Reasons not to worry about brain enhancement drugs

Professor Henry Greely reckons it’s high time (arf!) that we stopped trying to ban cognitive enhancement drugs and focus our attentions on developing rules governing their use [via SentientDevelopments]. It’s a pragmatic approach; as Greely points out, the current grey legality of “revision drugs” like Ritalin isn’t doing anything to stop their use, and as the pharmacological industry introduces more cognition-boosting chemicals onto the market (albeit ostensibly as treatments for various maladies of the mindmeat), that situation is unlikely to reverse itself.

Of course, lots of people are scared of the idea of brain enhancement, and there are some good reasons for that. But there are also some bad (or at least illogical) reasons. take it away, Mr Greely:

There are at least three unsound reasons for concern: cheating, solidarity, and naturalness.

Many people find the assertion that enhancement is cheating to be convincing. Sometimes it is: If rules or laws ban an enhancement, then using it is cheating. But that does not help in situations where there are no rules or the rules are still being determined. The problem with viewing enhancements as cheating is that enhancements, broadly defined, are ubiquitous. If taking a cognitive-enhancement drug before a college entrance exam is cheating, what about taking a prep course? Using a computer program for test preparation? Reading a book about taking the test? Drinking a cup of coffee the morning of the test? Getting a good night’s sleep before the test? To say that direct brain enhancement is inherently cheating is to require a standard of what the “right” competition is. What would be the generally accepted standard in our complex and only somewhat meritocratic society?

The idea of enhancement as cheating is also related to the idea that enhancement replaces effort. Yet the plausible cognitive enhancements would not eliminate the need to study; they would just make studying more effective. In any event, we do not reward effort, we reward success. People with naturally good memories have advantages over others in organic chemistry exams, but they did not work for that good memory.

Some argue that enhancement is unnatural and threatens to take us beyond our humanity. This argument, too, suffers from a major problem. All of our civilization is unnatural. A fair speaker could not fly across a continent, take a taxi to an air-conditioned auditorium, and give a microphone-assisted PowerPoint presentation decrying enhancement as unnatural without either a sense of humor or a good argument for why these enhancements are different. Because they change our physical bodies? So do medicine, good food, clothing, and a hundred other unnatural changes. Because they change our brains? So does education. What argument justifies drawing the line here and not there? A strong naturalness argument against direct brain enhancements, in particular, has not been—and I think cannot be—made. Humans have constantly been changing our world and ourselves, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. A golden age of unenhanced naturalness is a myth, not an argument.

I’m guessing that most readers here are open to the idea of cognitive enhancement (by whatever method)… but even so, what’s the most compelling argument you’ve heard against it?

4 thoughts on “Reasons not to worry about brain enhancement drugs”

  1. The only reasonable argument I can think of is that we don’t yet have enough data on many of these enhancements to have any idea what the long-term unintended consequences will be. Even that’s not a good argument for completely ruling them out, though — it only calls for more research.

  2. I’ve just been listening to a news report on the upcoming trials of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds for lying about using steroids and other drugs to enhance physical performance, which is really about the same thing. All the debates about such things focus on fairness, but I’ve never understood why it would be wrong (for the reasons you’ve mentioned). The problem with steroids and other drugs used for physical performance — and the problem with memory drugs — is whether they are dangerous for other reasons. Many drugs have bad side effects that might be a reasonable trade off if it’s between that and dying, but a bad choice if all you want is a slightly better batting average or a better grade.
    I suspect the biggest problem is that people will latch on to them before the research is complete and damage themselves permanently. But I suspect that, coupled with the genome research, we can reach a point where there are safe products for both mental and physical improvement that can be tailored for most people.
    Then we get to the question of whether they will be fairly distributed.

  3. There are 2 arguments that I find most compelling, one possibly leading to the other. The first is the argument that taking performance enhancing drugs during an entrance exam or review for a job that involves making quick, well-informed “life-or-death” decisions (i.e.: surgeon, law enforcement officer, municipal systems engineer, satellite operator, etc.) would not necessarily represent that person’s performance on any-given day without the continued aid of those drugs, which could potentially lead to loss of life and/or tons of money.

    Taking that thought a step further, I’m reminded the Starfish trilogy by Peter Watts, in which one Achilles Desjardins is working for a fast response research agency called CSIRA, which is trying to contain a massive outbreak. He and other analysts are mandated to take a drug called “Guilt Trip” which forces them to focus on solutions pertaining to the greater good, sometimes forsaking the needs or even lives of individuals or “small” groups. To be sure these types of decisions are made at the highest echelons of governments the world over, but I can see this evolving into the “who watches the watchmen” (or “who medicates the watchmen”) type scenario. This is not even mentioning the almost secondary issue of employer’s mandating the use of such drugs. What regulatory agency would be responsible to make sure that employers are indeed supplying their workers with the drugs they say they are? The USDA? NIH? OSHA?

  4. I’ve no real issue with CE drugs per se; however, I can see one reasonable argument against them. Specifically, if all my peers take CE drugs and I don’t, then I’m placed at a de facto disadvantage in exams and the like. Thus, whether I want to take such drugs or not, their general use will lever me into a position where I’d incur loss by not taking them. This, in effect, amounts to punishing me for remaining baseline, which is hardly fair.

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