I Think, Therefore I Scam

Trying To Wrap Mind Around Lance Armstrong Issue

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This is a philosophical debate on Lance Armstrong. We'll be getting into Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, David Hume …

OK, OK, you probably are wondering why this ninny from the Play-Doh department is trespassing onto Plato's sacred turf? Dude doesn't know Benedict de Spinoza from Alvaro Espinoza, right? Can't tell Nietzsche from Nitschke. Can't distinguish Kierkegaard from a pulling guard.

That's why God — Her existence will be a topic for another day — invented the cellphone. I called a couple of philosophical cleanup hitters, Donald Baxter, head of the UConn philosophy department, and Yale professor Stephen Darwall, whose work centers on moral psychology and history of ethics.

Since Armstrong announced "enough is enough" last week, giving up his fight against doping charges and being stripped of his record seven Tour de France titles, I have read no fewer than 20 pieces on the subject. Full-blown treatises critical of Armstrong are easy to find. So are the opposite. There are few more polarizing figures in America.

Rick Reilly wrote for ESPN, "If he cheated in a sport where cheating is as common as eating, then I'm wearing yellow [Friday] to thank him for everything he's done since he cheated." For the Newsweek cover story, Buzz Bissinger wrote, "He is a hero, one of the few we have left in country virtually bereft of them. And he needs to remain one." Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, who wrote two books with Armstrong, opened her column by writing "nothing short of murder" would alter her opinion that Armstrong is a good man. Saying she does not know if Armstrong is guilty, Jenkins shredded the USADA process of determining guilt.

As a sports columnist, I feel a moral obligation as a watchdog to snarl, bark and bite athletes who cheat. The science of policing the cheaters is far from perfect, yet I echo what Johnette Howard wrote on ESPN.com: "I love sports because nearly anything is possible. Not because anything goes." Some still argue Armstrong's innocence. I'm not buying. Yet as a son who lost his mom to cancer a couple of years ago, as a parent who prays for his children, I stand in awe of a man who has raised $500 million to fight cancer.

I envy opinion makers whose conscience allows them to paint Armstrong solely as an American hero or conversely as a lying dog and can sleep soundly. I cannot. I am torn.

"I find as I get older I don't try to reconcile the different sides of people anymore," said Baxter, who is a member of the Thread City Cyclers club in Willimantic. "People are complicated. They are inconsistent. They are almost like a committee of one person. So if you are going to say, 'Lance Armstrong, just give me good or bad?' I'm going to say both."

Let's say Armstrong did use EPO. Let's say he continues to lie about his innocence. Let's say if he hadn't cheated, he wouldn't have won seven Tour de France titles and enjoyed the international platform to tell us about his inspiring victory over cancer … about his Livestrong foundation, which, to be clear, is focused on helping cancer victims and not on research.

So do the good works and Armstrong's inspiration vindicate cheating?

"You are raising an important question," Baxter said, "because in the history of philosophy people have come down on different sides. There are people who think duty is paramount. Someone like Immanuel Kant is going to say no matter what the consequences, he violated his duty.

"People on the other side, like John Stuart Mill, are going to say consequences are everything. Even Mill, I think, would say that if cheating could have good consequences in some cases, when you look throughout history, the total amount of cheating leads to more bad than good. Even Mill would say cheating is wrong, although he might say in the Lance Armstrong case the consequences were better."

Darwall insists there are two different issues at work here.

"Let's stipulate he did cheat, never admits to cheating and never takes responsibility for it," Darwall said. "Let's also stipulate Livestrong raises lots of money and finds a cure for cancer. If the question does the latter absolve the former, the answer is clearly no. It's just irrelevant to the former.

"One is the issue of responsibility for wrong doing and blameworthiness. A completely separate issue that people tend to confuse with that is how good or how bad a person someone is, overall character."

And then Darwall said the damnedest thing.

"The question whether a person is a good or bad person is entirely overrated as a question," he said. "It has very little relevance to the moral life. What is relevant is if we do what we should do, whether we conduct ourselves with integrity.

"We sometimes tell ourselves a story. I can well imagine Lance Armstrong doing it. I know I have. The question is whether we do something we know is wrong, but say to ourselves, 'It won't be so bad. After all, I'm not such a bad person.' We tend to rationalize wrongdoing, let ourselves off the hook. That's just irrelevant to the question of whether one should perform wrongful acts or be blamed for it. Blame is in no way mitigated appropriately by, can't be offset by other good acts."

There's an invisible moral line out there. How much wrongdoing can we accept by a person who also does good things? Jerry Sandusky, for instance, did good things for his Second Mile charity, but he used it as a hook to bring in victims for his terrible abuse. I don't need Kant or Mill to tell me on what side of the line that falls.

But what about men and women responsible for some of the greatest accomplishments in recent athletic history who also are tainted by PEDs? If they raise enough money to fight cancer, do they get a moral pass? That question has become a national referendum.

"It's a very interesting phenomenon," said Darwall, noting donations to Livestrong have gone up in recent days. "Distinctions matter and our society is very bad at making distinctions. We tend to run it all together because it's driven by emotions and emotions don't make distinctions. David Hume said passions have their own inertia.

"We need to distinguish between whether what Armstrong did is blameworthy — from what I know it leads me to believe he probably is. Now how good is it for people to heap scorn on him? That's where hypocrisy comes in. We are a blaming society. A lot of what passes for news in our culture has to do with blaming."

Darwall pointed to the Jerry Springer phenomenon.

"The audience has contempt and disdain in a sort of titillating way. Yet most of the audience was no better than the ones they were looking down their nose at. People who have laid-low Lance Armstrong may not be any better than he is.

"The point is our primary job is to live our own lives responsibly."

Philosophy class dismissed.

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