Sunday Nonjudgmental ethics: Is It Cheating to Compete Against Younger Runners?

October 26, 2014 by Joshua
in Choosing/Decision-Making, Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Tips

Continuing my series on responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on them, here is my take on today’s post, “Is It Cheating to Compete Against Younger Runners?”

I am a 60-year-old competitive distance runner who likes to win. Typically, races group runners by age and sex to balance competition. But senior runners often outperform younger runners. This is not as strange as it sounds: Seniors generally have more time to train than younger runners. Because I often stand a better chance of beating younger athletes, I am tempted to enter myself in a younger age group. I figure the natural competitive advantage bestowed by youth compensates for any misrepresentation on my part. Would it be unethical to slide back into a younger age group? I do like to win. DAN DEVLIN, SILVER SPRING, MD.

My Answer: This is not some abstract concept. The race has rules. Read them. If you want to compete according to the rules, compete according to the rules. If you don’t, don’t. Maybe the rules define age groups as 18-34, 35-40, 41-45, and so on. Sometimes they define them as under 34, under 41, under 46, and so on. Sometimes they define them as 18 and above, 35 and above, 40 and above, and so on. In some races you might qualify as a member of any age group younger than you. If so, there’s no problem for anyone.

As I always say, consider the consequences of your action, including (especially) to the people you’re competing against, who may be following rules you’re breaking, if you break them.

You have to live with yourself. Since you stated what seems to sound like an unfair advantage for yourself, if you break the rules you risk feeling like you cheated someone who followed them out of a victory they deserved and you didn’t.

Also, if you break the rules, if the organizers find out, they may publicly reveal you. You won’t end up in headlines like Lance Armstrong, but you’ll have broken the rules. He probably felt justified, telling himself everyone else was doing it too. But not everyone else was doing it. People who followed the rules didn’t get to compete.

Or maybe you’ll feel, even if you break the rules, your unfair training-time advantage is smaller than their age advantage and proudly state you beat someone much younger than you.

I recommend looking inside yourself to figure out your views and what you consider right for yourself over asking others to judge you. This is the kind of life examination that the classic phrase “the unexamined life is not worth living,” which has stood the test of time, has stood the test of time for.

The New York Times Answer: You keep mentioning that you “like to win.” That’s irrelevant. Most people who enter competitions like to win. But most don’t cheat in order to do so.

I realize your method of cheating is irregular (and feels somehow less troubling because of your age). I would have assumed a 60-year-old man running against 50-year-old rivals would be at a competitive disadvantage. But you clearly state otherwise. You stand a better chance of winning against people in a seemingly higher competitive class than your own. The motive is what matters here. If you had asked if it was O.K. to run with a younger tier of people in order to be pushed harder, that would be different; you would be misrepresenting your age in order to get the best out of yourself. But this is not the case. You are opting out of your age group because the competition is too demanding, which is no different from an 18-year-old claiming to be 30.


Recently, I needed critical legal advice to save a friend’s life. I was able to get the information, along with a generous offer to provide legal help, from a nonprofit organization. I am incredibly grateful for this advice, which indeed may have saved my friend’s life. But I believe that this organization causes harm to individuals and to society as a whole. In fact, I have vocally opposed them for decades. Was I wrong to seek help from them? NAME WITHHELD, NEW YORK

My Answer: What do you think? Seriously, what do you think? Did you think you were doing something wrong when you asked them? If so, by your rules for yourself, you were wrong. I don’t see it that way, though. Your doing it implies you felt it was right at the time.

Maybe a past you from decades ago would condemn you. Maybe people in your community of then or even now would condemn you too. Do you think that would make you wrong? If you think you were right, would it matter what they said? Do you have the integrity to stand by your actions or, alternatively, openly admit you were wrong so you can learn from the experience?

You wouldn’t ask if there existed an absolute measure of right and wrong. If one existed, you would have compared your actions to that measure and gotten your answer. None exists, so all you can do is ask others’ opinions.

What do others’ opinions matter to you? If people condemn you for something you believed right, what will you do?

Only you can answer these questions for yourself. Asking third parties only gets more opinions, it doesn’t determine right or wrong.

The New York Times Answer: Why do people so often believe that being uncompromising about their ideological views somehow makes them more ethical?

You needed help. The organization was in a position to help you. The exchange was not dependent on your suddenly agreeing to adopt its views or support its larger mission. I can understand how you might feel hypocritical accepting assistance from a group you’ve spent decades opposing, but maybe that just means your opposition was a little shortsighted. Maybe in the future, you need to consider such organizations with more balance. Or perhaps this changes nothing about how you feel about this institution; perhaps you see this instance as an anomaly that has no impact on how you view anything else. That is also acceptable. But the point is that ethical living is not dependent on accepting help from — or providing it to — only those whose ethics mirror your own. Unswerving inflexibility is not proof of morality.

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