Modern humans are put in many moral conundrums, but the most pernicious may be the conflict between performance and ethics. In the modern world we are expected to be productive for at least eight hours a day, and that means being awake, functional, in a good mood, and ready to perform without complaints. We have drugs and supplements to make us more productive and efficient, and the industries that supply those drugs are among the largest in the world. But while these industries thrive, we are told that using drugs is unethical and amounts to cheating. What is the modern performance-minded human to do?
No matter what you want to achieve in a lifetime, there is a drug to help you do it better and faster. Without coffee, the modern eight-hour workday would be impossible. When we get stressed and depressed from overwork and lack of sleep we turn to alcohol or anti-depressants to wind down. When we feel pain we knock it back with anti-inflammatory pills and keep going. We dope ourselves to be more productive. We are told it’s okay. We do it without even thinking.
There’s a pernicious aspect to all this — the lines between enhanced performance and cheating have become blurred. The adverse effects of chemical optimization are either grossly exaggerated by politicians or quietly understated by industry flacks, both using clever PR manipulation in order to pull bigger numbers. We are allowed to use coffee and alcohol and prescription meds to cheat our way through the modern day, but when we use steroids or marijuana this is suddenly a scandal. The doping rules are rigged and enforcement is arbitrary. The take-away message is, “Be more productive, but don’t get caught doing it with the most efficient drugs: that’s cheating.” Welcome to the 21st century rat race: move along as fast as you can or get run over, and we may inspect your urine anywhere along the way.
All doping is rooted in two things — performance and expectation. As modern humans, we’re expected to perform flawlessly. If we have performance flaws, we’re told they can be fixed — we can be normalized with treatments and medications. The 20th century model said that patent pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy held all the answers to the human condition. But now being normal isn’t enough. We 21st century humans are expected to be superfunctioning, highly productive, multitasking, and performance optimized. This expectation is placed upon us by modern media, culture, and economic pressures, but we are naturally inclined to sleep most of the day, have a big meal, fuck, and then go to bed. If modern life were easy, we wouldn’t need to cheat, but it isn’t easy. We stress to find security, get depressed about insecurity, feel anxiety, worry about the future, watch our bank accounts, keep up with the news cycle, stay involved, and hope we don’t get hit by a stray asteroid. Provigil, a drug that keeps you from getting tired, is quickly becoming the new dope for people too busy to waste life on sleep cycles. Think of this as a symptom of our age: we’ve embraced the anti-narcotic as an illicit postrecreational drug. Stay awake and sober as long as you can!
And why not? The undisputed truth is that doping improves performance. That’s why they’re called performance-enhancing drugs. In a society obsessed with performance, it’s only natural we should exploit them, but it would be wrong to call this behavior anything but pathological. Performance, achievement, and winning are a form of dope, the main symptom of the performance pathology being that winners are never satisfied even when they’re winning. If civilization is built upon the pathology of achievement, we must embrace the dope race for what it is, otherwise we are criticizing the worth of progress itself, and that totally jumps the paradigm. It’s easier to backtrack and say, “Win at any cost, but don’t get caught cheating…” than to step back and ask, “What is the inherent worth of winning, anyway?”
Vexed by civilization I once trekked to a high mountain where a hermit lived and asked him, “What value is progress?” The old hermit lit a pipe and thought on it, then nodded and gave me an answer. “It keeps people busy,” he said. “But to what end?” I asked. He thought on this some more, and then an answer came to him. “It makes them feel like they matter,” he said.
Since the doping issue can be tricky I have come up with what I call the rules of doping. These are rules that can be applied to almost any situation. Doping is always okay in life and death situations. This is an unspoken truth. If you had to fight a bear, swim twenty miles from a shipwreck, or fly eighteen hours to drop a cluster bomb on your enemy in a distant land, everyone would agree that a little bump of speed is fine, no worries there. Using cocaine for job-related performance is okay as long as your company is making money, but when your stock price goes down you must switch to alcohol, coffee, and prescription opiates like everyone else. Doping is always okay if you are in a creative field like music, performance, writing, art, or any part of the entertainment industry. In fact, doping is encouraged in this industry, and they have award shows to celebrate notorious dopers for their edgy genius. It’s okay.
When your stock price goes down you must switch to alcohol, coffee, and prescription opiates like everyone else.
Doping is sometimes okay to help with academic performance, and is perfectly fine for anyone with a career in academia as long as they keep their clothes on and don’t stumble or slur in public. Doping is tacitly allowed for anyone in thankless performance-critical jobs who don’t get enough sleep, like truckers, cooks, waiters, janitors, taxi drivers, and air-traffic controllers. Doping is never allowed in sports or competition where other people’s money is on the line, unless the people with the money tell you it’s okay and then deny it when you fail your blood test… in which case it’s okay until it isn’t okay anymore, and that’s all on you for being a chump. Most of all, doping is usually accepted when your ass is on the line, and when other people’s asses are on the line. If you have a good excuse, people find it is easy to forgive. But if you’re doing it just because you like to win? That’s cheating.
James Kent is the former publisher of Trip Magazine and editor of http://www.DoseNation. com. Additional reporting by David Perlman.