(Cross-posted from my private practice site at kierstenmarek.com)
Nature Magazine has a new article in which a group of scientists and ethicists lay out a platform for supporting the idea that healthy people can and should seek cognitive enhancement through whatever means necessary — including psychiatric drugs. From the article:
Many people have doubts about the moral status of enhancement drugs for reasons ranging from the pragmatic to the philosophical, including concerns about short-circuiting personal agency and undermining the value of human effort. Kass, for example, has written of the subtle but, in his view, important differences between human enhancement through biotechnology and through more traditional means. Such arguments have been persuasively rejected (for example, ref. 17). Three arguments against the use of cognitive enhancement by the healthy quickly bubble to the surface in most discussions: that it is cheating, that it is unnatural and that it amounts to drug abuse.
In the context of sports, pharmacological performance enhancement is indeed cheating. But, of course, it is cheating because it is against the rules. Any good set of rules would need to distinguish today’s allowed cognitive enhancements, from private tutors to double espressos, from the newer methods, if they are to be banned.
As for an appeal to the ‘natural’, the lives of almost all living humans are deeply unnatural; our homes, our clothes and our food â€” to say nothing of the medical care we enjoy â€” bear little relation to our species’ ‘natural’ state. Given the many cognitive-enhancing tools we accept already, from writing to laptop computers, why draw the line here and say, thus far but no further?
As for enhancers’ status as drugs, drug abuse is a major social ill, and both medicinal and recreational drugs are regulated because of possible harms to the individual and society. But drugs are regulated on a scale that subjectively judges the potential for harm from the very dangerous (heroin) to the relatively harmless (caffeine). Given such regulation, the mere fact that cognitive enhancers are drugs is no reason to outlaw them.
Based on our considerations, we call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs.
I have written on Kmareka more extensively with concerns about the rapidly increasing use of psychiatric medication on children. While I have seen the benefits of medication use for children at times, I have also seen a full range of side effects including increased tolerance for the medications used, major medical problems, tics, sleep issues, growth issues, and more.
With adults, I think there is more room for accepting the idea that cognitive-enhancing use of medication is appropriate. Adults usually have a stronger sense of their baseline functioning and they are not as subject to developmental changes. But unlike the reasons for objecting to cognitive enhancements cited in the article (it’s cheating, it’s unnatural, and it amounts to drug abuse) my main concern remains that we do not know the long-term side effects of many of the drugs which are becoming more prevalent in their uses.
It comes down to what you consider to be a healthy level of caution when dealing with the unknown. Sometimes it seems like we’re playing with fire, but we humans have been known to enjoy playing with fire.