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. Continue reading

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