Cognitive Enhancing Drugs

Recent calls for the widespread use of cognitive enhancements are based on a narrow, mechanistic view of what it means to be human.

In a recent issue of Nature, several prominent intellectuals call for public policies that support the “responsible use” of cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy citizens. “We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function,” they write. “In a world in which human work-spans and life-spans are increasing, cognitive enhancement tools—including the pharmacological—will be increasingly useful for improved quality of life and extended work productivity, as well as to stave off normal and pathological age-related cognitive declines. Safe and effective cognitive enhancers will benefit both the individual and society.”

Their essay is illustrative, not merely of a new public policy challenge we will face in the biotech age, but also of the kind of reasoning one invariably hears in public discussions about such issues. In a nutshell, their case is pragmatic and utilitarian. And along the way, they are utterly dismissive of the most substantive arguments, reasons that, if heard, would threaten to undermine the apparent sober-mindedness of their perspective.

After the sweeping claim that important philosophical concerns about “short-circuiting personal agency and undermining human effort” have been decisively refuted, the authors consider three typical objections to cognitive enhancement by pharmacological means: (1) it’s cheating, (2) it’s unnatural, and (3) it’s drug abuse. The speed with which they dispense with these objections is almost as breathtaking as their triumphant pronouncement of the defeat of concerns raised in Beyond Therapy, a report of the President’s Council on Bioethics that is critical of cognitive enhancing drugs. On the charge of cheating, the rejoinder is predictable; cheating is a function of rules; rules are conventional. Hence, rules may need to be changed to avoid the relativistic charge of cheating. Despite the complexity of the concept natural, the authors give little attention to the manner in which it might function as an objection to cognitive enhancement. Assuming that “natural” means something like “completely untouched by human intervention,” they point out that our lives are already deeply “unnatural.” After all, we wear clothes, live in homes, drive cars, etc. Consequently, the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs, even among the healthy, represents no departure from an imagined “natural” state. Finally, they rightly point out that the mere potential for cognitive-enhancing drugs to be abused is not a sufficient reason for outlawing their proper distribution.

Having cleared away the opposition, the authors spend the bulk of their essay discussing “three substantive ethical concerns.” Predictably, these are thoroughly (and exclusively) pragmatic and utilitarian. Safety first! We must maximize benefit while minimizing the risk of harm. Second, we must safeguard freedom by prohibiting general coercion (i.e., requiring the use of cognitive enhancers). Third, we must ensure fairness by minimizing the negative consequences that attend socio-economic disparities.

Of course, no citizen of good will should disregard these three in conversations about the shape of public policy, especially on issues such as the production and distribution of powerful narcotics. But the idea, as this essay suggests, that such practical or utilitarian concerns are matters of first or perhaps even exclusive importance is mistaken. Rather, as the logic of the essay itself tacitly reveals, it is our conception of human nature, along with our understanding of the purpose and meaning of human life that is foundational to the arguments we will make and conclusions we will draw about the moral legitimacy of cognitive enhancement for the healthy.

At the heart of the defense of cognitive enhancement for the healthy is an argument by analogy that depends upon an assumption about the nature of human beings and the purpose(s) of the life of the mind. Specifically, these authors suggest that cognitive-enhancing drugs are just like (or at least more or less similar to) other forms of mental “enhancement” (e.g., “written language, printing, and the Internet” or “exercise, nutrition and sleep”). Since the latter are legally permissible, the former ought to be—or so they argue.

The apparent similarity between cognitive-enhancing drugs and other forms of mental “enhancement” is grounded in an assumption about the purpose(s) of our mental life. Teachers, the authors claim, “strive to enhance the minds of their students, both by adding substantive information and by showing them new and better ways to process that information.” Thus, all our current forms of mental enhancement (e.g., written language, printing, the Internet, exercise, nutrition, or sleep) have, as their aim, the production of minds that are better both in terms of storage capacity and information processing.

The defense of cognitive enhancement depends upon a view of mind as mere machine. This is an understanding of human nature (or at least of one’s mental life) that is thoroughly mechanistic. The mind (or if we’re being honest, the brain) is a computer. Thus, “improvements” come in two forms: (1) increased storage capacity or more information, and (2) increased processing efficiency or speed. This is a view of human nature that is fundamentally ateleological; it is without purpose beyond the mere acquisition and processing of information. Holding such a view, as a matter of logical necessity, commits one to the conclusion that the summum bonum for human beings consists in maximizing our machine-like functions to the highest degree feasible. Thus, it is no surprise that the authors conclude: “We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function . . .” as a means of “extended work productivity.”

Such a view of human nature is thoroughly reductionist. It is also mistaken. That this is so can be grasped by a simple thought experiment involving the use of another form of enhancement and America’s pastime. Imagine attending a baseball game in which no human beings were participants. Imagine sitting for several hours watching a pitching machine throw to a mechanical arm swinging a bat. Can you honestly imagine being spellbound by such a game? Would you pay top dollar for seats behind home plate?

My hypothesis is that while a thoroughly-perfected game of robotic baseball might commandeer an initial measure of fascination, it would simply fail to captivate our imaginations over time. Moreover, our intuitive reluctance in being enthusiastic about this imagined scenario is telling, not simply as an indication that something is amiss in the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but more importantly as a clue to a proper understanding of human nature.

That we find the prospect of robotic baseball uninteresting should not lead us to conclude that the skills of baseball are in no way machine-like. Indeed, the fact that baseball players hone their skills, often by means of machines in connection with machine-like repetition, is evidence of the degree to which the cultivation of such skills can be perfected by treating them mechanistically. To treat a skill mechanistically is simply to analyze it into its constituent parts with a view toward training one’s body to perform the most efficient and effective sequence of parts with as much precision and accuracy as possible. Think of Tiger Woods’ own success in rebuilding his golf swing.

Still, the fact that athletes achieve a certain measure of success by means of treating skills mechanistically should neither lead us to conclude that the perfection of athletic ability is a function of being as machine-like as possible nor that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is merely a means of honing one’s skills that is morally equivalent to repetition of practice. For in the case of baseball, the whole point of using performance-enhancing drugs is to hit the ball harder and hence, farther. But while the ability to hit the ball well (e.g., hard) is a good, it is only one good, among many, in the game of baseball considered as a whole. And among those for whom it is morally bothersome, this is precisely what bothers fans when heroes are exposed for having violated the purity of the game.

Specifically, the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball violates the integral relationship that exists among all of the game’s goods considered as a whole by virtue of employing means (i.e., performance-enhancing drugs) which, by their very nature, treat a single good as though it were an exclusive end in itself (i.e., the good of hitting the ball a very long distance or even more basically, the good of raw athletic power or strength). By their very nature, performance-enhancing drugs work so as to maximize a single good (e.g., muscles that are bigger, faster, stronger, etc.). Moreover, the use of such drugs in baseball (or in any other sport for that matter) implicitly treats the single good at which the drug aims as though it were the most important or only good of the game considered as a whole. That this is false about home-run-hitting is illustrated by the robotic baseball thought experiment. If merely hitting the ball (very far!) were the most important or only good of the game of baseball considered as a whole, why not get rid of the players and replace them with machines? After all, we already have the technology to create machines capable of hitting baseballs farther than most steroid-enhanced players alive!

Of course, the thought experiment helps us to realize that home-run-hitting, exciting and important as it is, is merely one good among many in the game of baseball considered as a whole. Activities like the use of performance-enhancing drugs trouble us morally—not merely because of the conventions of the game—but more significantly because they violate the overarching goodness of the unity of the game’s goods, considered as a whole.

The use of cognitive-enhancing drugs among the healthy may be faulted for similar reasons. To be sure, there are respects in which our cognitive powers resemble machines like computers. Memories might be loosely construed as a kind of information storage. Moreover, when we analyze, organize, systematize, or categorize the contents of our minds, so to speak, there is a sense in which what we are doing might be called “information processing.” The very presence of computers in the world—marvels of technological innovation—is a testimony to reality of those capacities of the makers in whose image computers are partly made.

But we err in thinking that our mental life is exhausted, or even most uniquely expressed, in exercising that narrow range of computer-esque cognitive functions alone. And this is the error of those who promote the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs for the healthy. Like the athlete who uses steroids, those who advocate the “responsible use” of cognitive-enhancing drugs among the healthy falsely presuppose that one or two cognitive goods among many are the most important goods among the many that constitute the life of the mind considered as a whole. They presume, in other words, that cognitive improvement (and by extension, human improvement) is exclusively a function “adding” information and “better” information processing.

This presumption is simply false. For while the capacities to procure and to process information are indeed goods of human life, they are neither the highest of human goods nor are they ends in themselves. Yet, the use of cognitive enhancers by the healthy implicitly treats the single good at which the drug aims as though it were the most important or only good of one’s mental life considered as a whole. As our thought-experiment about robotic baseball makes clear, if merely thinking (very fast!) about lots of information were the most important or only good of the human mental life considered as a whole, why not simply replace us with computers?

Herein lies the proverbial rub. The logical trajectory of arguments supporting the wholesale use of cognitive enhancers among the healthy is ultimately destructive of human nature. And this would be the case even if one conceded what is most assuredly dubious—namely, that public policy could be crafted and enforced so as to minimize the deleterious effects of the widespread distribution and use of such drugs. Proponents of cognitive enhancement may still protest that benefits would accrue to “both the individual and society.” But such benefits may come at the expense of individuals and societies that are uniquely human in nature.

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