The Reasoning behind Doping According to the Hobbesian State of Nature and The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez- all successful professional athletes notorious for their use of performance enhancing drugs. So why did these talented people all resort to this illegal behavior which ultimately ruined their reputations and erased all of their accomplishments? If you take both Hobbes’ idea of the state of human nature and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the madness behind the phenomenon of doping in professional sports is slightly more understandable – although still morally questionable.

According to Hobbes in his book Leviathan, “nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of body, and mind…. From this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies” (Chapter 13). In other words, men are innately selfish and are in constant competition with one another. They will always do what is their own best interest, despite the effects their actions may have on others. Hobbes’ view on human nature is the basis for the Prisoner’s Dilemma. 

The Prisoner’s Dilemma via Wikimedia Commons

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary,  is a situation in which two players have two options, either to defect or to cooperate, whose outcome is entirely dependent on the simultaneous choice made by the other. Both players will benefit most through cooperation, however if one defects and one cooperates, the one who cooperates will lose everything and the one who defects will gain everything. Therefore, Hobbes and many other scholars believe that when put into a situation of this manner, both players will be more likely to defect. This is because neither one trusts the other and neither wants to risk losing everything.

In the world of professional sports, athletes are under constant pressure to be the best. The competition is stiff and oftentimes, they will do anything that they believe will give them a leg up. If you look at the Prisoner’s Dilemma of doping from the athlete’s point of view, they are given two options- either to take performance-enhancing drugs or not to.

Doping via Wikimedia Commons

If no one takes them, then everybody is better off- the playing field remains equal and every competitor has an equal opportunity to win. However, if one person resorts to taking them in order to put themselves above the rest of the competition, then it is better for all of the other competitors to resort to doping as well, so that they still have an equal opportunity to win. Either athletes will take them because they want to have the upper hand- they want to be better than their opponents, or they will take them because they fear that their opponents may be taking them and therefore, if they do not take them they would be placed at a disadvantage.

However, one question still remains, why  would athletes risk it if there is the possibility that they could get caught and stripped of all of their accomplishments? The answer to this question is simple – the likelihood of getting caught is very low.  According to David Epstein, a Sports Illustrated senior writer, “the rate of false negatives are extremely high and athletes are able to use lower doses of performance enhancing drugs that go undetected.” Until a more accurate test has been created, the Prisoner’s Dilemma of doping in professional sports will continue to occur.




One thought on “The Reasoning behind Doping According to the Hobbesian State of Nature and The Prisoner’s Dilemma

  1. The connection between the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the doping situation in all of sports is great. Because of the constant competition to be the best, and the many benefits of being at the top of ones game (being paid ridiculously high amounts of money, having fans worship you, getting major endorsement deals) it is easy to see why they succumbed to the pressure and took the easy way out of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, effectively hurting everyone except themselves. The optimal outcome of the situation is that no one takes the steroids, which keeps everything the way it should be, but if everyone takes steroids, it would technically have the same affect, which is an interesting thing to think about. If performance enhancing drugs were used widely by everyone, would there still be a problem about it?


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