I have a foot in two worlds, or should I say, two feet in one world and a brain in the other. My brain is mostly involved in talmudics, in teaching talmud, writing about talmud, and spending a lot of time thinking about it. My feet (and occasionally my arms when I hop in the pool) are involved in endurance sports, mostly triathlon and running.

So one of the most interesting questions I get asked and ask myself is–what do you think about performance enhancing drugs (PED’s)? This of course was a very hot topic around the time that the Lance revelations were making headlines. There seems to have been about two months where I pretty much couldn’t go out for a run or ride without talking about the man.

But the questions concerning performance enhancing drugs go far beyond Lance Armstrong’s doping. Countless op-ed pieces question whether we are over-drugging our children so that they can sit for longer hours in school. College students take “smart drugs” to help them ace their exams, or at least to stay up all night studying for them. There are drugs and surgical interventions that can radically improve or at least seem to improve a person’s intelligence, looks, as well as their physical and emotional abilities. Gene therapy is quickly changing from a means to avoid disease to a bridge towards building a super-human. The question then becomes, when are such interventions in the natural course of our humanity illegitimate and to be discouraged (if not banned) and when are they representative of a legitimate attempt to improve ourselves. How do we make the right choice in an extremely complicated world that will increasingly present us with many such opportunities?

In answering these questions we should keep in mind two rabbinic statements. The first is the famous statement in Mishnah Avot 4:1, “Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot.” The second is found in the Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 21a, “Rivalry between sages increases wisdom.” We need to find a way to navigate between these two maxims–to on the one hand be satisfied with whom we are but on the other hand to constantly strive to improve ourselves in order to “increase wisdom.” The question however still remains: which maxim applies in which situation?

In my opinion, the first distinction we must draw is between competitive situations which are zero sum games and competitive situations which are not. Using drugs to improve oneself in a zero sum competition is illegitimate. This is the situation in sports. One person or team wins, the other person/team loses. One person’s use of PED’s leaves her rival with two equally bad choices–use drugs as well, and pay the attendant costs, financial and health, or lose the competition. Thus in any situation that is purely designed to be competitive, drugs cannot be tolerated. Tomorrow, I will participate in a triathlon. Were I to use a drug today and land on the podium tomorrow, my victory would be illegitimate. A Jeopardy contestant would be wrong use any drug in order to increase her chances of winning.

However, most situations are not strict zero sum games. When a brilliant or potentially brilliant scientist comes along, if given the opportunity, her discoveries may save lives, even if she achieved them by using performance enhancing drugs. A brilliant author can inspire us to new depths of understanding, even if he used drugs to stay up all night writing. A CEO who leads a company to success may benefit us all, regardless of what means she used to achieve her position. And from my point of view, my participation in running and triathlon is not a zero-sum game. While I might be “competing” I am not really competing to win. Can I take a drug to set a PR that won’t really effect anyone but me?

In such situations we must invoke both of our maxims. Before taking a drug a person should ask if he could just simply “be happy with his lot.” If a person is at a level that is considered “normal” by society, then drugs would be a violation of this rule. A child with a relatively normal ability to sit still and pay attention, who occasionally gets antsy, should not be given drugs so he can sit without ever feeling the urge to break out. A person of average IQ (whatever that may be today) should not take a drug to up his/her test scores. I would add that a normally aging person should not undergo invasive surgery in order to stop the normal aging process. Using drugs to finish a race, even if you’re only competing against yourself, is wrong. If you can’t finish that distance, train harder or do something shorter. No drugs!

However, a child who has a serious inability to control himself, a person who battles severe depression or other mental illness or a person born with a debilitating birth defect or suffering some sort of scar may legitimately choose to intervene and correct that situation. Such a person need not be “satisfied with his lot” just as a poor person can strive to earn money to increase his lot in life and a person with cancer may undergo chemotherapy to get well. Getting to what is considered “normal” is legitimate, and if drugs or surgical intervention can help without undue side effects, they are completely legitimate and even to be encouraged, under most circumstances. I fully realize that it is not easy to determine what is “normal” and that people will disagree on the details. But I do think that this is the right determining line.

The second maxim teaches us to ask whether or not the drug is for societal or personal gain. “Rivalry between sages increases wisdom” not just of the wisdom of a particular sage but “wisdom” as an abstract good. I believe that there might be room for a professor, a scientist, and even a politician to take performance enhancing drugs if the goal is the collective good and not pure personal advancement. There are jobs in which it is in society’s best interest that those serving are of highest quality. I realize that separating out personal achievement from societal advancement will never be possible (I’ve read Ayn Rand). Nevertheless, I do think that before a person pops such a pill or undergoes gene therapy to improve their chances, for instance, to become CEO, they should ask themselves whether they are doing so for the general good, or strictly for their own good.

Finally, the first maxim is clearly the more important message in our society. Almost all of us would do better if we spent most of our time being satisfied with our lots and spent less time being jealous of others. This is something I’ve learned well in endurance sports. No matter how much I train (and I train hard) I will simply never be as fast as some of my friends. And I know others who no matter how hard they train, will never be as fast as me. I’m happy with the abilities I was given and I don’t think all that much about the things I don’t do well. It’s a lesson well worth applying to the rest of our lives.

So, what do you think? Would you take a pill to make you smarter, stronger, better looking or happier?