It takes what the body does and works on it as a separate entity, treating it no differently than one might hair that one donates to a charity. Studio work modifies an entertainer no more than CGI does. Most of us know that we are not being entertained by a person, but by a computer’s rendering of some aspect of a person. Steroids do not make the body work differently — they make it work better (leaving open the meaning of ‘better’ here as something that is common sensical in the realm of sports).

Alec’s Reply to Jim

You have hoisted me by my own metaphysical petard! Well played! Indeed, the line to be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable performance aids is arbitrary. I was sort of hoping you’d miss that. Maybe, however, there’s a slender non-arbitrary thread at which to grasp here.

Ibuprofen doesn’t enhance one’s performance; it merely lets one perform through some minor discomfort. Reconstructive knee surgery doesn’t create a better knee than one originally had; it merely gets a knee back into useable form. These, I claim, fall safely on the acceptable side of the line separating acceptable from unacceptable. Steroids are meant not as an ameliorative nor as a repair, but explicitly as an enhancement to one’s otherwise natural ability. With steroids, one can be a better athlete. With, e.g., knee surgery, one can at best resume one’s career at the same level as previously.

Your example of constant exercise throws an undeniable wrench in my theory, however. Exercise is, clearly, meant to be something that improves one’s athleticism, and therefore could be seen as falling on the unacceptable side of my fine line. Yet obviously this is at best unintuitive and at worst a crushing blow to my theory. I admit that I have no unassailable defense against this. However, let me try one last maneuver. Let’s call “natural exercise” any form of exercise that one could undertake without advanced technology. Any form of running, stretching, weight-lifting, etc., would fall under this umbrella. (Never mind that most, e.g., modern weight machines are obviously technologically enhanced — someone with the appropriate set of rocks and sticks could emulate the majority of this technology.) Now let’s call “enhanced exercise” any form of exercise that relies inherently on technology. For instance, I’m imagining some sort of computer-aided analysis of muscle fibers during a workout, with an algorithm that instantaneously guides the athlete through electrical feedback into better postures. I claim that natural exercise is always acceptable, and enhanced exercise always unacceptable. And with this arguable line drawn anew, I rest my case. Tenuously.

Arguing Over Nothing

The Peanut Butter and Jelly Debate

Arguing Over Nothing: A regular feature on the blog where we argue over something of little consequence, as if it were of major consequence. Arguing is philosophy’s raison d’être, and the beauty of an argument is often as much in its form as its content.

Today, we argue about the proper way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Jim argues for a radical, new approach, while I side with a more standard approach to the endeavor.

Each philosopher is granted up to a 500-750 words to state his/her case as well as up to 250-500 words for rebuttal. The winner will be decided by a poll of the readers (or whoever happens to have admin privileges at the appropriate time).

Jim: Arguing for the bowl method

The purpose of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the purpose of any sandwich, I suppose, is to provide a quick bit of sustenance. There are ‘sandwich artists’ in the world, but I have trouble imagining such people working in the medium of peanut butter and jelly. Therefore, the sooner the sandwich is made, the sooner its purpose can be met. Were one to take the time to, after opening two jars and securing two utensils (surely we can both agree that cross-contamination of the ingredients should not occur within the jars), much time has already been lost and invested. From that point, mixing the two ingredients in bowl is the best and most efficient way of creating the sandwich. This is so for, primarily, two reasons.

First, peanut butter, even the creamiest sort, is not so easily spread on bread. I will grant that toasted bread provides a more durable spreading surface, but, again, the sandwich is made for a quick repast so that toasting is often overlooked or bypassed. Inevitably, large divots are raised or even removed from the bread by even the most experienced spreader. Once that has been accomplished, if it were accomplished at all, the jelly must be attended to. Securing jelly from jar with a spreading knife is a feat best left to the young and others with plenty of idle time on their hands. Repeated stabbings into the jar will secure, at best, scant amounts of jelly. It is, obviously, better to use a spoon. However, as is clear to even the dullest imagination, spreading with a spoon leaves much to be desired, literally, as the result tends to be scattered hillocks of jelly, between which are faint traces, like glacial retreatings, of ‘jelly flavor’. Were one to use a spoon for jelly retrieval and a knife for jelly spreading, that is yet another utensil to clean.

The second reason against separate spreads, and so for one bowl of mixed, is corollary to the above. When one makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, one is looking to taste both in, maximally, each bite. Given the condition of the bread on the peanut butter side and the pockets of flavor intersticed with the lack thereof on the jelly side, one is lucky to get both flavors in half the bites taken.

By mixing both peanut butter and jelly in a bowl prior to application, both of the concerns above are fully redressed. The peanut butter, by virtue of its mixing with jelly, becomes much more spreadable for two reasons: it is no longer as thick and it is no longer as dry. A thin and moist substance is always much easier to spread. Furthermore, because of the aforementioned mixing, both flavors will be available in every bite taken. The end result is a much more delicious, easily made (and so efficient), quick meal. As an added bonus, one’s fingers end up with less mess since only one slice of bread has needed attending to and so one’s fingers are only up for mess-exposure for the one time and not twice as with the other method.

While there is the bowl left to clean, in addition to the utensils, what has not been removed from the bowl is easily rinsed. The peanut butter-jelly mix, given its thin and moist nature is almost always able to be fully removed from the bowl and transferred to the bread. What is not so transferred, whether by design or not, is, by the the previously mentioned nature, easily washed or wiped away in disposal.

The bowl is clearly the way to go when making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Alec: Arguing Against the Bowl Method

I will grant your utilitarian premise on sandwich making (“the purpose of any sandwich, I suppose, is to provide a quick bit of sustenance”), though I will point out that aesthetics could have a valid role to play in this debate. If your PB&J-from-a-bowl sandwich is singularly visually unappetizing (as I imagine it might be) then it will not provide any sustenance whatsoever, but will end up in the trash can instead. Also, note that your utilitarianism here could lead to the creation of a “sandwich” that is made by tossing the ingredients in a blender and creating a PB&J smoothie the likes of which would be eschewed by any rational hungry person.

But I digress.

You claim that peanut butter — even the creamy variety — is difficult to spread on bread. I have two points to make in regards to this claim. First, I haven’t had difficulty spreading peanut butter on bread since I was 12. Perhaps you should have your motor skills tested by a trained kinesiologist. I grant you that spreading a chunky peanut butter on a thin, wispy white bread can be problematic; but a smooth peanut butter on a hearty wheat bread? Not problematic at all. Second, you have pointed to no scientific research that shows that mixing peanut butter and jelly in a bowl makes it easier to spread than plain peanut butter. I remain skeptical on this point. And even if it is easier to spread, the labor involved in mixing it with jelly in a separate bowl might be far more work than it is worth in the end.

The knife/jelly problem is a thorny one, indeed, as you have noted. Trying to extricate an ample amount of jelly from a jar with a knife is difficult and annoying. You claim that: “Were one to use a spoon for jelly retrieval and a knife for jelly spreading, that is yet another utensil to clean.” However, you have overlooked the obvious: one can use the knife from the peanut butter to spread the jelly that has been extricated with the spoon. Here is some simple math to show how utensil use plays out in both of our scenarios:

You: 1 knife for dishing peanut butter + 1 spoon for dishing jelly + 1 bowl for mixing.

Me: 1 knife for dishing and spreading peanut butter + 1 spoon for dishing jelly, and reuse the knife for spreading jelly.

So we are equal on our utensil use, and you have used an extra bowl.

And on the subject of this extra bowl, it will be readily admitted by all that a knife with peanut butter on it is annoying enough to clean, while an entire bowl with peanut butter on it is proportionately more annoying to clean. (Again, you claim that a peanut butter / jelly mixture is easier to clean than pure peanut butter, but the research on this is missing. Surely you will allow that a bowl with some peanut butter on it is not a simply rinsed affair.) Plus there’s the environmental impact of cleaning an extra bowl each time you make a sandwich. Add that over the millions of people who make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches each day, and you’ve got a genuine environmental issue.

Creating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich my way also leads to an easier-to-clean knife. After spreading the peanut butter on one slice of bread, you can wipe the knife on the other slice of bread to remove upwards of 90% of the residual peanut butter (Cf. “Peanut Butter Residue in Sandwich Making,” Journal of Viscous Foods 94, 2008, pp. 218-227.) This makes cleanup far easier than in your scenario, and results in potential environmental savings as well.

You do make two solid points. First, your PB&J mixture is potentially much more homogenous than the usual sandwich mixture, resulting in a more equitable PB-to-J ratio per bite. Here I can only revisit my aesthetic claim that eating a standard PB&J sandwich is more appealing than the greyish mixture you propose we slather on bread. Second, your sandwich creation process is indeed potentially less messy on the fingers than mine. To this I have no defense. Into each good life some jelly must fall.

Jim: Rebuttal

I must say, I find many of your points and counterpoints intriguing. All wrong, of course, but still intriguing. Let’s go through them, one at a time, and see where you go astray.

1) I grant both the utilitarian and aesthetic aspects to the sandwich. There are some truly beautiful sandwiches out there; few of them, however, are made at home and are made solely of bread, peanut butter, and jelly. The maker of such a sandwich is often working in a limited environment with a limited medium with a time crunch, otherwise, utility be damned and let the sandwich artist sing. As for the smoothie sandwich, I doubt, as surely so do you, that the sole goal of the creator (of the sandwich) is to ingest those ingredients as soon as possible. Ignoring a lack of teeth or the presence of an extremely tight throat, such an option is insane.

2) While I appreciate a gentle jibe as much as the next fellow, to imply that I lack the wrist strength to apply peanut butter to bread is going a bit far. Ad hominem attacks should have no place in philosophical discourse. It is not impossible to spread peanut butter on bread and I will happily grant you the point that it is so much easier to do so on ‘hearty wheat bread’. My point was and is that it is easier to do so if, to use a turn of phrase, the wheels have been greased a bit, and it is my contention that a peanut butter and jelly mixture does just that. However, you are correct that I have no scientific data to back that up. I was under the impression that science need not enter civil discussion, but I will agree that I have no data to back that claim up. Common sense, mere intuition, though, seems to suggest that if jelly is easier to spread than peanut butter, and who would contest that, then surely a mixture of peanut butter and jelly would be easier to spread than peanut butter simpliciter.

3) I fear I only have enough space left to deal with your point concerning the extra cleaning of a bowl. I did take a bit of latitude with that argument and will concede it to you with but one addendum. In almost every home, at the very least in a great many homes, I would guess that the dishes are not washed one at a time, but rather several at once, and rarely immediately after use. If the utilitarian nature of the PB&J sandwich is granted, time is at a minimum and I suspect clean-up will have to wait a more opportune time. While an extra bowl is required during the creation of the sandwich, I do not think that an extra bowl needing to be washed would extend such washing time unduly.