The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The Moral Problem of Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong is a symbol of America’s internal conflict over modern medicine. On one hand, he represents the best that medicine has to offer. Faced with cancer, he did everything humanly and medically possible to defeat one of the worst diseases of our time. On the other hand, Armstrong also represents medicine’s almost unrestrained ambition and it’s side effects. Faced with competitors, he did everything humanly and medically possible to compete as a world-class athlete: He doped. Lance Armstong represents everything that is right about medical technology, and everything that’s wrong with it. We can’t take one without the other, and Armstrong’s circumstances bring us face to face with this conflict.

Yet, while all of America (and probably France) has branded Armstrong like Hester Prynne, we’ve overlooked a fundamental fact: We are accomplices. The medical technology that enabled Armstrong to cheat was the same technology that saved his life from cancer. The technology cuts both ways. Despite this, Armstrong’s sponsors have exiled him and the public passed judgment. But these reactions are part of modern society’s effort to navigate the ethical minefield of medical technology.

Despite medicine’s stated purposes, despite doctors’ Hippocratic oaths, advancing medical technology is a double-edged sword. Medicine, in most people’s minds, is designed to help the sick get well: A pain killer for headaches, a vaccine for polio, or a cure for cancer. Armed with these goals, we invent, test, approve, and deploy medical technology to battle every illness we can identify. The goal of healing people is almost beyond question. However, too often, so are the methods for accomplishing it.

And as we develop new methods for eradicating disease, we’re also discovering new methods for enhancing the human body. Facial reconstruction becomes nip-and-tuck plastic surgery. Dialysis becomes doping. And someday, corrective lenses will become enhancement lenses (link). As we delve deeper into the medical frontiers, the human body becomes real estate for our development. We no longer see our bodies as gifts to receive.

At some point, medical technology reaches this tipping point: treatment turns into enhancement, and advancement creates new problems. In Armstrong’s case, the methods that helped him overcome cancer were the same habits that helped him blow away his competition. The American public that gloated in Armstrong's winning streak cannot now distance itself from him in his shame. He reflects back onto us the deep ambivalence of our society's technological problem: The American public must deal with its own medical practices. It will have to think more clearly about where this tipping point is and what exactly distinguishes treatment from enhancementnot only in medicine but in all technology.

These are the kinds of decisions that medical advancements are forcing us to make. In our unquenchable thirst for control, we’re saddled with even more decisions, and bigger ones, about the nature of our lives. Contraception and abortion make life a choice; pregnancies are categorized into “unwanted” and “wanted.” Decisions. Technology keeps people alive but not really living; “quality of life” questions emerge that demand action, but the technology that poses these problems can’t answer them.

And neither can we; they're above our paygrade, as President Obama once said. Our moral imaginations have not kept pace with our technological innovation.

For all that science and technology have done, they cannot answer questions about what we should and shouldn’t do. We must look to other sources of truth to answer these questions. Sources beyond pragmatism and efficiency. In doing so, we must acknowledge that non-scientific truths exist. And when we find them, we must accept the limitations they impose on our technological appetites.

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