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Citius, Altius, Fortius. What kind of ethics lies beneath?

Citius, Altius, Fortius. What kind of ethics lies beneath?

Publication title: Panagiotis Perros "Citius, Altius, Fortius. What kind of ethics lies beneath? " (2015) - CURRENT PERSPECTIVES IN OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH PSYCHOLOGY. Vol. B. Broken Hill Publishers LTD, Nicosia, Cyprus

The latin motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (“Swifter, Higher, Stronger”) is oftenly used during Olympic Games and other important sport events to emphasize not only the importance of best athletic performance, but also the necessity to stress the human effort to its physical limits. Sport experts would also say that “worldwide records are meant to be continuously broken”. During the late decades, whether an athlete adopts this kind of sports philosophy, he is more than ready to enter the new world of sport ideals. These ideals, under certain circumstances, are considered to be irrelevant to the traditional athletic spirit of classic times but also to the contemporary official aims of the “Olympic Charter”. Olympic Charter (IOC, p.9, 2004) builds an ethical scheme where Olympic spirit will try to promote the joy of effort towards an aspect of respect to the human dignity, fair play, global friendship, solidarity and stable moral principles. What are the main reasons which could cause a misunderstanding of the original Olympic and athletic Spirit? Is there any contradiction between the above mentioned latin Olympic motto and the Olympic Spirit itself? The restless effort for sport triumphs does not always serve human dignity and global solidarity. Applied philosophy’s work should be to distinguish the good from the bad interpretation of this motto. Furthermore, what the Olympic Charter implies is not what our daily practice uses to apply. As Aristotle says, ethics is directly connected to our daily life: the word “ethics” derives from the ancient greek world “ethos” which means habit, daily practice (Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 1103a).

Nowadays, the rewards emanating from the “record breaking spirit” are important enough to make all the participants push themselves to higher and higher limits of physical and mental effort. By using the term “participants” it is widely known that it does not refer only to athletes, but also to all the supporting community which almost always surrounds a sports champion. This community is developing to become wider and wider in our day and age, including companies, organizations, a large variety of sponsors and also technical staff ready to provide champion all the necessary equipment needed to ensure his best performance. Under these circumstances, athlete is not only a professional, but he is also considered to be a profitable investment for different kind of investors. Taking this fact into account we could easily understand the continuously growing need of applied ethics closely attached to sport market and competition rules (Shionoya, 1995).

Sports could stand as an important part of human’s daily life. Sports bring people together building communities, personalities, ethics and ideals. During the fifties, Albert Camus, the well known existentialist, was asked by an alumni sports magazine to express his opinion about the time he had spent being a goalkeeper for the Racing Universitaire Algerios (RUA) junior team (The A.Camus Society UK, 2006). Albert Camus during this interview emphasized the personality-building role of his football team: “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA.” The essential role of sports in society means the concurrent presence of great ethical dilemmas. Are there any differences between a plain athlete and a champion outside their athletic performance? Are there any ethical and psychological problems arising from the “Citius, Altius, Fortius” way of life? How much “Fair play” could we have while acting and participating in the relentless field of sports professionalism and how much ready our society is to realize the exact meaning of the original Olympic humanistic approach?

Fair play: a dualistic approach

In the vast majority of cases, the “fair play” term is mentioned regarding the ideal way of behavior among the athletes. Additionally, philosophers tend to divide two main sections: The formal and the informal fair play. The formal is referring to the undeniable conformity to the given rules of a sport and the informal is about the mutual respect between the parties engaged (Loland, 2001). Beyond this theoretical approach, there should be another main division to this term: The one side will include the relationship between the players and the parties directly involved with the sport event, and the other should contain an ethical backbone sufficient to develop and maintain an ideal relationship between the athletes and their audience, their sports fans and the society in general. Unless a sport event is fair regarding its inner rules and direct participants, would not be fair regarding its spectators. Spectator’s desire to enjoy a sport event is based on the hypothesis that all athletes are equally obeying the same rules and the same ethical specifications. Whether an athlete breaks some of these rules, either to promote his own sport activity or just to undermine his competitors, he betrays an unwritten “social contract” between the society and his athletic substance. The political aspect of social contract is already known: a citizen gives the government the right to form some rules for society. The sport aspect of the social contract is somehow similar: a citizen (or a spectator) gives an athlete the right to officially represent the original Olympic ideals. By representing these ideals he becomes and exemplar ready to be followed by people serving the same standards of living. This is a highest form of responsibility, a somehow “golden rule” very painful to be ever broken regarding both parts of the contract. When this aspect of fair play is not appreciated as it should, Olympic spirit toggles to a common opportunistic activity, useful only to extract an instant amount of forged glory and rewards from a naive society of spectators.

An ordinary case study in the field of fair play seems to be the doping phenomenon. Since sports started to mean a constant struggle against natural and physical limitations, chemistry has become an important ally for champions and trainers. Nevertheless, an urgent need emerged during the last years along with the technological and scientific rapid development. This need included the control of drug usage among athletes as an essential requirement for health and ethics in sport. Drug tests were first introduced at the Olympic winter games in Grenoble and at the summer games in Mexico City in 1968 (Fraser, 2004). The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) nowadays tells us that chemistry science includes both allowed and forbidden substances for athletes, publishing a list to distinguish them. Furthermore, sophisticated methods of illegal drug detection are going under constant progress (Verroken, 2000). Scientists nowadays suggest medicine practitioners to appreciate the need for a more comprehensive approach to doping control that include much more than drug testing (Mendoza, 2002), indicating in this way the complexity of such an issue. Others continue to sustain that doping controls are very strict and that in this way athletes are treated unfairly (Morgan, 2006) while anti-doping agents are constantly trying to build sport criminal cases.

The World Anti-Doping Code was formed standardizing the rules and regulations governing anti-doping across all sports and all countries for the first time. Some important sport organizations (such as NFL, NBA etc.) set themselves outside such a doping monitoring. Some could think that this happened because chemistry helps such professional championships to be more spectacular attracting more and more audience. Taking this consideration for granted, we could assume for example that every NBA player should be able to use doping substances in order for him to achieve the highest performance possible. In this case, the doping phenomenon could stand as a common unwritten rule for all players and spectators engaged, resulting in the construction of a solid ethical system where doping is an essential part of every athlete’s life in order for him to provide the spectators an amazing experience. The fact that this experience is considered to be supernatural has nothing to do with the ethical system’s solidity: Ethics do not sue for nature or reality.

Ethics are developed in the field of “ought” and not in the field of “is”. Whether nature for example limited man not to jump over one and a half meter, this limitation could not stand as an ethical rule as well. Whenever someone attempts to prove a claim about ethics by appealing to a definition of the term "good" in terms of one or more natural properties, we are talking about a common ethical inconsistency called “Naturalistic Fallacy” (Moore, 1903). This ethical inconsistency had been officially implied as a common epistemologic fault since Hume’s “Treatise of Human Nature” back in 1739-1740 (Hume, 1739). Ethics do not mean to stress and rewrite the empirical data of our given world. Our world’s scientific analysis has been suitably allocated during the last centuries and given to the appropriate sciences. An ethical behavior examines the “ought to” side of empirical reality directly connected with our daily practices (as Aristotle implied in Ethica Nicomachea). Each one of us could build his own daily ethical practices according to his perspectives about “good” and “bad”. These individual practices either agree to the social ones, or contradict to them. Furthermore, a whole society could build an ethical system contradicting ethical systems of other societies. This could be the case of a football or basketball organization not obeying the rules of the anti-doping system. This contradiction to a “global ethical system” by itself is not enough to prove that the small, individual system is wrong or right. The only rightness that could stand in an ethical theory is the consistency of a moral system. This consistency is practically expressed and proved only by the members of an ethical system: If all the directly and indirectly engaged in a sport activity are taking the doping usage for granted maintaining and developing such a daily practice (habit), then they are building and developing a solid ethical system, without taking into account that this system seems to be incompatible to the rest of the world. Actually, as it is already mentioned, their ethics do not need to take such thing into account. True or false are values closely related to mathematics, physics, chemistry and other sciences but they are not used in the same way in the field of moral discussion. Ethical systems consistently followed by one or more persons are consequently true and ready to be analyzed and criticized by moral thinkers.

So, what could make a sport partaker unethical? Forming a general notion, we could say that an unethical behavior in sports is taking place when someone undermines the existence or the activity of another person engaged in the same sport activity. This notion seems to have two essential prerequisites: first one is that an unethical behavior is expressed only between people that are somehow engaged or related to each other under a common sport experience. We could not seriously sustain for example that the famous NBA player Michael Jordan behaved unethical to a Sumo athlete or spectator. The two “ethical poles” in this statement are completely irrelevant to each other and no connection could be made without using a great deal of imagination. The second prerequisite is that someone engaged in a sport event wittingly and intentionally tries to somehow undermine another outside the written and unwritten rules already known regarding a sport activity. This aspect has a dual consequence: An unethical behavior not only harms the active participants in a sport (such as athletes and coaches), but also the sport fans or spectators by transforming a regular sport event into a weird show where the most wicked partaker is the most possible winner. During such a procedure there are no ethical consistencies among the members of a community that should form –under normal conditions- a moral solidity. The “ought contract” is broken by someone who follows his own, individual way of behavior, despite the fact that he had agreed to abide by the common ethical code in first place, when he had decided to participate in a specific sport event. By being an active partaker of a sport, de facto means that you agree to become a part of a dual ethical contract: the one side of it is between the opponents (active partakers) and the other side is between the opponents as a whole and the spectators (sport fans/passive partakers). When some part decides to break this ethical rule, means a behavioral inconsistency and consequently, an unethical behavior.

The emanation and development of Ethics in Sport

Ethical behavior is strongly connected to the enacted expression of culture: the official educational system of a country. Although we are encouraged to believe that the ethical values of Olympic spirit in general are present especially in western educational system, many researchers during the last years prove that sportsmanship has declined within the last past decades along with a broader ethical malaise, especially referring to teenagers and students (Spencer, 1996). The phrase “ethical malaise” by itself has nothing to tell us. It could be interpreted it as a modern misunderstanding regarding the exact meaning of being an athlete. It is not merely a linguistic or semantic problem -although some great philosophers (Wittgenstein, 1921) could say that the greatest problems are based on linguistic faults- but also a great attitude problem towards the genuine aim of sport according to tradition. Tradition’s perspective is mainly emphasized through classic mottos such as “Mens sana in corpore sano” (Juvenal, Satire X 10.356) which means “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. This phrase is foreshadowed by a saying of Thales from Miletus, the first philosopher of our known history, who stated that real happiness belongs to someone “who is healthy in body, resourceful in soul and of a readily teachable nature”. Classic Philosophy and Literature indicate that Olympic Spirit is always directly depended on man’s mental health and learning ability. Sport is considered to be a piece in the puzzle of one man’s happiness and personal fulfillment. Additionally, it is inevitably involved with the general education someone should acquire during his life. Sport should be considered a necessary piece of our life, but not the only one.

One the other hand, nowadays we could easily observe the burstable trend of the “hybrid athlete” (Shogan, 1999). The “hybrid athlete” is involved in a modern kind of ethics meaning the athlete who could perfectly fit into the strictest disciplinary rules in order to achieve the highest performance possible. This way of life could build a champion, could bring triumphs in modern professional sport events throughout our world. But it also brings a great defeat: An ex parte perception of human life, while we spend huge amounts of time without dedicating the time needed for worthy mental activities and educational purposes (walking away from the “mens sana” ideal). But this is not only the case. A “hybrid athlete” perfectly attached to professionalism and record hunting, after reaching his physical limits, could easily search for (legal or illegal, ethical or unethical) chemical solutions that could help him overcome any natural obstacles. “Corpore sano” is far way from this life model. A healthy body does not need to overcome any natural limits as it is not used for any professional or “hybrid” purposes. As it is commonly mentioned, high performance sport is a medically hazardous activity (Hoberman, 2001). Applied philosophy and ethics try to solve sport problems in a theoretical field which includes two main perspectives. The one is the Deontological view and the other the Utilitarian view.

The Utilitarian perspective typically starts from the ancient years of hedonistic Greek philosophy and Epicurean theories. But also, during modern ages, well known philosophers and thinkers like Hume, Bentham and Mill form a theory where man ought to act what is causing the greatest pleasure possible not only to him, but to the greatest amount of people possible. Taking into consideration the doping case for instance, according to the utilitarian view, we could not a priori ascribe to it any ethical value, either positive, or negative. On the contrary, we should look into the positive and negative doping effects. Jeremy Bentham, trying to establish a mathematical way of moral evaluation, built a calculation method (Bentham, 1789) through which we could morally judge an action as right or wrong. Trying to use Bentham’s calculation system referring to doping case, we should thoroughly examine and concentrate the positive and negative effects of doping phenomenon into two groups, the positive and the negative one. For instance, a basketball player using an illegal chemical substance could offer its audience some nice dunk shots causing them the sense of pleasure and entertainment (a positive effect). On the other hand by using this chemical substance actually distorts the balance of the fair-play, but also possibly harms his own health (two negative effects). Additionally, after a lot of thinking, we could find a large amount of positive and negative effects regarding the doping action. In case the positive ones appear to be more, then the basketball player should consume the chemical substance, otherwise he is not ethically supposed to do such a thing.

The above mentioned utilitarian approach could be very accurate and useful, only in the case we could predict the future consequences of a human action. Unfortunately future still reserves the interesting value to be unforeseen. Nevertheless, we could still use Bentham’s system a posteriori, when the effects of our action have already happened. This case of course does not seem to be very useful as it does not contain any ethical information about what we ought to do during the exact time of our moral dilemma.

Deontology puts forward the idea that we must maintain for ourselves some ethical values which should be solid and undeniable. These values will be the only guide for our actions. Looking at modern philosophy, we could distinguish Immanuel Kant as the most profound defender of the deontological approach. Kant considers duty as the highest and most important ethical value. Furthermore, by developing his theory of “Categorical Imperative” he defines the golden rule of his deontological ethics: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1785). Deontology prompts us to embound ourselves in our own moral code of rules. By the time we set limits (a priori moral values) for ourselves, we are not excused to get over them. Regarding our doping case study, a deontological approach should be established either to defend, or to condemn the doping phenomenon. A defender could consider the value of “win by all means” the undeniable moral principle of his ethical system. In reverse, someone who condemns doping could set the value of good health as his moral principle, stating that these chemical substances exhaust human physical condition.

Of course there is also a lot of criticism against the ethics based on Deontology. The main difficulty Deontology faces is strongly related to the theory of knowledge: how sure we may be about the exact meaning of a term? Many of us in our daily practice use to say for instance that the value of life is of utter ethical importance, setting it as the nonnegotiable moral value which could stand as a constant guide for our actions. How sure are we that we could define the term “life” depicting the exact meaning of it? After all, is there any “exact meaning” that could help us entirely understand a term? What happens if we set moral values based on more abstract terms like dignity, respect or reliability? If we have such a term as an ethical guide, we could say for sure that we are guided by a total stranger without knowing where this procedure is going to lead us. Furthermore, someone who endorses the deontological approach could more easily express an opinion related to the common epistemological fault of Naturalistic Fallacy as described above: we could surely and easily imagine someone telling us for example that doping is out of the question because it is not natural. The “doping is not natural” sentence unfortunately is not a phrase that tells what we ought to do (moral), but what really happens in front of us (descriptive). So, under these circumstances, we cannot make any philosophical progress.


Jurisprudence is a scientific field that can be studied and learned. A lawyer knows what is legally right or wrong and according to this kind of knowledge, he is ready to defend his client in a court of law. That is the easy part of the human problems confrontation in general: Judge and jurors will only need some time to characterize human as guilty or not guilty. The most difficult field of our daily practice is when we study human behavior through the eyes of the moral evaluator. Human history has proved that the worldwide establishment of a common “ethical constitution” is impossible. Something that sounds ethically right for us could be unacceptable for another. Different ethical approaches could easily coexist in a same society, in a same neighborhood, in a same family. That is ethically acceptable. The Danish existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard highlights the importance of the individuality: “The inwardness, the subjectivity is the only truth” (Kierkegaard, 1846). Sport in general and athletes are not an exception to this motto. The only truth deriving from the sports world is that each athlete, each coach and each spectator, may have completely different moral perspectives. Some of them may bear to live under the moral pressure of extreme practices in order to achieve the highest performance possible. Some of them may be active also in “strange” brand new scientific fields like sport genetical engineering (Miah, 2003). Nevertheless, the other side will continue to balance the battle between relentless professional “hybrid” sport and genuine traditional Olympic spirit, offering us a hope that the “mens sana in corpore sano” is still somehow related to our modern standards of living and acting.

Ethical pluralism in a multicultural level is completely tangible, perceivable and also, why not, necessary. What is not acceptable is when we show a moral inconsistency regarding our own actions and our own ethical behavior. In such cases we transform the Aristotelian “ethos” into something indeterminable which could not belong to any axiological system, and this is the most suffering case human nature could ever bear: The absence of ethics means the absence of human reasoning, the absolute demission of thought’s dignity.


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