Performance pills for the doctor?
More and better cognitive enhancement drugs are to be expected in the near future. When using those professionals could better improve or safeguard our health and security. Yet even if these drugs are effective and medically safe, they should not become the ‘new normal’ out of concern for people’s autonomy and freedom.
Surprisingly, people’s judgment on cognitive enhancement and responsibility depends on the appearance of the drug (e.g. caffeine as a pill or in coffee). Apparently irrelevant, non-rational factors influence public debate on the issue.
Psychological, legal and philosophical researchers considered these issues, developed new moral principles, and drafted documents to inform policy. These will guide professional associations, law makers and judges in the development of new standards for the assessment of people’s actions in cases involving cognitive enhancement.
The new normal?
At the start of the project, the researchers expected that the main factors influencing whether professionals should take enhancement drugs would be
- effectiveness (whether these medications actually work)
- medical safety (what medical side effects they have)
They discovered however that a much broader set of values plays a role, such as autonomy and freedom. There is the possibility that “cognitive enhancement becomes the new normal.” This implies that we lose the ability to freely choose whether to take these drugs or not, so one of the researchers in this project warns at her TEDxSydney talk in 2014.
Would professionals be subject to greater responsibilities once enhanced? The researchers discovered that praise for good actions is indispensable in discussion about this question, not just (moral) blame for their mistakes.
Coffee or pill?
A further finding of the project is that apparently irrelevant factors influenced people’s judgments about cognitive enhancement and responsibility. For instance whether the enhancer (e.g. caffeine) takes a form normally associated with a medication (e.g. a pill) rather than something mundane or maybe even pleasant (e.g. a cup of coffee). Further empirical studies are needed on these non-rational factors in people’s attitude towards enhancement drugs. This would help future studies to distinguish them from rationally-defensible factors that do bear on responsibility-related questions.
Responsibility and mental capacity
We tend to think that people’s responsibility diminishes when mental capacities are lost and that responsibility is restored when those capacities are regained. In other words, that responsibility tracks mental capacity. For instance children, the senile, and the mentally ill are considered not to be fully responsible for their actions. But children can acquire more and/or greater responsibilities as they grow up, and responsibility is reinstated on recovery from mental illness.
The increasing availability of cognitive enhancement drugs requires us to carefully re-think the relationship between mental capacity and responsibility. The researchers:
- distinguished different senses of “responsibility”;
- highlighted similarities and differences between enhancement, treatment, and the creation of new mental capacities;
- identified numerous factors that modulate the (perceived) relationship between responsibility and mental capacity.
No professional has yet been sued for failure to cognitively enhance themselves, or for not reaching a higher standard of care while being cognitively enhanced – or at least not before or during the project. However, scientific and technological advances in the field of cognitive enhancement make this the right time, according to the researchers, to prepare society and pro-actively think ahead how we should deal with those drugs.
What are cognitive enhancement drugs? Several drugs increase the ability of people to perform – for example by helping them to focus, stay awake or learn better. In many cases these drugs were originally developed to help people with certain medical conditions, such as Ritalin (ADHD), modafinil (dementia) and donepezil (dementia). At the moment these drugs are generally still controlled substances, so most people do not have legal access to them. In addition, many of these drugs have still problematic side effects, such as elevated blood pressure, sleep problems and the risk of addiction and dependence. These two things keep people from using them on a massive scale.
cognitive enhancement, performance-enhancing drugs, safety, mental capacity, mental capacity, professionals, regulation, human enhancement, responsibility, autonomy, performance-enhancing substanceOfficial project title: