Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Nature Editorial on Cognitive Enhancement

The latest issue of Nature has an interesting editorial entitled "Enhancing, Not Cheating". Here is a sample:

Of all the arguments levelled against taking drugs for human enhancement, the idea that it is cheating has least power. Yes, when organized competition or formal testing of abilities is the name of the game, drug-based strengthening is questionable and regulations against it need to be adhered to.

More debatable are arguments by opponents of drug-based enhancement that it is cheating against oneself. "Personal achievements impersonally achieved are not truly the achievements of persons," said the report Beyond Therapy by the US President's Council on Bioethics, chaired at the time by ethicist Leon Kass. Yet imagine if a researcher could improve his or her ability to memorize the postulated connections in a complex signalling pathway central to tumour development, or if a musician could improve his or her concentration and deliver a better performance on the night. Far from cheating on themselves or others, they would be delivering a higher return on their investment of effort, and indeed on society's investment in them. We all benefit.

What is sure is that opponents of enhancement are, to a degree, whistling in the wind. They raise other spectres — unfairness of access (although today's enhancing dose is cheaper than a cup of coffee), possibilities of employer coercion and the loss of human dignity or of the 'natural' — but ultimately, to little avail. Many healthy people still opt for chemical enhancements of all sorts, as suppliers of cosmetics and some pharmaceuticals know well. Such actions betoken an ethical argument on the other side: the pursuit of personal liberty.