Lance Armstrong’s wrong turn at the moral and legal crossroads

Irrespective of his response to questions from Oprah, Lance Armstrong’s previous evasions about drug use indicate a faulty moral compass.

If Lance Armstrong admits today to using performance-enhancing drugs during his career as a professional cyclist, his evasive response to the US Anti-Doping Agency’s allegations has to suggest at the very least a faulty conscience, or a faulty moral compass.

What is also yet to be confirmed - and may well be in his interview with Oprah Winfrey, the first part of which will be aired in a few hours time - is whether he broke the law.

According to some reports, Armstrong may face charges of perjury after testifying in 2005 that he never took performance-enhancing drugs.

If so, his evasions up to this point would indicate a failure to appreciate that avoiding warranted legal sanctions and punishment, by whatever means, is in fact morally wrong.

Armstrong successfully sued companies who have made such accusations against him.

To explain this ethically, these actions - in which Armstrong continued to accept and insist on receiving the rewards of winning, despite failing to meet legal and regulatory requirements - suggest a curious disconnect between what he saw as moral, and what was legal.

Ideally, we might hope the relationship between ethics and the law is so close that the law is a subset of ethics or morality; that is, our laws are morally and rationally defensible.

In reality, we recognise that some laws have been unjust - and that some remain so - and therefore cannot be regarded as morally and rationally defensible; most obvious among such laws are those which have legalised slavery.

We also recognise there is sometimes a tension between the demands of justice and advocating for clients within the legal profession. But this does not blunt the aspiration to ensure the law is concerned with justice and forming a civil society in which selfishness and individual presumptions of license are emphatically rejected.

The law ought to insist that we have no right to deceive or coerce others into action primarily designed to benefit ourselves and amounts to using others for our own ends.

We generally regard cheating and lying as human vices, even though we have almost come to expect both in certain contexts, and even though there are contexts in which we might even regard lying as excusable.

But we regard cheating and lying as wrong when the perpetrators use the victims as means to their own ends, because the perpetrators do not give others what they are fairly due but rather act toward them in exploitative and harmful ways. We legally prohibit this kind of activity as criminal.

Also, the wrongness of an action cannot be mitigated by any argument that everyone else is doing it, or that one has managed to evade detection in the past, while others have not or have chosen to confess to wrongdoing.

Even the desires of the majority about the moral permissibility of particular behaviours cannot be sufficient reason for legislating against some kinds of behaviour, if those desires amount to mere opinion; rational justification is imperative.

What is crucial is the understanding that much of our legislation aims to express a society’s unwillingness to tolerate particular kinds of activity on the grounds of rationally defensible judgements that those activities are wrong.

So if Armstrong confirms what many suspect and what the USADA has alleged about his behaviour, then our thoughts might well turn to what we can glean about his attitudes to his own behaviour. It would seem to suggest a failure to see that how the legal and the ethical realms of life intersect.

Avoiding legal sanctions does not excise ethical responsibility precisely because the legal sanctions in question are motivated by ethical concerns.

Any attempt – whether misguided or contrived – to disregard this intersection raises the possibility of a faulty moral compass, and perhaps an indefensible relativism with regard to personal morality.