Friday, January 18, 2013

Crossing the Line

By Keith McDowell

Confession is good for the soul – or so they say. I suppose it depends on who is doing the confessing, the nature of the sin involved, and whether redemption or forgiveness is required – the Harper Valley PTA excluded.  Remorse and contrition are also part of the show providing that special touch of humanity.

Lance Armstrong confessed. The culture of the cycling society in the 1990s and the naught years made him do it. Supposedly, it was how everyone “gamed the system” and leveled the playing field – the details being irrelevant except to the curious and the obsessed.

And obsessed we are as a society with sinners, saints, and our fallen heros. Nothing plays better on the screen of life than the drama of the confessional act followed by redemptive forgiveness – Oprah being the perfect foil. Scorners bask in the glow of “I told you so!” and righteous indignation while true believers shed a tear and embrace the sinner. It’s the perfect prescription for our next emotional fix.

But behind the role playing of the current set of actors and, yes, behind the crass manipulation of the public to achieve predetermined goals, there are real questions to be asked and answered about what is real and what is merely drama. And most pressing of all is the question of when do human beings “cross the line” and “cheat” on the established rules of a given game, even if those rules are antiquated and easily circumscribed? Is it a sin to do so or have we achieved a greater good by revealing a flawed system? Should we always follow the moral imperative to stay within the intent of the prescribed rules or is there an evolutionary imperative at play driving us to constantly reinvent the game, typically by “cheating” on the given rule set? How about if we only bend the rules?

Lest you think such ruminations are merely philosophical doggerel, consider the question of achieving the competitive edge through innovation and invention. Is that not a form of “cheating” on the established rule set?

I have a test for you. Which of the following innovations and inventions constitute cheating when used: swimsuits covered with nano-scales, golf balls embossed with the perfect dimple, aluminum bats engineered to drive the ball out of the ballpark, exo-body suits designed to expand performance, or the invention of Gatorade? What about “cheating” to build a better racecar or enhance the performance of yachts in the America’s Cup competition? And my favorite activity, animal breeding to achieve the perfect racehorse or the best show dog – no matter the consequences to the breed.

Gaming a rule-based system doesn’t have to be only about sports. Consider all the new instruments created to make money such as Roth IRAs or credit default swaps to protect derivatives. Does the financial collapse in 2009 mean that someone cheated?

And how about human and animal testing for medical research to improve the condition of humankind through new innovations and inventions? When does that research “cross the line” and become cheating? Do we really want our worse science fiction nightmare to occur with the release of nano-agents similar to those in the novel Prey by Michael Crichton?

When does pushing the outer envelope, thinking outside the box, being creative, or walking to the beat of a different drum – to name a few of the standard, but trite expressions – cross the line and become cheating? When does the saint become a sinner – or does such a bright line even exist?

Does it matter more to us when drug use or medical procedures are involved as opposed to new technologies or materials? Or does the venue, such as a sporting event versus the economy or public health, count in defining the bright line?

For me these questions revolve around the issue of what we value and how we operationalize that value system – the notions of absolute right and absolute wrong being too rigid. I favor transparency over secrecy in our actions as the best tool to protect the public good, but even that has its limits. Do we really want to reveal the secret formula for Coca-Cola?

The court of public opinion will ultimately decide the fate of Lance Armstrong and his legacy, but regardless of that outcome, his story reveals yet again the struggle we face as a civilization to improve the human condition. Should we bend the rules in our favor through innovation and invention and when does that activity cross the line and become cheating? It’s your call.

[Attached image copied from website How Close Should You Come to Crossing the Line?]

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