INDR commentary, Francisco Javier Lopez Frias

Why can’t they just be friends? An Aristotelian interpretation of the relationship among stakeholders in the anti-doping effort

Francisco Javier Lopez Frias, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Research Associate in the Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvania State University,


In a recent interview, the tennis star Garbine Muguruza said: “In tennis, it’s difficult to be friends between women, we are very competitive […] we all hate each other. Literally. And who says the opposite is lying” (Izaguirre, 2016). Muguruza’s words illustrate the win-at-all-cost mentality that anti-doping proponents regard as one of the main causes of doping. By adopting such a mentality, professional athletes become willing to do anything to gain a competitive advantage. This creates an atmosphere that hinders the display of friendship (Hyland, 1978). The lack of friendship and the prevalence of defection and distrust among stakeholders is certainly one of the main challenges of WADA’s anti-doping efforts (Houlihan, 2015). Such a challenge does not only have to do with the athletes’ mentality but also with how International Federations (IFs) use sport as a means to pursue financial and political goals. The recent Russian doping scandal is a proof of it. If WADA, IFs, and athletes do not commit and cooperate to the cause of abolishing doping, the pursuit of a doping-free sport is doomed to fail (Waddington, 2011).

Diogenes Laertius attributes to Aristotle the sentence “My friends, there are no friends,” which captures the lack of collaboration in the anti-doping effort. However, this sentence leads to a mistaken impression of the value Aristotle gives to friendship. A proper understanding of it would help us explore avenues to enhance cooperation among stakeholders in the anti-doping fight. In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle dedicates two books to friendship and defines it as an association where “friends must be well-disposed towards each other, and recognized as wishing each other’s good” (1155b29-1156a16), for one of the following three reasons: utility, pleasure, or virtue. Thus, there are three types of friendship: friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure, the friendship of virtue. Friends based on utility engage in a relationship to further the achievement of their respective ends; friends based on pleasure bring pleasure through the mutual participation in pleasurable activities; and friends based on virtue engage in a mutual pursuit of excellence.

When motivated by the winning-at-all-costs mentality, athletes engage in utility friendship, for they associate with other athletes with the purpose of competing and obtaining the rewards resulting from victory (Drewe, 2002). However, for Aristotle, of the three forms of friendship, only friendship of virtue is proper friendship (1156b2-23). In friendship of utility and pleasure, the parties do not love each other for their own sake but only for certain incidental pleasures and goods (Bryan, 2009, p. 757). Virtue friends, in contrast, wish well to each other for their own sake.

The intrinsic worth of friendship is to provide a space within which individuals can realize their excellence and achieve happiness. “To have friends is to have interwoven in our lives people toward whom and with whom to express our goodness”(Sherman, 1987, p. 594). In this sense, friendship is a component of human flourishing, eudaimonia. It shows human beings who they are and how they belong together. Friendship enables us to flourish by providing us with companions with whom to flourish together. For Aristotle, friendship is the realization of a practice community where human beings engage in cooperative enterprises to become excellent (Simon, 2000). Human flourishing should be the focus of professional athletes. They should put aside the pursuit of utility goods to achieve excellence through cooperation with others.  

Along with the distinction between the three types of friendship, Aristotle differentiates friendship between equals from friendship between unequals (1162a26-b10). The latter involves one party that is in a position of superiority, such as father and son, elder and youth, and ruler and subject (Pangle, 2008, p. 57). The association among WADA, IFs, and athletes falls within the category “friendship between unequals,” since it involves members, WADA  and IFs, that are in a position of superiority over athletes. According to Aristotle, when members of an association are not equal, the differences between them can become so great that their most important goals, interests, and wishes might be not shareable. As Aristotle says: “Where there is nothing in common between a ruler and a ruled, there is no friendship, and no justice” (1161a32-b8).

Aristotle’s reference to justice is key. For he argues: “When men are friends they have no need for justice” (1155a26-28). Among virtue friends, there are fewer disputes and competition. Intrinsically valuable goods can be attained by everybody, they do not involve competition but cooperation (Hyland, 1978). Scholars and professional athletes have complained about WADA’s unfair treatment and dictatorial, “unfriendly” attitude (Hardie, 2011; McNamee & Møller, 2011; Molina Navarrete, 2010; Møller, 2010), especially since the anti-doping policies took a shift from “a more balanced utilization of education and sanction to a narrow emphasis on detection and punishment with education fulfilling a more cosmetic, public relations function.” (Houlihan, 2015, p. 252). For instance, Andy Murray said, “these new rules are so draconian that it makes it almost impossible to live a normal life” (“Murray attacks ‘draconian’ anti-doping rules,” 2009). However, it could be argued that, in the association between WADA and athletes, both parties are interested in having fair sport competitions. They are utility friends. In this sense, Roger Federer stated: “It’s a tough system, no doubt […] I know it is a pain, but I would like it to be a clean sport, and that is why I’m OK with it” (Reuters, 2015). However, utility friendships are shallow since they are based on the pursuit of extrinsic goods.

To enhance cooperation among anti-doping stakeholders, we must find a more solid ground for friendship, namely, virtue. Friendship based on virtue are more lasting and stable. The utility value of extrinsic goods like honor, fortune, and pleasure might change, but virtue retains its intrinsic value (1155b23-25). An Aristotelian account of friendship would recommend WADA and IFs to set aside their power interests and financial goals to collaborate with athletes to turn sport into an arena where there is a shared view of sport excellence. This emphasis on virtue friendship over utility friendship would require WADA to focus more on the pedagogical and social aspects of anti-doping policies and less on sanctioning and disciplining IFs and athletes. In this ideal scenario, no party in the relationship would seek to use the other as instruments to pursue pleasures or goods, but rather they would appreciate each other for who they are and how excellent they can be.



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