The Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement: Part 1

“Smart drugs” like Adderall and Modafinil are just the beginning of the cognitive enhancement revolution. Though they were initially developed to alleviate the symptoms of cognitive disorders, these and similar drugs are increasingly being used by the cognitively healthy to boost memory, focus, and wakefulness over long periods of work. With the commercial use of cognition-enhancing technologies like transcranial direct current stimulation just around the corner, and with even more powerfully brain-enhancing technologies like implanted neural prostheses likely to soon become a reality, we really need to start asking the question: should healthy people have access to drugs and technologies that enhance cognition?

The question is an urgent one. Even though we are currently at the beginning of this revolution, not many scientists and philosophers – let alone legislators – are thinking seriously about it. I have spent the better part of a month reading arguments both against and in favor of cognitive enhancement technologies, and I have to say that my own views on the matter have evolved quite significantly as a result.

To offer as nuanced an exploration of this question as I can, I am here presenting a three-part piece on the ethics of cognitive enhancement. My hope is that by the end of this, I will have communicated both the complexity of the question as well as a credible justification for the continued development of these technologies – so long as research into their safety has significant regulatory oversight.

As a starting point, let us consider what I think is the best argument against the advancement of cognitive enhancement technologies.


The most eloquent and vocal critic of the unabated development of cognitive enhancement (as well as other biotechnologies) is political theorist Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama explores the science, ethics, and politics of biotechnology in his book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. The gist of the book is this: human rights and political order are based on human nature; biotechnology threatens to alter human nature; therefore, biotechnology threatens human rights and political order and needs to be regulated.

Though Fukuyama’s book deals with the dangers of biotechnology more generally, his arguments apply quite well to the question of cognitive enhancement. In fact, Fukuyama insists that neuropharmacology is one way in which we are already beginning to alter human nature. He devotes an entire chapter to Prozac and Ritalin, arguing that they are prescribed to those who do not conform to a culture-dependent notion of “proper” behavior:

There is a disconcerting symmetry between Prozac and Ritalin. The former is prescribed heavily for depressed women lacking in self-esteem; it gives them more of the alpha-male feeling that comes with high serotonin levels. Ritalin is prescribed largely for boys who do not want to sit still in class because nature never designed them to behave that way. Together, the two sexes are gently nudged towards that androgynous median personality, self-satisfied and socially compliant, that is the current politically correct outcome in American society. (Fukuyama, 51-52)

Setting aside the problematic characterization of excited and confident as “male,” and shy and compliant as “female,” Fukuyama makes a valid point: we medicate people so that everyone will have the cognitive traits that we value. We value both self-satisfaction and social compliance, so if you don’t have both these traits, we will “enhance” you so that you will.

Fukuyama finds this particularly threatening because his entire approach to ethics is based on what is “natural” human behavior. By his lights, human nature is “the sum of the behavior and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors” (Fukuyama, 130). He insists that our species-typical behaviors include a host of emotions and feelings that determine our values: we can bridge the gap between “is” and “ought” using the “is” of emotions to determine the “oughts” that serve human ends. Even though our emotions can be at times contradictory, leading to inconsistent value judgments, Fukuyama believes that philosophical discourse offers at the very least a complex translation of human nature to human rights by giving us a way to rationally prioritize human ends. Fukuyama maintains that deriving “oughts” from human nature is essential to political order: he attributes, for example, the breakdown of communism to its “failure to respect the natural inclination to favor kin and private property” (Fukuyama, 127).

The threat of cognitive enhancement and biotechnology more generally is that it can radically alter the “is” of human nature and therefore the “oughts” that are derived from that nature: “We want to protect the full range of our complex, evolved natures against attempts at self-modification,” he writes. “We do not want to disrupt either the unity or the continuity of human nature, and thereby the human rights that are based on it” (Fukuyama, 172).

That, in short, is the argument he makes in Our Pusthuman Future.

Does the argument hold up?

We’ll begin with his first claim, which is an empirical one: can cognitive enhancers alter human nature? If we accept Fukuyama’s definition of human nature, then the answer is a clear and resounding yes. As Fukuyama points out, there already exist a number of “low-tech” methods to alter some aspects of human nature, such as prescription psychiatric medications. Slightly higher-tech methods are just around the corner: transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) have shown promise in boosting a whole host of cognitive functions in humans. Although psychiatric medications and neuromodulation lead to relatively transitory emotional and cognitive changes, genetic engineering and invasive neural prostheses offer the possibility to permanently alter the structure of our minds. Using various genetic manipulation methodologies, researchers have been able to create aggressive mice, smart mice, perpetually happy mice, anxious mice, autistic mice, and even turn mice’s bad memories into good ones. And using neural prostheses, scientists have been able to transmit sensorimotor information from the brain of one rat into that of another, restore lost brain function and improve short-term recall in rats, give rats the ability to sense infrared light, implant false memories into the brains of mice, and curb binge eating behavior in mice.

It’s worth noting that most of these technologies aren’t fully developed. For example, the researchers who implanted the false memory in mice did not fabricate an entirely new memory, but rather induced recall of a real event and made the mice incorrectly associate a negative emotion with that event. But all these findings point toward the direction in which science and technology are headed: as our understanding of the brain improves, so too will our ability to control it.

Is having better control over our brains – and therefore our minds – necessarily a bad thing? If abused by those in power to forcefully change the nature of those under their control, then absolutely yes. But Fukuyama isn’t suggesting that that’s the danger of cognitive enhancement. Rather, Fukuyama thinks that people shouldn’t even have the choice to alter their own minds if they so choose. He pushes against the freedom to alter one’s own mind or the minds of one’s as yet unborn children (for example by genetically engineering them to make them smarter), arguing that if people were free to use the various biotechnologies soon to be on offer, then they could alter their natures and therefore threaten that very “essence” that is the basis for human rights and political stability. At worst, to exercise the freedom to alter one’s nature could lead to such variation in human talents and behaviors as to invalidate the notion that all people are essentially of equal worth, which could lead to any of a number of undesirable political futures.

There are two substantial problems with Fukuyama’s reasoning here. The first is that it is not logically consistent to restrict people’s freedom to use future cognitive enhancers when they are already currently free to use a whole host of more “conventional” cognitive enhancers. This is the main subject of Part 2 of this series, so I will hold off developing this point until then.

The second problem is Fukuyama’s derivation of human rights from human nature. Much of his argument rests on the empirically correct assertion that humans tend to make moral judgments in an automatic, emotional way. But this is a description of how humans tend to make moral judgments, not what is the most rational way to make moral judgments. One could say that the whole point of moral philosophy is to recognize that the instinctive, emotional manner in which we make moral judgments is inconsistent at best (as in the infamous Trolley Problem) and irrational at worst.

And even though we tend to make moral judgments in a gut, emotional way, our instinctive moral emotions aren’t immune to change. As philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has pointed out, moral philosophy plays a significant role in shaping our emotional reasoning. For example, it wasn’t some fundamental aspect of human nature that led to women’s rights or the abolition of slavery. These major milestones in moral progress originated in carefully reasoned arguments by philosophers. Over time, the arguments of these philosophers made their way into public awareness and people incorporated these ideas into how they view the world. When this happens, empathy and emotion begin to play a part in rallying people around a particular ethical idea.

Take a recent example. The whole idea of animal welfare was introduced through careful philosophical reasoning in Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation. At the time, the idea that animals were worthy of any moral consideration was seen as radical and senseless even among moral philosophers. But, decades later, the animal rights movement has since grown enormously and continues to grow, gaining increasing emotional currency among the general public.

These examples show that we don’t derive rights from nature. Although we often have an emotional attachment to our moral beliefs, many of those moral beliefs originate in abstract philosophical discourse rather than in something fundamental about our psychology.

And sometimes our human nature leads to conflicting desires: when we’re slighted by someone else, one part of our mind may want to punch them while another part of our mind recognizes that punching someone is a bad idea. At its best, moral philosophy tells us what is the most moral thing to do without reference to our instinctive behaviors. If we derived ethics from human nature, as Fukuyama thinks we should, then there would be no conflict in our minds: go ahead and punch the person who insulted you. If instead we derived our ethics from good moral philosophy – from philosophy that does not assume the moral correctness of our primitive drives – then maybe you should think twice before you punch someone for insulting you.

The danger in the development of cognitive enhancers, then, does not lie in their potential to alter human nature. As long as we are capable of philosophical reasoning and as long as we are able to act on what we know is the most rational thing to do, then ethics and political order aren’t going anywhere. In fact, cognitive enhancers are likely to increase our capacity for abstract reasoning and our ability to exercise self-control – that is, after all, what they are designed to do. So Fukuyama’s worries on this front are moot.

But these technologies do, as we have seen, have the potential to alter our nature. And even though this shouldn’t worry us as far as human rights and political order are concerned, the alteration of human nature isn’t something we should take lightly. As I discuss in Part 3 of this series, the potential for these technologies to profoundly alter how we experience the world means that both personal restraint and regulatory oversight are warranted with regards to their development and proliferation, even if not for the reasons that Fukuyama imagines.

Continue onto Part 2. 

2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement: Part 1

  1. 1. Meditation is the mind changing its own nature.

    2. Will we ever be able to alter the nature of our ‘rational’ or ‘logical’ thought? That would change our philosophical thought altogether.

    3. At the end of the day, like you say, we have to be aware that any change can be seen as an enhancement or not depending on your values. What matter is a) the speed of change — since we need our social and political structures to adapt to it — and b) the uniformity of change — is it just the rich who are going to benefit?

    1. In response to your third point, the uniformity of change is actually one of Fukuyama’s main worries. Yes, the rich will most definitely be the first to access these technologies and as such will always stay ahead of the rest. But cognitive enhancers have historically become cheaper over time. Both prescription psychiatric medications and computers are forms of cognitive enhancement that were once only available to the rich and are now available to almost everyone in the developed world. So it’s not unreasonable to think that more advanced forms of enhancement will also eventually become widely available. But that’s an assumption about how the economics of these things work, which I admit I know very little about. So I could be wrong.

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