This article discusses substances/techniques that target the brain in order to enhance sports performance (known as “neurodoping”). It considers whether neurodoping in mind sports, such as chess, is unethical and whether it should be a crime. Rather than focusing on widely discussed objections against doping based on harm/risk to health, this article focuses specifically on the objection that neurodoping, even if safe, would undermine the “spirit of sport”. Firstly, it briefly explains why chess can be considered a sport. Secondly, it outlines some possible substances/methods that could be used in order to enhance chess performance and justifies the article’s focus on one potential form of neurodoping in particular – “mental stamina enhancement”. Thirdly, this article casts doubt on certain arguments that mental stamina enhancement would be unethical and contrary to the spirit of sport (as defined by WADA). This article stresses the importance of distinguishing the ethical argument that doping violates the “spirit of sport” from the definitional objection that once doping becomes routine in a certain “sport”, it would not count as a sport anymore. The fourth section discusses the definitional objection and argues that mental stamina enhancement in chess might disqualify chess from being a “sport” (according to traditional, rather than revisionist definitions of sport). Yet, it argues that this definitional objection does not provide strong enough grounds to justify the state or sports authorities imposing severe penalties (such as criminalisation or life-long suspensions from competing) for non-harmful neurodoping. The fifth section of the article argues that criminalising non-harmful neurodoping would be disproportionate.
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Fraud Act 2006, S.2 (1) (see fn12 below).
Some of these substances are only banned/monitored when their concentration in urine is over a certain level.
It is monitored when its concentration is over 12mcg per ml.
Possession and supply of controlled substances outside a medical context are illegal (see the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Medicines Act 1968, for discussion see ) and is explicitly banned by some university codes of conduct.
Although side effects are possible, and more research is needed on long-term effects.
Limiting mental stamina enhancement to competitors at the lower end of the spectrum (relative to other competitors) is one way of responding to the objection that biological enhancements involve an undesirable endless pursuit of perfection (see ). A detailed critique of this objection is outside the scope of this article. For further discussion see, e.g. .
Their safety might be compared to substances such as caffeine[9:124], which are generally regarded as safe, but can be dangerous in high doses.
In addition to making the definitional point, Gleaves also argues that doping could undermine features that make sport (as currently practiced) valuable. However, it could be objected that Gleaves’ argument does not rule out the possibility that doped “sport” might be equally (or more) valuable, just in a different way. For a similar objection see [29:172].
Philosophers disagree about the meaning of “control” and the extent to which people have control over how much they persevere (compare, e.g., [28, 29]). The tendency to persevere is arguably subject to forces beyond the individual’s control, e.g. genetic and environmental factors. This might undermine the argument that it is intrinsically good to praise people for persevering in valuable activities, purely because they deserve praise. However, these considerations do not undermine the instrumental value of celebrating perseverance. It would still be worthwhile to praise persevering in valuable activities, because there is evidence that praising perseverance can encourage it.
This article suggests that endurance is less central to the value of chess, than to the value of marathons. However, this is not to deny that endurance is significant when it comes to deciding whether or not to classify chess as falling within the definition of “sport” – see Chess, Mental Stamina and the Definition of Sport, below. If chess required less endurance, because players were permitted to take mental stamina enhancements, this would not significantly undermine the value of chess, but it would make it harder to categorise chess as a sport.
Sandel warns against “hyperagency” - the desire to have excessive/complete control over our own nature, rather than viewing natural talents as a gift, partly outside the agent’s control. He claims that hyperagency could undermine a valuable sense of humility, could burden us with an overwhelming sense that we are responsible for all our attributes, and could undermine solidarity by causing us to blame others for failing to take control over all their attributes . Hyperagency seems to be a matter of degree. Even if Sandel is right that hyperagency is problematic, it is hard to tell at what point the desire to control our nature becomes excessive. Restricting interventions to competitors at the lower end of the spectrum of a certain ability, e.g. mental stamina, (relative to other competitors) might be one way of drawing the line.
The Value Added Tax Act 1994, Group 10 of Schedule 9 provides for a VAT exemption for certain sports supplies. Chess is currently not included as a sport for the purposes of the VAT exemption. The exclusion of bridge from the VAT exemption for sports has given rise to case law (which upheld the exclusion), e.g. Case C-90/16 The English Bridge Union Limited v Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs  OJ C 145. However, mind sports, including chess, are included in the definition of amateur sports under the Charities Act 2011, s3(2)(d).
This can be contrasted with Blitz, which is a form of chess that is played at high speed and involves dexterity – a Blitz expert can make more than 60 moves per minute (: 283).
Furthermore, speed-eating might be distinguished from chess on the grounds that the former does little to promote physical or mental health or wellbeing – ideas which have featured in some legal definitions of sport, e.g. The Charities Act 2011 s3(2)(d) describes sports as activities that “promote health by involving physical or mental skill or exertion”. See also Case C 90/16 The English Bridge Union Limited v Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs , opinion of Advocate General Szpunar, paras 42 and 45.
There might also be other ways (apart from doping) in which the status of chess as a sport could be undermined. For example, if tournaments were so short or had such frequent breaks that players no longer needed to display endurance, then that type of chess tournament might not count as a sport according to the traditional definition.
Governance of Sport Bill 2014 (HL Bill 20).
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Medicines Act 1968.
The definition of Fraud by false representation is set out in the Fraud Act 2006, S.2 (1), which states that
“A person is in breach of this section if he (a) dishonestly makes a false representation, and (b) intends, by making the representation (i) to make a gain for himself or another, or (ii) to cause loss to another or to expose another to a risk of loss.” A false representation can be made implicitly - Williams  Crim LR 589. Competitors who knowingly breach anti-doping rules might be considered to make an implied false representation that they have not taken prohibited substances, and if they did so in order to win prize money they could satisfy this definition of fraud.
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Shaw, E. Neurodoping in Chess to Enhance Mental Stamina. Neuroethics 14, 217–230 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-020-09456-2
- Cognitive enhancement
- Spirit of sport