Yesterday I watched the latest salvo in the ongoing battle between Lance Armstrong (disgraced demi-god) and Travis Tygart (head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency). The context was Tygart’s latest interview on 60 Minutes. Kudos to the man. Despite the fact that Tygart had received repeated threats for going after Lance (including death threats) he had persisted and done the world a service in cleaning up sport. I couldn’t help but think of Tygart as a Jack Russell Terrier who managed to take down a three hundred pound burglar through sheer ‘dogged’ determination.
But the real purpose of this article is not to pile accolades on Tygart. Rather, it is to point out an interesting philosophical dispute between the two on the way one defines the word “cheat”. In the Oprah interview Oprah asked Armstrong: “Did you feel in any way that you were cheating? You did not feel you were cheating taking banned drugs?” Armstrong replied like this:
“At the time, no. I kept hearing I’m a drug cheat, I’m a cheat, I’m a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.”
A level playing field because everybody was cheating. From which we get the counterintuitive conclusion that if everybody cheats then nobody cheats!
Tygart pointed out that this is wrong on two counts. First, not everybody was cheating. And second, Armstrong and his team had resources and information that allowed them to gain an advantage over the other cheaters. From that it follows that they were cheating even by Armstrong’s dictionary definition of a level playing field.
Regardless, Tygart didn’t accept Armstrong’s definition to begin with. When presented with Armstrong’s Oprah response in this latest 60 Minutes interview Tygart retorted that a cheater is simply one who breaks the rules.
So Armstrong and Tygart present us with two competing definitions of “cheat”:
cheat (n.) One who gains an unfair* advantage on a rival or foe. (Armstrong def.)
cheat (n.) One who breaks the rules. (Tygart def.)
(*Note that I included “unfair” in my rendering of Armstrong’s definition. This is because I assume he recognizes that one competitor can have an advantage on a rival without thereby cheating. For example, a basketball player who is 7′ tall may have an advantage over his 6’6” rivals, but his height doesn’t render him a cheater.)
So who is right?
The short answer is both. And also neither. Cheating is actually a complex philosophical notion and both Armstrong and Tygart assume a particular definition of the concept to suit their own purposes. That each definition is inadequate in itself becomes clear when we begin to reflect on each more fully.
I’ve already tweaked Armstrong’s definition by adding the qualification of an “unfair” advantage. But what constitutes an unfair advantage? For example, when does technology present an unfair advantage? This issue arose with the accusation at the Olympics and Paralympics last summer that sprinter Oscar Pistorius’ blades conveyed on him an unfair advantage. The documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” provides a fascinating exploration of the bewildering number of ways athletes can gain a performance advantage from wearing eye glasses to taking anabolic steroids. (You can watch the documentary in its entirety here.) It would appear that the judgment of cheating relative to conveyance of unfair advantage is a moving target.
If Armstrong were to defend his definition he’d have to provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for attaining an unfair advantage. He could attempt to do so generally in a way that applies to all competition or he could do so in a competition-specific way if the criteria shift relative to the competition (chess, sprinting, soccer, Rubik’s Cube, drag racing) and the rules of the governing body of that particular sport and event. The prospects for a general stipulation that would cover all these instances does not appear bright while contextualized definitions quickly overwhelm with endlessly qualified and nuanced definitions.
Breaking the rules?
Tygart might say that these problems are all easily addressed if we simply invoke the idea of breaking the rules. But there are two problems here. First, a person might inadvertently break the rules. This wouldn’t entail that they were cheating.
Second, who decides what the rules are? If the family is playing Monopoly and they all decide to take $300 every time they pass go (instead of the prescribed $200) are they thereby cheating? Or do they have the right to amend the rules by common consent? And what about unwritten rules, those that are reasonably implied but never written down? And who decides what the unwritten rules are?
A person might want to avoid this morass of difficulty by stipulating that cheating happens when a person intends to get an unfair advantage or break the rules. There’s something intuitively appealing here, for intention is clearly important. But is it necessary? Let’s take Armstrong at his word and say that he really believed he wasn’t cheating. Does that mean he wasn’t cheating? Of course not. So while intention is important, it too is not necessary. It is easy to conceive a cheater who never intended to cheat.
Intention or culpable ignorance of intention?
Let’s try this again. A cheat is either
(i) a person who acts with the intention of getting an unfair advantage and who may break the rules as a means to that end
(ii) a person who acts in such a way that they get an unfair advantage and who may break the rules as a means to that end and who culpably failed to recognize that they were acting to get an unfair advantage.
Oh geez, this is getting complicated.
You’ll know it when you see it?
So what is a cheater? One who gets an unfair advantage? Or one who breaks the rules? One who intends or doesn’t intend to do either or both of these? One who will win at any cost? Or what?
I recall here the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart who, in addressing the question of whether a particular film constituted pornography, wrote:
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [ of “pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
Maybe a cheat is similar. Even if we cannot proffer a satisfactory definition of “cheat”, we know one when we see one.
To which I say, Go get ‘im Tygart!