Prosocial enhancement

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

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3 thoughts on “Prosocial enhancement

  1. But what might count as a prosocial “outcome”? Technical advances … for a must-try-harder society?

    One wonders what a prosocial outcome could mean for any society that judges its natural position to be necessarily, eternally, inadequate.

    Look at the bigger picture, the picture beyond technical advancement. A technically biased prosocial outcome could mean abandoning self-respect for our personal limits and replacing these limits with someone else’s. It could mean building a race of sycophantic, guilt-ridden fanatics, extolling us to be what we naturally cannot.

    Abandoning personal limits and autonomy for the sake of technical advancement would be a great idea for those who would like someone else to try it out. Luckily, life is for itself: ultimately, neither Trade Unionists nor politicians would put up with the guilt-tripping advanced by moralising scientists or religioso’s.

  2. “Throw fairness out the window, and let’s see what happens.”

    I’ll have a stab at saying something evenhanded and non-obvious about this quote (lest we inch toward adopting that nauseating “progressive blog” trend of posting something that offends our sensibilities and making a string of useless angry emotes about it – whatup, P.Z. Myers!) …

    I think there *is* an interesting kernel here because what Mr. Good is suggesting (knowingly or not) is possibly a short-term fairness sacrifice for a long-term benefit in utility *and* fairness. The quote is a(n unnecessarily overstated) way of inviting us to stomach some institutionalized privilege in the hope of reaping its putative benefits.

    Here’s the irony – let’s get Rawlsian for a minute and look at two possible societies from behind that good ol’ veil of ignorance. Society A supercharges its scientists’ brains, Society B doesn’t. Modulo the pesky details of practical implementation (safety, autonomy, that kind of thing), and putting aside John Jones-style existential concerns, I’d lean toward Society A. Inasmuch as the original position is supposed to be a fairness-detecting device (or at least a way to harness our intuitions in search of a society with a healthy reasonable mix of fairness and aggregate utility), the supposed fairness deficit of Society A actually looks a little dubious.

    To be punchy about it, life’s a lot less fair in an enhancement-free world where good people can die of cancer, relative to a researcher-enhancing world where that doesn’t happen.

  3. But in a range of possible societies, why would you seek to better the health of a society that made more demands on the individual than the individual was naturally capable of giving?

    I can think of two sorts of person who might want to endorse the scientific-moral injunction to do better.

    1) Sycophancy, a common failing.
    2) To gain privilege and power through intellectual merchandising or moral authority.

    If these gain the upper social hand, then Science begins to operate with the sort of moral excess that characterizes the worst practices of certain religions.

    History is peppered with social calamities arising from moral and intellectual excess. It isn’t merely “existential” just because mankind advances by it. But then claims of “advancement” is a form of moral excess or censure.

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