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Put down the smart drugs – cognitive enhancement is ethically risky business

Cognitive performance enhancers promise to deliver a better version of ourselves: smarter, more alert and more mentally agile. But what if such enhancement was no longer a personal choice but a socially…

Cognitive enhancers could join coffee, pain killers and antibiotics as an accepted – and expected – mode of self-improvement. Flickr/cosmo flash, CC BY-SA

Cognitive performance enhancers promise to deliver a better version of ourselves: smarter, more alert and more mentally agile. But what if such enhancement was no longer a personal choice but a socially and legally enforced responsibility? In the final instalment of Biology and Blame, Nicole A Vincent and Emma A. Jane explore the risks of normalising this emerging trend.


In Australia and all around the world, students, academics and professionals of various stripes are increasingly experimenting with new cognitive enhancement technologies to boost their memory, attention, reflexes, clarity of thought and ability to function well with little sleep.

In many cases, this involves the repurposing of medications that have previously been used to help the sick become “normal”, rather than to boost the well into some sort of superhuman sphere. These include controlled drugs such as Ritalin (a central nervous system stimulant usually prescribed for hyperactivity and impulse control), modafinil (a medication used for increasing wakefulness in patients with conditions such as narcolepsy) and donepezil (used to treat dementia).

Interest is also growing in transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) devices, which stimulate the brain using electricity drawn from nine-volt batteries. These largely unregulated and under-tested devices are said to sort out everything from depression to poor sports performance. But there are concerns that the DIY use of such “electroceuticals” may result in at-home users zapping their brains in ways that harm rather than help.

Because these techniques and technologies are new – or at least are being put to novel use – the issues that tend to get most attention in academia and in the media relate to their effectiveness and safety.

The jury is still out on which of these techniques and technologies work, for whom they work, and how and how well they work. There is also breathtaking disagreement about such fundamental issues as: what percentage of people are using them; whether their effects are best described as “enhancement” or only as “treatment”; and what side effects they might produce.

The jury is still out on whether, or how well, cognitive enhancement works. Julia Shore, CC BY-NC-ND

Several recent studies report around a 30% improvement in language learning by subjects who used modafinil or tDCS over those who did not.

Other researchers, however, warn that the hype surrounding cognitive enhancement is unhelpful and possibly even dangerous. This, they say, adds to the pressure people already feel to use these technologies, even though claims about their effectiveness and safety are at least premature if not overstated and even outright misleading.

But while safety and effectiveness are indeed important concerns, some ethico-legal issues are even more critical. Let’s imagine, for instance, that modafinil and tDCS turn out to be as effective and safe as the optimistic studies suggest; that they are as relatively inexpensive, innocuous and helpful as all those other prosaic props that regularly help us get through the day (coffee, painkillers and post-work flutes of prosecco, as just three examples).

Despite the benefits, we think there is good reason not to embrace these new technologies: namely, to ensure that cognitive enhancement does not become the new “normal”. Put another way, we don’t want to find ourselves in a scenario where mildly electrifying our brains is no longer considered a personal choice but is instead a socially and legally enforced responsibility. Yet, right now, concerns about effectiveness and safety are all that stands between us and that scenario.

The new ‘normal’

To understand this situation, consider two examples one of us discussed recently at TEDxSydney.

In a clever article written for Limelight Magazine last year, the very talented and accomplished Sydney-based concert pianist Simon Tedeschi writes about how a significant portion of concert musicians nowadays use or feel pressured to use medications called beta blockers. This is to calm their nerves before recitals for jobs, and on stage to deliver the superior performances we have come to expect of them.

Off-label uses of beta blockers began quietly in classical music circles in the late 1970s when small numbers of performers began using these cardiac medications to prevent crippling performance anxiety such as slippery palms, thumping hearts and flute-unfriendly lip quivers.

But, as time passed, increasing numbers of musicians turned to these medications to the point where this practice is becoming a new “normal”. Other concert musicians are increasingly wondering whether they too should start using beta blockers simply to keep up and remain competitive with those who already use them.

Musicians are increasingly using beta blockers to calm their nerves before concerts. Gigi Tagliapietra, CC BY-NC

What was once a choice for a few disadvantaged people is becoming a de facto necessity for all. And this did not occur because anybody intended it to be this way, but simply because of the way in which competition (and audience expectations) works.

A second example comes from three years ago, when members of a Jetstar cabin crew complained to the media that their employer, a Thai company based in Bangkok called Tour East Thailand, was increasingly expecting them to work 20-hour shifts. The crew members were concerned that in the event of an emergency they would be too tired to be able to respond effectively and passengers’ safety could be compromised.

Imagine, though, what might happen in scenarios like this if enhancers such as modafinil turn out to be effective and safe health-wise. Given the enormous pressure on workers to achieve ever-rising levels of productivity, there is a risk that employers might make it a condition of employment that cabin crew use such medications to remain alert for the duration of their shifts.

This would be an industrial relations nightmare: nobody should be expected to enhance themselves just to do their job.

When the debate focuses on effectiveness and safety, it’s too easy to overlook myriad social, political and ethical reasons to say “no” to cognitive enhancement right now. This risks dystopic scenarios where corporations use such medications to save money by demanding superhuman efforts from workers rather than simply employing more staff.

At present, social attitudes towards cognitive enhancement range from fanatical enthusiasm to dismissive scepticism and frightened resistance. But these polarised reactions are likely to disappear once safety, effectiveness and equity of access can be assured.

Our worry is that – at precisely that point – cognitive enhancement will join coffee, painkillers, antibiotics and even smart phones in becoming the commonsensical and expected choice. The burden of proof will have shifted such that everyone will be expected to enhance themselves; justifications will have to be given to explain why we should not comply.

Enhancement as a responsibility

Here is another way to see this point.

Imagine you’re a surgeon about to perform a delicate, difficult, lengthy and ultimately risky operation, and that you could substantially improve your patient’s chances of survival by safely taking a pill that would increase your wakefulness, mental acuity, perceptiveness and ability to stay focused.

Judges are not likely to recognise a duty for surgeons to enhance themselves any time soon. Aleera/Flickr, CC BY-ND

If the pill really were that effective, and if it really had so few side effects, would it be a fait accompli that you should take it? Should you now have to take this pill to give your patients the best chance of recovery and survival? And would you be negligent – perhaps even reckless – if you didn’t take it?

When we are asked about whether we ought to enhance ourselves – and whether we would be responsible for any bad consequences and held responsible under the law if we don’t – it’s much less obvious that the answer should automatically be “yes”.

What we’re concerned about is the slippery slope that might lead from enhancement being a choice to it being a responsibility — that what’s initially freely chosen as a way of bettering ourselves, accomplishing more, or just making life easier and keeping up, may eventually become expected and even required. Sound unlikely? Consider hints by Queensland Health that medical staff might have a duty to fight fatigue by, among other forms of cognitive enhancement, consuming the equivalent of five to six cups of coffee a night.

Despite these sort of caffeine-friendly suggestions, judges are not likely to recognise a duty for surgeons to enhance themselves any time soon. This is a good thing. What’s more, though, if we wish things to stay this way, we may need to resist the temptation to pop pills to enhance ourselves — even if the immediate benefits seem attractive. The long-term consequences may be distinctly unattractive.

Exercising restraint

Advances in science and technology subtly shape our lives by gradually, and often imperceptibly, changing the moral, legal and social landscape. What we expect of ourselves and of one another also changes with the times. It changes with what we think people are capable of doing and what we think is reasonable to expect people to be capable of doing.

If we wish to retain our choice, we may need to resist the temptation to use even safe and effective enhancers.

Despite the benefits, there is a persuasive reason not to embrace cognitive-enhancing technologies. World Bank Photo Collection, CC BY-NC-ND

Or, at least, if the benefits of cognitive enhancement are ultimately worth it, we should keep the conversation going about how to ensure that cognitive enhancement does not just become the new “normal”. We must not allow our expectations to creep upwards and ultimately coerce us collectively into having to enhance ourselves.

This will require intelligent regulation of these exciting – but ethically challenging – new technologies in a way that transcends the current dominance of discussions about effectiveness and safety.


This is the seventh and final article in our series Biology and Blame. Click on the links below to read other pieces:

Part one – Genes made me do it: genetics, responsibility and criminal law

Part two – Irresponsible brains? The role of consciousness in guilt

Part three – Psychiatry’s fight for a place in defining criminal responsibility

Part four – Looking for psychopaths in all the wrong places: fMRI in court

Part five - Why shouldn’t addiction be a defence to low-level crime?

Part six – Natural born killers: brain shape, behaviour and the history of phrenology

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58 Comments sorted by

  1. Gayle Dallaston

    logged in via email @gayledallaston.com

    Good article, and something that should be debated rather than just let drift into everyday practice.

    However,
    "In many cases, this involves the repurposing of medications that have previously been used to help the sick become “normal”, rather than to boost the well into some sort of superhuman sphere."

    I'm not convinced of the split here. It all depends on the shifting definitions of "sick", "normal" and "superhuman".

    Is putting a child on Ritalin so they can perform in a standard classroom without considering the expectations of the classroom so different to putting an adult on something so they can perform to workplace expectations?

    Maybe "superhuman" really means robotic, compliant...

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    1. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Gayle Dallaston

      In classrooms, properly prescribed Ritalin is used to enable children to perform to the same level as those without ADHD. The correct analogy in the workplace world be suggesting that underperformers take enhancers to reach the median performance level of their colleagues. The ethical problem in both cases is the risk that the drug becomes to first port of call rather than the last resort - this is likely to occur in workplaces when other options (training, workplace support, etc) add to the expense on organisations as opposed to individuals.

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    2. Nicole A Vincent

      Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University

      In reply to Gayle Dallaston

      Hi Gayle

      I share your concerns, and I suspect Emma does too. And this is such a complex and sensitive topic, right?

      Some overlapping questions, for which I only have conflicting idiosyncratic intuitions, but alas no answers, include:

      • Is ADHD even a real medical condition or just a difference?

      • Have we pathologised a different style of learning/being, developed drugs to alter the related behavior and style of thinking, and then triumphantly exclaimed "Wow, look at that, we've found an effective…

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    3. Gayle Dallaston

      logged in via email @gayledallaston.com

      In reply to Nicole A Vincent

      "with ethics, with politics, with what kind of society we would like to live in"

      That is exactly what I would like to see more of in the ADHD and autism discourse. They are presented as a medical and health issue with treatments and cures but precious little analysis of the politics and ethics and wider social issues.

      Perhaps relative power is a central part of the debate. It is one thing for you and me to indulge in our "enhancement of choice" when we judge it to be in our own interest or necessary…

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    4. Gordon William Francis Young

      Lecturer of Professional/Applied Ethics at RMIT University

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      A definite risk, but a substantially smaller one for an adult. A large part of the concern about medicating for ADHD is that the child is not required to be consulted or even given a choice in the matter - their parents have legal custody over them.

      An adult on the other hand is free to choose whether they receive treatment (in all but the most serious cases) and what sort of treatment they receive. Yes, their employer and colleagues can put pressure on them, but abslutely cannot force them to take any medication/treatment whatsoever.

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    5. Gayle Dallaston

      logged in via email @gayledallaston.com

      In reply to Gordon William Francis Young

      "An adult on the other hand is free to choose whether they receive treatment"

      I think the article was talking about more indirect pressures. An employer can't demand workers take drugs, but they can demand a level of performance or working hours that workers may feel they need to take drugs to meet. Same could be said of surgical enhancement - not required but if you want certain careers (actor, salesperson, cabin crew, newsreader...) you might have the surgery to look the "right" way and maintain that look for as long as you can.

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    6. Gordon William Francis Young

      Lecturer of Professional/Applied Ethics at RMIT University

      In reply to Gayle Dallaston

      True, and definitely a risk - I'm reminded of the use of amphetamines by truck drivers in particular.

      That said, this isn't really exclusive to cognitive enhancers. The same could be said of any performance enhancing drug/technique (coffee, speed, those creepy 'positive thinking' workshops). This is more of a labour law issue - proper workplace health and safety, well regulated shifts, good internal cultures. These things have broadly improved over time, so I'd imagine the risk is fairly low.

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  2. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    So, elite musicians are as susceptible to performance enhancing drugs as elite sports people but for one group there is a whole anti-doping bureaucracy but not the other! I seem to recall an episode of so in the 70s TV series where one of the professors was taking cognitive enhancement drugs - albeit for a perceived decline in performance - and it appears that there may be a tendency for elite academics to use cognitive enhancers (http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/04/09/us-cognition-enhancing-drugs-idUSTON97705920080409). So one of th disclosures on the Conversation might have to be whether the author is using or has used cognitive enhancement drugs!

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    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      Excellent point Dennis - I was thinking exactly the same thing myself.

      Why are performance enhancing drugs considered such a no-no in sport, but we can apparently take all we want to enhance our academic or similar performance?

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    2. jamie jardine

      Acupuncturist

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      Dennis elite musicians using performance enhancing drugs is as old as the hills, ever see Hendrix live at Monterey? :)

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    3. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to jamie jardine

      Jamie: different sense of 'elite'. Virtuoso Hendrix was, but the rarefied air of top-end classical music as a genre and profession is neither as public nor popular as the more grounded genre and profession of the rock/pop musician and is not perceived as 'elite' in the same way.

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    4. Dean Taylor

      Pharmacist

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Anti doping in sport looks at both integrity and safety. The doses of beta-blockers that performers take are pretty safe, and increasing the dose does not give a further improvement in performance. Hence the whole thing is, physically if not philosophically, safe.

      In sport, especially ones where brute strength, power or endurance is more important than skill, the sky is the limit. If you are willing to risk your life to win, the only thing stopping you is the anti doping agencies.

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    5. Jim Howe

      Neurologist at Neuropalliative rehabilitation

      In reply to Dean Taylor

      Low dose beta-blocker is certainly safer than alcohol. I read that Benjamin Britten needed a lot of whiskey to get him through a public piano recital. Despite being a superb player. How many others used booze?

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    6. alan w. shorter

      research assistant

      In reply to Jim Howe

      It wasn't that long ago that speed was perfectly legal, and before that, cocaine.

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    7. Dean Taylor

      Pharmacist

      In reply to Jim Howe

      There is a long history of extraordinarily talented people using various... err, substances, that would ordinarily impair performance.

      However if someone is pretty good, but not exceptional, I wouldn't recommend hitting the bottle before a performance.

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    8. Nicole A Vincent

      Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University

      In reply to Dean Taylor

      Ok, so here's my own disclosure: I have used modafinil in the past, but not these days. And for me it worked a treat. Never experienced jetlag, even after multiple 24 hour trips between The Netherlands and Australia, or Australia and the US, and I could just keep working unimpaired, which is precisely what I did. And did and did and did...

      The 30 or so 200mg tablets (obtained online), which I took in half-quantity doses in the morning for three or four days after traveling to the other side of the…

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    9. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      Dennis, I think the main difference lies in the conceptualisation of the term 'competition'. In sport, performance enhancers have an easily identifiable, results based consequence - Think Lance Armstrong or Essendon FC. The understanding of 'competition' in the context of artistic performance is somewhat less tangible.

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    10. Dean Taylor

      Pharmacist

      In reply to Nicole A Vincent

      Thank you for all of your great responses to our comments.

      I feel that if we used "different measuring rods" to measure the performance of those who use performance enhancement then this shifts the problem from who is willing to enhance, to who is willing to lie about it, or best able to hide it if you want to go down that path. A better, but admittedly harder, option is to change the way that everyone is judged, shifting the emphasis away from enhanceable traits to non-enhanceable ones. As well as significantly leveling the field for those who do not use performance enhancement, this should also produce better long term results for those who do.

      You mentioned that you find GPs greater willingness to prescribe sleeping pills than modafinil, despite the latter arguably being safer, interesting. I see that as a great example of your argument about normalisation!

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    11. alan w. shorter

      research assistant

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Mike, with sports it's all about corporate sponsorship. They don't want their brands tainted with illegal drug use. Nobody cares that poets, painters, and concert pianists find inspiration in cocaine, LSD, or whatever.

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  3. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    The strangest consideration are some of those 'smart drugs' actually providing a cure rather than an enhancement. A cure to mass media saturation, the constant media bombardment (tv, radio, mobile phones, saturation marketing) so not really a 30% improvement over norm but more just a return to norm. Considering this are the other methods which might be considered a better cure or better enhancement, something like focusing your thoughts with meditation.

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    1. Nicole A Vincent

      Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      Hi Robert

      Meditation is an excellent technique, as is physical exercise. I'm also very fond of leaving myself little post-it notes around the place (literally) to remind myself of things I have to do, or writing things on my whiteboard. They're all great non-pharmaceutical and non-electroceutical means of enhancement.

      And then there are techniques that one can learn that help to improve one's memory. For instance, one of my ex-students from Macquarie University, Daniel Kilov, talks about them here…

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  4. Jay Wulf

    Digerati at nomeonastiq.com

    Hands up who's giving up their coffee/Red Bull/Softdrink brand famous for executing Union organisers in South America?

    No? I did not think so.

    Cognitive enhancement drugs are a slippery slope. Coffeine? Ok, its a no-no. How about sugar though?
    At the core, and by definition, the cognitive enhancement drugs kick off a 'natural' effect in the human body.

    The question is, where does nutrition stop and 'enhancement' begin? Thats the question I would like to see answered.

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    1. Nicole A Vincent

      Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University

      In reply to Jay Wulf

      Good question Jay. I'm not totally sure how to answer it, but I'll give it a shot since in some ways it's similar to the question of how to distinguish "treatment" from "enhancement".

      So, right now, I'm sitting here typing with a mild headache. (I just got back from abroad, so it's probably jetlag-related.) I'm contemplating taking an aspirin. Would I be treating a condition? Well, yes — I'd be treating the headache, or at least alleviating the symptom, right?

      On the other hand, before analgesics…

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    2. Jay Wulf

      Digerati at nomeonastiq.com

      In reply to Nicole A Vincent

      First of all, thank you so much for an insightful answer Nicole.

      I think the core of the argument that you make, as I interpret it, is that 'the norm' changes as we learn more about the world we live in. For example, your headache could be framed in terms of demons in you head in the days where theology provided us with answers. Today we deal with it with aspirin. In 80 years (assuming the non-linear progression of science), you just might slid up the control bar on your medi-bracelet. In 200 years, the nano bots in your blood might detect a slight constriction of your cranial blood vessels and release just the right amount of chemiacals to deal with it.
      In 500 years, your smart cells{tm}(C), would keep your body in a permanent state of optimum performance.

      I followed you on twitter. Your subject is fascinating and I wish you all the best in your research and hope to see more of your popular science articles on the sucbject!

      Thanks.

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  5. david leitch
    david leitch is a Friend of The Conversation.

    research analyst

    Despite the ethics many people, myself included would be tempted to take cognition increasing drugs if they clearly were safe. Virtually all drugs have negative impacts though when people stop using them if only in the sense that things are better when you are taking them and in a "milton" way are therefore worse when you don't take them.

    Let's not even think about the military uses.

    Clearly more research into the impact of these drugs is required. Fascinating topic.

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    1. Dean Taylor

      Pharmacist

      In reply to david leitch

      "Let's not even think about the military uses"

      It is a few thousand years too late to prevent that.

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    2. Nicole A Vincent

      Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University

      In reply to david leitch

      Hi David

      Yes, I totally agree about the persisting temptation to take them.

      I commented a bit on this in reply to some of the others' comments, and I'd be interested in your reflections.

      Warmly

      Nicole

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    3. Gordon William Francis Young

      Lecturer of Professional/Applied Ethics at RMIT University

      In reply to david leitch

      What ethical problems? Quite frankly the only ethical question here is whether the benefits of cognitive enhancers outweigh the costs - if the side effects are minimal and the benefits real, then problem solved.

      Yes there are some practical issues that need to be accounted for - affordability and the potential for further economic/educational inequality being a major one - but the principle of the issue is quite simple: smarter, more skilled, better educated citizens cannot be a bad thing.

      We even have a massive precendent for this: schools. Every citizens is required by law to attend school for at least 11 years (and a lot more if you want a decent job). If you oppose measures that force people to be smarter then surely the forced institutionalisation of children is a bigger problem than popping a pill?

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  6. Jason Mazanov

    Senior Lecturer, School of Business, UNSW-Canberra at UNSW Australia

    Thank you for an engaging piece that sets out the issues for and against quite nicely.

    This important discussion needs to be fleshed out given that the main regulatory framework for managing such enhancement technologies is sport's response - anti-doping. The problems with this approach are being played out with the latest stages in the Essendon Supplements Saga.

    One of the core problems for anti-doping is its moral basis (note I take moral and ethical to be interchangeable in this context…

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    1. Nicole A Vincent

      Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University

      In reply to Jason Mazanov

      Hi Jason

      Thank you for leaving a comment, and yeah, much food for thought.

      I recently wrote a paper with my colleagues from TU Delft where we take a stab at trying to answer this question. Here's what we say in the abstract:

      When should humans enhance themselves? We try to answer this question by engaging in a conceptual analysis of the nature of different activities. We think that cognitive enhancement is morally impermissible in some practice-oriented activities, such as some educational activities…

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  7. David Heslin

    Melburnian

    I understand the need for caution in these areas—particularly given that many of these drugs haven't been sufficiently tested—but the hypothetical presented by the authors seems somewhat contradictory. If it could indeed be demonstrated fully that these drugs are safe and have no side effects, then what problem could there possibly be with their normalisation and eventual mandatory status in the workforce, particularly for jobs where alertness and full cognitive faculties could be the difference between life or death?

    The one ethical problem IS the potential side-effects; take those away and this becomes simply equivalent to doing requisite training, getting enough sleep before work, going to the gymnasium if your job has certain physical requirements... can anyone else see a problem with this?

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    1. Vanessa Wong

      Student

      In reply to David Heslin

      I see many problems:

      1. Potential side-effects - what do you consider a side effect? A heart rhythm abnormality would be a pretty obvious risk. What if the side effect was a slight decrease in the ability to connect with the people we love? In our enjoyment of life? Would any clinical trial be able to pick this up? Is this not more important (both personally and as a society) than improved performance? Thalidomide caused shocking birth defects and took decades to be discovered due to suppression…

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    2. alan w. shorter

      research assistant

      In reply to Vanessa Wong

      The "incompetent boss" scenario is well made. OTOH, the body is programmed for homeostasis, so any boss pushing their employees to take drugs will pay for it when those same employees inevitably crash, and are exhausted/unproductive for a longer period than they were super-productive. Payback is a biotch, and all that.

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    3. Nicole A Vincent

      Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University

      In reply to alan w. shorter

      Thanks for the comments David, Vanessa, and Alan

      David, I'm very partial to what you say. In fact, before my TEDx talk, pretty much everything I wrote on or around this topic was an endorsement of what you say. I mean, what objection can there possibly be to not doing something that won't do me any harm but yet that might save another's life, right? And it honestly felt to me like sophistry when people search for counter-arguments.

      What came out of my conversations with Emma though, and which is…

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    4. Gordon William Francis Young

      Lecturer of Professional/Applied Ethics at RMIT University

      In reply to Vanessa Wong

      A good analysis, but theseare mainly practical issues rather than issues with principle:

      1. Side effects are easily defined according to existing health codes and standards, and should be regulated accordingly. Yes there's always the risk of unpredictable long-term side effects, but this is an issue with literally any product.

      2. Again this is a matter of side effects - if the product literally could replace sleep then there is the problem? What you're concerned about is that the side effects would…

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    5. Vanessa Wong

      Student

      In reply to Gordon William Francis Young

      You're right - they are practical issues, but ones that don't seem to be well addressed in the current psyche - I have never seen 'ability to connect with people' in any health code, in any side effect warning, in any documented reaction on a patient's medical record. In principle though, if there are literally no side effects, including the non-medical effects I mentioned, then my argument is invalid.

      Regarding competative factors - if I give an engineer working on how to fix an oil spill a pill…

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  8. Elvis Dallas

    logged in via Twitter

    I've been using so-called "smart" drugs since 1998 off and on. The first I used was piracetam, acquired across the border in Mexico back when going across was safe.

    In the last year I've used Noopept, as has my 72-year-old mother. It's incredibly effective. Within a week at 10mg twice daily doses, the recall is powerful. Not only do I get very clear visual memories, I also can remember tactile sensations including temperature and emotional aspects long since believed gone from my brain.

    I suspect…

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    1. alan w. shorter

      research assistant

      In reply to Elvis Dallas

      Interesting stuff. And thanks for confirming my own reading that this article was not about cognitive enhancers at all; just stimulants.

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  9. scoota boi

    thinker

    Really nice piece (made me sign up & think) - look at the military for long term study and effects of this stuff (they will generally be a few steps ahead of you) - special forces etc look for advantages in life or death scenarios, strenght, smarts, alertness, sress (plays to your Dr example).

    Several famous thinkers were advocates of chemical enhancements eg Freud.

    This tangent is not new but very relevant as tech catches our ambition. It's a general move towards tranhumanism as all these things and more combine - wait till the Google Boston Dynamics tech comes online.

    It will happen & the timeless usual human cycle of adoption will ensure (affluent skeptics, naysayers, advocates, do gooders will all tough it out - poor countries will get the scraps/get left behind), who knows how it will play.

    Will be interesting.

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  10. ayye

    logged in via Twitter

    I'm wondering what the author's view on coffee is, as it is for all intents and purposes that I see the first performance-enhancing drug which is so widely accepted that it is perceived by many as socially irresponsible to not take it regularly, even if they would not immediately think that they perceive it this way - I believe people are so accustomed to the work output and patterns make possible by a caffeinated workforce that they don't even realize it might be unnatural. In addition, there are known health negatives to taking coffee regularly.

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    1. Nicole A Vincent

      Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University

      In reply to ayye

      I agree.

      Another example might be over the counter analgesics like aspirin and paracetamol (a.k.a. acetaminophen in the US). In one way, it seems like such a nice thing for a boss to offer their employee, currently plagued by the ubiquitous headache, a pain killer, right? "Here, this will make you feel better."

      Yet, in another way, we take these drugs at work to wrestle our bodies into submission, so that we can live up to the standard that has come to be expected of us. However, and this is the…

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  11. Simon Tedeschi

    Pianist

    A fascinating article and I am glad that my original article was of some interest in this one. What if music competitions - with their reputation for homogenous interpretations and conformity of style in the pursuit of offending the least amount of judges - became hotbeds of beta blocker downing? What if it became a prerequisite? This article makes no bone about these possibilities being in a dystopian future but as always, issues such as these need to be just as quick as technology (if not quicker…

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    1. Georgina Byrne
      Georgina Byrne is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer at Farming

      In reply to Simon Tedeschi

      Great article, great conversation! It brings into focus so many issues; "drugs" both recreational and "legitimate"...I remember an Australian Olympic athlete being sent home for testing positive to excessive caffeine...there is also the problem of discrimination in penalties for "illegitimate"drug use...it is often pointed out that in the USA, especially the use of drugs used mainly by the middle class attracts lesser penalties than those used by the poor. Another article on TC re the use of drugs to correct obesity highlights an increasing tendency to find a chemical solution to any given problem rather than a change in lifestyle behaviour. There is already a huge problem of stimulant overuse amongst long distance truckies which leads to terrible carnage on our highways. Let's hope the rules for airline pilots don't change any time soon!

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    2. Nicole A Vincent

      Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University

      In reply to Simon Tedeschi

      Thought-provoking comment, thanks Simon.

      In the past I've not been fond of the distinction between treatments and enhancements. Largely because where I draw the line between treatments and enhancements seems to reflect presuppositions about what the "normal" baseline might be.

      As I mention in a comment somewhere above, these days analgesics like aspirin and paracetamol are considered ho-hum. We're used to throwing back a pain killer when a headache threatens to ruin our day or a pleasant evening…

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  12. Alex Verbeck

    Attorney

    I think that the concern about drifting normalcy is a red herring. The concept of normal has changed drastically over, particularly, the last thousand years, and it's coercive all the time. People seeking jobs in a developed country are already required to be much cleaner than their Natural ancestors, and to have spent a lot of time on education, and to be vaccinated, and to take all sorts of drugs when their performance is impaired by illness. Neural modification via modern drugs like Ritalin or…

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    1. Nicole A Vincent

      Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University

      In reply to Alex Verbeck

      Hi Alex

      You wouldn't happen to have a link handy to the hand-wringing articles back in the day, would you? Links to those articles would be very helpful.

      I see you're an attorney, that's awesome. My interest in the legal aspects of this topic – in particular, tort liability for failure to enhance, the history of how introduction of new technologies has affected standards of care and liability that might either point us to precedents or at least hint at how courts might adjudicate such cases, and what regulatory mechanisms might be helpful should society decide that it wishes to regulate these substances differently to how they are currently regulated – are the focus of the Enhancing Responsibility project based in The Netherlands and at the University of Oxford. http://enhancingresponsibility.com/

      Where do you practice?

      Cheers

      Nicole

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  13. Michelle Bruce

    citizen

    “Are you tired of needing to sleep? Does it bother you that you have to breathe so often? You may be suffering from life. Rest assured, you are not alone. Join the millions of happy people who are now taking Suprato. When your body says ‘no’, we say ‘go for it!’ Ask your doctor; better yet just tell him.

    Side effects may include: insomnia, premature death, infertility, headaches, nausea, kidney failure, premature hair loss, IBS, TMJ, premature ejaculation, delusions of grandeur, hypertension, voting for the guy who smiles a lot, vertigo, shopping for leisure, weight gain, addiction to TV, severe depression.”

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  14. Gordon William Francis Young

    Lecturer of Professional/Applied Ethics at RMIT University

    This entire article is a 'slippery slope' rhetorical fallacy - just because some people start to use/abuse a medication or treatment to get an advantage does not mean that everyone will, and especially won't mean that everyone will HAVE to. The comparison to "coffee, painkillers, antibiotics and even smart phones" demonstrates this clearly - yes these have all become very common due to the clear benefits they provide, but no one is REQUIRED or even heavily pressured to use them. Hell we're not even…

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    1. Dean Taylor

      Pharmacist

      In reply to Gordon William Francis Young

      Maybe the social pressure element is hard to see using coffee and painkillers as an example. Perhaps deodorant would be a better one. Would your life have turned out as it did if you had decided to never wear deodorant?

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    2. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Dean Taylor

      'Painkillers - say it ain't so magic in a bottle: helps you ignore your body's distress signals so you can do more shit that's bad for you, for longer! '

      'Deodorant - when washing your armpits is not an option!'

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    3. Dean Taylor

      Pharmacist

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      I think you missed my point as I was mostly agreeing with what you said, in less colourful terms.

      Most people's jobs and social circles pressure them to use painkillers when needed to "keep up", and A/Prof Vincent's concern is with the ethical and social implications of this attitude extending to other drugs. I was simply suggesting to Gordon Young that deodorant is a more entrenched example.

      I think it may be impractical for me to wash my armpits every 15 minutes, and there are no laws against discrimination by customers, so I guess I have to use deodorant!

      I also think that you are grossly oversimplifying pain and pain management, but that is an issue for another time.

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    4. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Dean Taylor

      I can read Dean, you don't need to explain either the authors' views, your own or the very funny views held by Gordon. The text of the article is as you suggest and I will not repeat content which is always better read and understood in the original. But there is also a subtext, which is what worries me about this article. Here is part of the blurb:

      'Cognitive performance enhancers promise to deliver a better version of ourselves: smarter, more alert and more mentally agile. But what if such enhancement…

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  15. Gayle Dallaston

    logged in via email @gayledallaston.com

    I am wondering how cognitive enhancement is being defined and measured here. Physical enhancement for sports can be measured in speed, goals, etc but is cognitive enhancement that clear cut?

    One of the criticisms made of ADHD drug treatment in children is that it makes them perform better on routine tasks and tests but worse on learning new concepts and creative thinking.

    Could it be that the cognitive enhancement used by adult academics means that they can churn out lots of same-old, same-old…

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    1. margot cullen

      carer

      In reply to Gayle Dallaston

      "ADHD drug treatment in children is that it makes them perform better on routine tasks and tests but worse on learning new concepts and creative thinking". here here...i have made previous comments in other conversations on the treatment of ADHD....succicntly we are trying to make them normal like us with drugs as stated :routine tasks and tests and suppressing their brains for creative thinking.... in a nutshell ..our normal brains are incapable of accomodating/understanding this new brain developing.

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  16. THOMAS LARTIN

    manager at Addrena

    I have used modafinil before and the results were less than spectacular. Overall these drugs do work (Adderall and Ritalin) and I personally do not have much of a problem with them. Abuse does happen though which then leads to serious health complications which is obviously not good. People should instead try to find foods that sort of work like Adderall in a sense instead of taking these serious drugs.

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  17. Comment removed by moderator.