Competing Ourselves to Death

In the run up to the Superbowl, the NYT has a disturbing story on the fate of Ted Johnson of the New England Patriots. Johnson suffered several concussions while playing and now suspects that they have permanently diminished his mental capacity. Johnson’s case is not isolated, and is leading to worries about “the N.F.L.’s record of allowing half of players who sustain concussions to return to the same game.” What’s next, the return of the flying wedge?

From a brute lawyerly perspective, the controversy raises some interesting issues. Are coaches and trainers negligently encouraging the injured to play? Could the players sign away any right to sue their teams (or the league) in cases like these? Might some political pressure need to be brought to bear here, like that which finally got baseball to face up to its steroid mess?

From a broader social perspective, other concerns arise. I’m presenting tomorrow at the Int’l Association of Science and Technology Studies on biotechnological enhancement that raises cognate issues. I’ll address a potential inversion of the traditional relationship between technology and values. Usually we think of values as guideposts that allow us to judge the worth of certain technological advances. But what happens when technology itself alters our cognitive capacities? Can it undermine our values? Certain drugs, trainings, or even game strategies might blunt or otherwise obscure our understanding of the world and ourselves. If we share Martha Nussbaums’s account of emotions as judgments of value, might these so-called performance-enhancements diminish the possibility of our rightly discerning our ends?

Any sporting pursuit that requires its participants to systematically risk their health in competition is troubling. But concussions like Johnson’s are doubly so, since they appear not merely to diminish or distort cognition, but to compromise one’s ability to even recognize the diminution taking place. The difficult question for regulators of various performance-enhancing neuropharmacological interventions is whether they have the potential to blunt users’ perceptions of the deep changes they wreak in users themselves. Substance addiction has been modeled as a case of “increasing marginal utility,” where the more one uses, the more one wants. New neural performance enhancement addiction might work in a far subtler way–by blunting the appeal of alternate sources of value and satisfaction.

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