Should We Care About the Moral Propriety of Cognitive Enhancement?

Scientific American recently published a short essay by Roy H. Hamilton and Jihad Zreik, asking whether we should use devices (like tDCS, part of a larger category of brain stimulation technologies that I and others have blogged about before) to make ourselves smarter. I enjoyed it, and in no small part because the analysis breaks down the potential moral issues with cognitive enhancement into four basic categories — safety, distributive justice, autonomy / coercion, and authenticity — that happen to match the “four cardinal concerns” identified in the major empirical study of public attitudes toward cognitive enhancement that I helped author. But in reading the essay, and in revisiting the first-order moral question about whether we ought to enhance, I also felt a twinge of skepticism about the undertaking.

By way of defusing the slightly provocative title of this post: I do think we should care about the moral propriety of cognitive enhancement. But a few years ago, I would have been considerably less interested in asking when, how, and why we should care. My thinking has since changed. In some respects, the question strikes me as idle. Of course, this sense of “idle” still leaves room for the question to be intrinsically interesting, and therefore worth thinking about because doing good philosophy is a worthy end in itself. I do, however, mean “idle” in the sense that even a very convincing answer to the question will not straightforwardly dictate — might not even impact very substantially — the actual practice of cognitive enhancement in society.

The reason for my skepticism here is simple: politics is, by necessity, broader than any particular moral view. Of course, in some sense, policy does the work of implementing moral consensus; but in a pluralistic society, that consensus is almost always a compromise between competing and deeply-held views of the good life. And when it comes to cognitive enhancement — a technology that many, many people will almost certainly desire access to — it would be terribly naive to suppose that we will be able to arrive at a coherent policy position without some level of compromise, even if there are fantastically convincing arguments to the effect that enhancement is wrong.

In light of how the political process actually functions, the question of the moral propriety of cognitive enhancement is non-idle — it actually does some heavy lifting in shaping how the world will look — only to the extent that policies supporting or curtailing access to enhancement are within the bounds of political feasibility. If I read him correctly, my colleague Veljko Dubljevic has made a similar argument. Within those bounds, some moral concerns enjoy more heft than others. Almost nobody’s vision of the good life includes routine exposure to unreasonably unsafe products, so arguments about safety will find plenty of traction (though, of course, the libertarian view of the good life also encompasses freedom from regulation that curbs the marketing of unsafe products, so even here there will be disagreement). On the other end of the spectrum, reasonable people will disagree fundamentally about what it means to lead an authentic existence, not to mention whether doing so is a concern of such moral importance that it is legitimate to foist it on everyone else in society; it seems safe to conclude that arguments from authenticity, then, will have much smaller of an impact on what actually happens with enhancement technology. The emerging picture here is that we should care much more about the moral propriety of cognitive enhancement when it touches on issues that are legitimately regulable in the political process, and (again, without disparaging the intrinsic worth of the inquiry) less so when it touches on the kinds of value-judgments that we typically reserve to the sphere of individual moral self-determination.

Of course, I would say that — because on this view, a well-fashioned argument about the moral propriety or impropriety of cognitive enhancement will carry, on average, as much weight as a well-researched empirical claim about the democratic will on the topic. As someone with a stake in the importance of research on public attitudes, I am naturally going to be sympathetic to a position that places such research on equal footing with more philosophical approaches. But even looking past my biases, I think there is something to be said for the idea that social policy requires roughly equal measures of democratic legitimacy and moral legitimacy, and that even the most convincingly argued moral proposition may be stopped in its tracks by political impossibility. Sometimes I hate that this is true — as, for example, when majoritarian bigotry stymies the progress of fundamental civil and human rights for oppressed groups — but that frustration provides all the more reason to craft moral arguments with an eye to their political efficacy.

In other words, Hamilton and Zreik may well be correct that we should not engage in cognitive enhancement — but they, and others who share their view, could find themselves with no recourse to make that moral conclusion effective in the real world beyond individual-level persuasion. We should still care about the moral propriety of cognitive enhancement, but when it comes to the technology’s fate in the real world, more is needed.

Roland Nadler, Stanford Law School JD class of 2015, is a student fellow at the Center for Law and the Biosciences.

2 Responses to Should We Care About the Moral Propriety of Cognitive Enhancement?
  1. I agree with your post.

    And I agree specifically that safety (or, more accurately, the safety/efficacy balance) coercion, and fairness are key issues. But here’s my quibble: I’ve never understood why “authenticity” should be a general issue. I may care about the extent to which I am, or am not, being authentically myself, whatever that means, but why should anyone else – especially since other people have even less clue than I do about what I “authentically” am? Re-inventing oneself is as American as apple pie (or deep fat fried butter). Why should we be able to condemn others for changing themselves, especially when detection of such changes – or enforcement of such a condemnation – seems so difficult?


  2. I will distract myself from writing a couple of grant proposals (one on cognitive enhancement generally and the other on tDCS – if any of my potential reviewers are reading this, please be kind!) to say that like Hank, I agree with you too! Or more specifically, I agree that the idea that “social policy requires roughly equal measures of democratic legitimacy and moral legitimacy, and that even the most convincingly argued moral proposition may be stopped in its tracks by political impossibility.” Another way of saying this is that we need to be as grounded and realistic about the issues as we can be. We can’t just say no to something that people are going to do anyway. With apologies to Hume, it turns out that we cannot derive an “is” from an ‘ought”.

    But now I am going to disagree with you and suggest that there *are* reasons to care about the moral propriety of cognitive enhancement. Because what is at stake is actually larger than just whether it is safe, or fair, or any of the other issues that those pesky neuroethicists (oh, that’s me) generally talk about. To steal from the introduction to my pending grant application: the conceptual framework for the debate over the propriety of cognitive enhancement is the treatment-enhancement distinction: the notion that we can and should distinguish between therapies used to treat disease versus those that enhance normal function. Hinging on the issue of medical necessity, the treatment-enhancement distinction provides the primary framework for reimbursement of medical services today. The debate has broader implications still, with relevance to the obligations of physicians and the proper role of medicine in society. These issues are anything but straightforward and represent an arm of the policy debate that gets shunted aside all too often. Moral propriety may not be the only issue that is relevant here, but surely it is important.

    As for Hank’s comment about authenticity, I might agree except for the fact that the public does not. They think that authenticity matters, but they don’t appear to be concerned about whether you or anyone else have changed themselves. The reason that authenticity matters to people is as American as apple pie – it is a proxy for grit and character. People care about outcome: we found that they are more or less satisfied when things get done well, but they valorize outcome even more when authentic achievement is included. Every one loves a hero, but the hero – enhanced or not – must have strength of character.


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