“Why should I be honest in a dishonest world?”

December 2, 2011

Political Theory

There has been a large amount of debate about cheating in academics and sports in several recent blogs, especially discussing the “fairness” of illegal drugs or performance enhancers for people to gain an edge against their competition. After reading this and thinking back to discussions in lecture, I think that this concept of “cheating” or the ends justifying the means ties into a whole larger issue in American society. Have we cultivated a culture that glorifies and rewards cheating, or being the best at all costs? And what exactly is considered cheating and what is considered a fair advantage? Where is the line drawn?

I recently re-watched a 2008 documentary called Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, directed by Chris Bell, which explores issues of “cheating” in society, from sports to academics to everyday life. The film highlights many double-standards and discrepancies on how this idea of cheating or gaining an unfair advantage is viewed and accepted in society. For example, steroids in competitive sports are demonized and viewed as extremely harmful to any athlete’s integrity. However it is made clear that steroids in themselves do not really replace hard work or dedication on the athletes’ part, but rather allow them to preform and recover faster and more efficiently. The film primarily focuses on bodybuilding, where illegal anabolic steroids are commonplace. Several professional bodybuilders in the film admitted that this is the main reason why their sport hasn’t been accepted by mainstream society as it is simply regarded as a testament to illicit drug use. Yet the documentary also does a great part in showing the dedication, insane work ethic, and sacrifice that professional bodybuilders go through every day, which are the primary factors in their success, not steroids. Yet other athletes who gain a competitive advantage without the use of illegal drugs enter a sort of “gray area” in terms of morality. Many cyclists are known for blood-doping or even sleeping in altitude chambers to give their bodies an advantage while competing. Floyd Landis, for example, got stripped of his Tour de France title in 2006 specifically for sleeping in an altitude chamber, which simply served to increase his blood cell count.

The film also references Tiger Woods, who had eye surgery to improve his vision to a more than perfect 20/15. Personally, as a competitive golfer who doesn’t have perfect eyesight, I can testify to how beneficial an improvement in eyesight can be in the sport.

 Yet Woods got away with the surgery with very little criticism, even though the documentary argues that this too was a form of performance enhancement. Essentially, cheating in sports in a very shady area to judge morally and to enforce legally, and obviously the incentives to be the best and get ahead are there for everyone.

The disturbing and controversial points that the film was hinting at is that nowadays it seems that “success” is not associated with honor and virtue, but rather with being the best in your field, whatever the price may be. The people who get paid the highest salaries today usually aren’t the most virtuous or honest individuals out there. Throughout some of the interviews, it is clear that many CEOs, top politicians, and successful athletes do cut corners to get ahead, and get rewarded for it. In the documentary, some young kids said that cheating to be the best was something they see every day with their friends and classmates, from cheating on tests and homework to videogames or sports. This pattern of wanting to be a “winner” no matter what is clearly prominent in our culture among people of all ages.

In a Theory of Justice, John Rawls called for “fair equality of opportunity,” allowing all individuals to be on an equal playing field and have access to equal opportunities. However, in Bigger Faster Stronger* one of the interviewees said that today “success has become divorced from virtue.” Is this true? Has a more Machiavellian standpoint been adopted in our country where everything goes as long as we can get ahead? Machiavelli wrote that “Ambition is so powerful a passion in the human breast, that however high we reach we are never satisfied.” Simply, we always want to get ahead and be the best. As a Ross applicant, I can tell you that the competition is so intense that getting a high GPA has become something that many are willing to achieve no matter the cost or risk. Altogether, it seems that the pressure and expectations do to well are so extremely high, that cheating is made an unfortunate reality in all aspects of society.



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