Over at The Atlantic website, they have a special section called The Ideas Report which is chock full of interesting thoughts about ‘the themes that shape our times’. Chris Good, a staff editor at the Atlantic.com recently posted a piece entitled, “Give Scientists Performance-Enhancing Drugs”. The ideas in the article are, to put it delicately, a bit problematic. There are many issues that Chris raises which I disagree with, but I will limit my comments to a few choice items.
The essential message of the piece is that sometimes it might be good for society as a whole to have a subset of people take cognitive enhancers. Chris trots out the ‘unfair advantage’ argument, but then dismisses it with the following logic:
“But for scientists and researchers, particularly those working on medical advancements, things are different. They’re working for the public good. Fairness matters less. If one biochemist or physicist “cheats” to gain an edge over a rival research lab, university department, or grant competitor, it may be unethical, but we should be willing to forgive if it means one less day on earth with incurable cancer or massive emissions of carbon gas.”
This argument might stand as a nice little bit of consequentialist thinking, but for the naive notion that scientists are all working for the public good. It is true that many scientists do so (that is one reason why the public often holds them up as paragons of virtue), but it is hardly the case that arc of scientific progress is monolithic, or that every discovery leads inexorably towards a cure for cancer. But Chris is prepared to carry out an experiment, with scientists as the guinea pigs. He concludes by suggesting:
Throw fairness out the window, and let’s see what happens.
I don’t even know what to say about that comment.
At least Chris suggests that we give scientists some say in the matter, telling us that “we should encourage our scientists to experiment, if they so desire.” Just exactly how we should, on the one hand, encourage scientists to experiment on themselves while still allowing them to maintain their autonomy is not explained. Or even hinted at. Or, I suspect, thought through. Scientists in the academic world are under tremendous competitive pressure for grants, for space in elite publications, for tenure, for laboratory space, for just about everything. If Chris’ suggestion were to be followed to its logical conclusion, the competitive pressure would increase substantially (I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that they would go postal, like Amy Bishop did, but still…). Aficionados will recognize the coercion bogeyman lurking behind this door, and really, we probably don’t need to encourage anyone to do such things.
But there is an interesting kernel in Chris’ argument, which is worth pondering insofar as it sheds light on the larger issue that Chris (seemingly inadvertently) has stumbled upon. Should we as a society countenance enhancement by some segments of our society if we view it to be prosocial?
One obvious rejoinder is that this smacks of social engineering, is an affront to liberty (whether one is a libertarian or not), and suffers from the same sort of logic that got eugenics in trouble many decades ago, and more recently forced sociobiology to rebrand itself as evolutionary psychology.
But the prosocial argument with respect to enhancement, which Chris makes rather clumsily, is actually an interesting one, and it very well may be that people are consequentialists when it comes to such issues, balancing their moral judgements in light of the outcome for society as a whole. We have a series of experiments underway which probe this question in systematic fashion, and while it will be some months before we have results, in the interim I would be most interested in hearing what our readers think of this general argument.
Link to Chris Good’s article “Give Scientists Performance-Enhancing Drugs”
Link to Amy Bishop going postal
Image Credit: KnowledgeRush