Monthly Archives: January 2013

Lance Armstrong and Social Norms

As I write this, the big story in the news is Lance Armstrong’s confession on Oprah Winfrey’s show. The 7-time Tour de France winner now admits to having used banned drugs in all his victories.

This ends more than a decade of vehement denials. During that time, he bullied his accusers, pocketed millions in endorsements that should have gone to the real winners and, despite his all-American image as a cancer survivor and champion, was apparently a really nasty guy.

Three aspects of this affair reinforce my optimism about our progress as a society.

First, you just can’t get away with things anymore. Within my lifetime, the press more or less ignored president Kennedy’s cheating on his wife. Now, the flow of information is so relentless, and the hunger for it so insatiable, that you can’t even get away with cheating in bike races.

That would be cause for trepidation rather than optimism if it weren’t for the second aspect. Our moral norms are becoming more humane. We are more concerned with whether someone has defrauded fellow competitors than whether he has the right sexual orientation, belongs to the right church, or has ever smoked marijuana. I think we’re increasingly pointed in a healthier direction.

Third, our punishments are more humane. Few people care whether Lance Armstrong goes to jail. His public humiliation is so thorough that it’s hard to imagine his life would be made much worse. More constructively, I do hear calls for him to make financial reparations where they’re due. I haven’t heard anyone suggest we amputate his legs à la sharia law or even put him in the stocks.

I’m not happy that Lance Armstrong cheated, but I am happy that our society is functioning increasingly well.