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Juicing and the nature of man

A “cultural issue” is one people have strong views on but don’t know how to discuss. That makes for discussions that are sometimes interesting but sometimes repetitive and aside the point. People come up with odd and inventive arguments to back up gut reactions, repeat them again and again, and ignore everyone else.

Here’s a better-than-average discussion of a cultural issue at 2 Blowhards: steroid use by athletes. Since it’s the type of discussion it is, I’ll ignore what everyone else says, at least for a moment, and assert that people object to steroid use by athletes because it’s not natural. The point of athletics is doing something demanding and testing yourself against other men. That means it has to be the man and not the technical contrivance that wins.

The fact that good technique and good equipment are advantages is irrelevant, since permissible techniques and equipment are part of the definition of the sport. You can’t use a spitball in baseball or a moped in a bicycle race. If the same defined techniques and equipment are available to everyone, it’s still man against man. Training has also become highly technical, though. The point of training is to make the athlete more capable, and part of that is changing his body. So when is it the man and not the body-modification technique that wins? Why are vitamins, minerals and protein supplements good and steroids bad?

The reason, I think, is that vitamins, minerals and protein supplements make you healthier—they make you more what you are—while steroids make you a freak with physical problems. Unlike vitamin C, they don’t suit the natural functioning of the body—they’re not natural. But if they don’t suit the nature of the body, then it’s not the man who wins when they lead to victory. It’s something that’s basically antihuman.

Obviously, that’s not a line of thought people like today because they don’t like to say whether something’s natural or not. They think it’s uneducated or prejudiced or something. So one way of looking at the 2 Blowhards discussion is to see how people deal with or avoid the issue of the natural and unnatural. In general, the commenters didn’t want to deal with it directly and take it seriously. Some approached it indirectly, perhaps in a jocular or self-deprecating way, by saying that steroid users are “not right” or “not like us.” Others pooh-poohed the idea of the natural together with concerns about steroid use, saying such concerns are irrational and associating them with fantasies about a mythological state of purity.

The poster, Friedrich von Blowhard, dealt with the issue by transposing it into evo-bio concepts. Steroids are less heritable than discipline, smarts, and the tendency to eat right, but they make you bigger and stronger, so they counterfeit reproductive fitness. That’s bad, apparently, because reproductive fitness is the scientifically respectable standard of human virtue. The fact that people who don’t know, don’t care, or don’t believe in evolution oppose steroid use is apparently irrelevant. A causal story about why people tend to think something based on speculative conditions long ago is to be taken more seriously than why, based on their present way of understanding the world, they think that thing.

My own view: you can’t think rationally about human life without a robust idea of human nature, and therefore of what is natural. We’ve lost that in public discourse today, which is one reason public discourse today is mostly aside the point. “It ain’t natural” is a perfectly good argument that has to come out of the shadows. It needs to develop and refine itself, maybe, but not feel embarrassed about being what it is or feel the need to justify itself by reference to speculations about living conditions tens of thousands of years ago. The question, after all, is whether something makes sense now.

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