HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Friday, April 10, 2009

An Argument Against Cognitive-Enhancing Drugs

Professor Justin Barnard writes on the Public Discourse:  Ethics, Law and the Common Good website, and provides an excellent argument against the use of cognitive enhancing drugs.  He argues,

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. . . . .

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 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.

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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