This Argument Needs Cognitive Enhancement

Andrew Sullivan says this essay by Justin D. Barnard, director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, is “the most convincing case I’ve seen against cognitive enhancing drugs.” I guess that means Sullivan has yet to see a very convincing case against cognitive enhancing drugs.

Like the athlete who uses steroids, those who advocate the “responsible use” of cognitive-enhancing drugs among the healthy falsely presuppose that one or two cognitive goods among many are the most important goods among the many that constitute the life of the mind considered as a whole. They presume, in other words, that cognitive improvement (and by extension, human improvement) is exclusively a function “adding” information and “better” information processing. 

This presumption is simply false. For while the capacities to procure and to process information are indeed goods of human life, they are neither the highest of human goods nor are they ends in themselves. Yet, the use of cognitive enhancers by the healthy implicitly treats the single good at which the drug aims as though it were the most important or only good of one’s mental life considered as a whole. As our thought-experiment about robotic baseball makes clear, if merely thinking (very fast!) about lots of information were the most important or only good of the human mental life considered as a whole, why not simply replace us with computers? 

This is a blatantly poor argument. First, why is “responsible use” in scare quotes? If scare quotes can beg the question, then Barnard’s quotes are fallacious. Second, why does Barnard assert that proponents of the responsible use of cognitive-enhancing druges “presuppose that one or two cognitive goods among many are the most important goods among the many that constitute the life of the mind considered as a whole.” Who presupposes this? No one, I hazard. So what’s the point of this exercise?

This morning, like every morning, I had some coffee. I wasn’t thinking of it in quite these terms, but “cogntive enhancement” was part of my aim. I daresay I use coffee responsibly, but in doing so I presuppose nothing in particular about “mental life considered as a whole.” I recently bought new running shoes, which I certainly hope will (responsibly!) enhance my ability to run, but I do not therefore presuppose that the single good of physical life as a whole is to run as fast as possible. You can do lots of things with your body. You can do lots of things with your mind. Why not do them a little better? 

Does the fact that I would like to run faster imply that I ought to be replaced by my dog, who runs faster than me, or by my car, which moves faster than either of us? Does my interest in personal speed enhancement imply I should replace my dog with a cheetah, or my Honda with a Maserati? I’d think not. I want to run, so the point is to enhance my physical performance. I want to write an essay, so I use caffeine and methylphenidate to help me maintain my otherwise fragile focus. What do robots have to do with anything. Does Bernard really suppose that there is someone somewhere sitting around longing to maximize something or other’s information processing. That I am sleepy and I would like to stay alert implies the desire to be made obsolete by sleepless machines? 

Is there something special about drugs? A calorically sufficient, well-balanced diet is cognitively enhancing. A slide-rule is an effective mental prosthetic, not to mention a computer. Reading is utterly unnatural and learning to do it is a big cognitive upgrade. So is, for that matter, taking an elementary principles of reasoning course. Perhaps the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship should offer one. I’m sure they could manage to do it responsibly.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

38 thoughts

  1. Isn't “responsible use” in quotations because Henry is responding to the article in Nature entitled “Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy”? I haven't the desire to pay to read the article, but I have a feeling it might answer Will's second question as well. Sometimes you should follow the links.

  2. I followed the link. The article is about using certain drugs responsibly. The quote marks around “responsible use” are clearly rhetorical. He does not similarly put quotes around “cognitive enhancement.” He is arguing by punctuation, which is dumb.

  3. Here's what my gut says about people who make arguments like this. Some people are very prudish about drugs. Whatever the explanation, some percentage of folks hate altering their consciousness (even in productive ways), cannot understand why others want to do this, and correspondingly want to prevent others from doing so. I think this is a gut feeling for them, not one brought on by careful reflection.

  4. I am somewhat prudish (really just highly risk averse) to altering my consciousness via chemicals I'm not used to. I don't want to prevent others from doing so. Mostly the reason I don't is that when I would is during a high-pressure situation (like finals period, which I am distracting myself from at the moment) and during that time is when I am most risk averse about my cognitive ability.Unrelated: Will, what do you think about J.L. Mackie's argument from queerness against objective morality?

  5. Interesting. I think he relies too heavily on the Humean doubt in making the argument from queerness, and that he's unlikely to be persuasive to anybody but a strict empiricist.You don't happen to be a strict empiricist do you?

  6. I expect Wilkinson eats (some) Empiricists for breakfast. The good bishop Berkeley was excessively credulous and gullible for his taste, and should have doubted more.But, WW, I wonder: Does the embryonic, morally-relativistic, WIlkinsonian moral realism raise argument-from-queerness problems? As I gather, you think moral language does (or can?) refer, truthfully, to something real — complex solutions to coordination problems designed to facilitate certain basic elements of human flourishing — and so can be understood through something like a traditional realism. The view rests on (contestable) psychological views about the nature and function of moral beliefs. But assuming those problems are soluble, aren't you saying that there exist complex relational properties that depend on the precise characteristics of human psychology and that moral language refers truthfully (or not) to these properties? Doesn't that commit you to the view that there exists a weird sort of morally significant entity that springs into being only when natural selection churns out beings with sufficiently refined linguistic, technological, and cultural capacities? I'm inclined to say “no,” but I think that answer might commit you to a (quasi-?) realism about the referents of any apparently objective language describing goal-oriented rational behavior. Don't get me wrong — I think your views are incredibly interesting, and in line with a lot of what I've been thinking for some time. And I think you're right that the fact of moral disagreement and debate, and its (apparent) intersubjectivity, is an enormously important fact to which rrealists too often pay no attention whatever. (Incidentally, I think there are interesting readings of Hume that could be useful here, but that may be the pernicious influence of Richard Fumerton talking. I should revisit the Treatise.)Not unrelated: What think you of Simon Blackburn?

  7. Depends on what you mean by “strict”. I agree with Mackie that moral language, understood in a commonsense way, seems to imply a bunch of stuff that's just ridiculous.

  8. What a peculiar argument. Building your strength so as to better play baseball implies that the goal of baseball is to be be strong. Really? Barnard seems to think that there aren't such things as instrumental goals, only terminal goals- or he thinks enhancement advocates think thus. It's amusing to roll this kind of objection backwards in time- imagine cavemen Wilk and Barn:WILK: Barn, I've found these two rocks that you can bang together and make fire! No more rubbing sticks for hours to cook dinner!BARN: Wilk foolish, point of fire-making not to get done fast. Point of fire-making to eat good food, share stories, bring warmth and community!WILK: Yes, but now we can do all those things more eas…BARN: No! Wilk not understand existential meaning of fire-making. How can life have meaning if no struggle for fire for hours and hours?Higher goals can't be served by the satisfaction of subordinate aims. Acting to better (or more easily) satisfy subordinate aims must (must!) debase the higher goal. That sounds like not only a (bad) argument for stopping enhancement studies, but also a (bad) argument in favor of cognitive diminishment studies. Just think of how much we'd appreciate a home run then!

  9. I'd agree with that sentiment, but it doesn't speak to why the argument from queerness would be powerful. The argument has power to the extent that moral language even carefully constructed implies a very strange way of perceiving things. At least that it's implied to the extent that the moral language has any objective truth.Another response to the queerness coming from commonsense moral language is to say that while it is in error, there is some other thesis that is not in error.You might want to take a look at “Moral realism and the sceptical arguments from disagreement and queerness” by David Brink, which I think makes a persuasive case against Mackie. Sorry no link, it's a highly gated journal article.

  10. I don't think that the property of morality has to spring into existence when rational beings evolve. A dog or an ant can do what is morally correct for a dog or an ant to do. It may be the case that pre-rational animals cannot make that choice, so the question of what choices they ought to make is irrelevant, even if it's fully answerable.

  11. I increasingly think ordinary moral discourse is hopelessly incoherent. There are, say, systems of norms that optimally facilitate cooperation leading to health, wealth, and happpiness, but I don't think morality “in the wild” is primarily about this. (It is about cooperation, in part, but it is also about fucking over nonconformists and outsiders, and you can try to put that on the procrustean bed of cooperation, but why?) I think there are facts about what systems of norms best produce certain desirable results. That's just obviously true. But almost no one would say of my favorite system, were I to lay it out, “Hey! That's morality!” I wish that system was morality though–that it had its heft and prestige. So in that sense I am, oh I don't know, a prospective moral realist? I think moral language has an intense motivating capacity, and that the fight over the use of emotively loaded terms (Rorty calls it “cultural politics”) is inevitable and desirable. So I am happy to take part in the unavoidable revisionist game of fighting over the content of moral concepts until their content starts to fit the system of norms I think we'd be best off to follow. Anyway, the only weird entities I believe in are the ones scientists tell me they can't do without. Why are we talking about this in this thread?

  12. I suspect talking about dog or ant morality stretches an analogy past its breaking point.

  13. Oh, Blackburn… Projectivism is a decent account of moral phenomenology, I think.I get confused by the entire realism/anti-realism debate, though. I can't figure out why it matters.

  14. Ah, I wish I could be more help, but it's been a while since I read the text closely. I remember liking the spirit of Mackie's positive revisionist account.

  15. There are two main strands to his argument, metaphysically he claims that moral truth leads us to a strangely motivational existing thing which represents morality. I think his argument for this is loaded with some pretty strong metaphysical claims that make his argument for it unlikely to persuade any actual moral realists.His epistemological claim, that any mechanism we have for knowing morality would have to be unacceptably queer is much more powerful I think.

  16. I had thought, based on your bloggingheads conversations with Jonathan Haidt and Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, that you preferred liberal norms because they lead to health, wealth, and happiness. And that you were unwilling to embrace a total moral skepticism, as Haidt does (more or less), because morality “in the wild” is designed to facilitate health, wealth, and happiness. In the ancestral evolutionary environment, where trust was enormously more expensive than it is today, and where the consequences of falsely trusting were disastrous, punishing dissidents and foreigners may have facilitated health, wealth, and happiness too. Now it doesn't, so we should junk patriotism, authoritarianism, and the varied obsessions with purity. Even if first-order moral discourse is incoherent, I think using morality's original function or purpose as a reason to shape moral discourse, self-consciously and for apparently moral reasons, commits you to a number of other views. Do I misunderstand the view? Or have you decided to toss overboard any concern for morality's evolutionary function and concentrate solely on the preference for health, wealth, and happiness, or even — gasp! — embrace Haidt's global skepticism?To return to the topic of this thread: I agree that the argument Sullivan links to is, indeed, very poorly reasoned.

  17. I think you left out the best part of the story, in which caveman Leon Kass appears, seizes two sticks from Wilk, rubs them together, looks at Wilk with a truly astonishing intensity, and says, with that gravelly voice: “Hear the testimony of the kindling sticks!”

  18. I don't see how Mackie's argument rests on any strict empiricism. It should convince any ontological naturalist, regardless of their epistemology. I haven't studied the queerness argument in a long while, maybe I'm missing something.

  19. The problem is that if you take the argument as debilitating to things which are exceedingly queer, it isn't obvious why a host of other things, such as causality, memory, induction, etc aren't also highly queer. Reject enough of those non-physical entities and you are quickly on the road to Hume-style empiricism.At one point in the original argument from “Ethics: Inventing right and Wrong,” he makes reference to what -in the world- is moral causality. But the manner in which he does it brings into question why any causality would meet his standard.

  20. This is fascinating! Sort of makes me feel that I spent too much time in the wrong fields. Economics is nowhere as interesting as this discussion.

  21. He might have said:”For while the capacities to paint one's face and nails are indeed goods of human life, they are neither the highest of human goods nor are they ends in themselves. Yet, the use of cosmetics by the healthy implicitly treats the single good at which the product aims as though it were the most important or only good of one’s physical life considered as a whole.”

  22. If you say that our moral intuitions are now obsolete, so we now have to “start over” and retrain moral intuitions to maximize flourishing in the current environment, who's to say we shouldn't “start over” more radically? Should we accept that one day computers should replace us as the “most important moral agent”? (because, say, one day they will be better than us at all this stuff). When we start over, with what values are we starting over? Or how radically to start over. Whose well-being and flourishing do we wish to maximize? Only human well-being and flourishing? Or is it the well-being and flourishing of life or of moral agents more generally?

  23. Thank you so much for responding to that truly stupid argument. When he complained about people in favor of performance enhancers as being reductionists, I laughed out loud. Then I cried at the thought of all the people that would read him uncritically because of Andrew. The resulting depression was too extreme. I simply couldn't gather up the energy to point out the many, many problems with the post. I am grateful someone else did. Cheers.

  24. Thanks for this much-needed rebuttal. I think the mysticism of Easter weekend must have momentarily dulled Andrew's usual intellectual acuity, making him more susceptible to lofty-sounding, natural law-type rubbish arguments. Barnard's article reminded me very much of my med school bioethics course, taught by a Dominican priest known to his students as Father O'Pinion. When I got to the end of the article, I was surprised to see that he's an associate professor of philosophy, but when I read the bit about the “Institute for Intellectual Discipleship,” it all started to make sense.

  25. I have to agree with the crowd here that Barnard's argument isn't really that strong. However, I think there is something to be said for acting with a little more caution when it comes to 'cognitive enhancement.' As a neuroscientist, not that that necessarily qualifies me as an authority, I have to tell you that we don't have any freaking clue how our brains really work and even less about how all of these various substances might affect the long-term functioning of the organic circuitry that gives us the ability to think in the first place. Everything you put into your body can literally alter the phsical structure of your brain–as Will points out even a balanced diet could be called a 'cognitive enhancer.' Sure coffee (or the other worn-out example, Ritalin) is great, but are you sure that it's not selectively enhancing some mental processes at the expense of others, and is your brain going to be plastic enough to regain them later on if need be after years of underuse? I don't really have a problem with the idea of 'cognitive enhancement', but with how we can, again, 'responsibly' put it into practice. Of course it would be great to have a better memory for facts, or a greater working memory load, or a heightened ability to recognize patterns, or a better integration of auditory and visual input, or a more refined ability to direct my attention. Due to our brains' remarkable plasticity, humans have always had a way to go about doing this–training and repetition, which we've formalized with schools. The use of pharmaceuticals as cognitive enhancers is–at this point–merely to accelerate this learning process. Will it always be such? For me, the main problem with the use of drugs for cognitive enhancement, aside from our utter ignorance of their full effects, is not the drugs themselves but our education system. Depending on your family and cultural upbringing, there are many ways we define success in school, but our current system holds test scores up as the ultimate measure, and the use of standardized testing is only growing. You can go elsewhere for a full take-down of the sheer idiocy of this, but we've made a single way of thinking the “best” way for an entire generation. And then there's the ever-increasing pressure to “succeed,” get into the “right” college, and the valuation of certain careers (law, medicine–thankfully finance may not be on the list anymore) well above others. Throw the additional selecting pressure of long-term use of cognitive enhancing drugs into this mess and to me it's a recipe for a generation of homogeneous thinkers. Will they still retain that most powerful of human cognitive abilities that allowed us to populate the entire planet and flourish in the face of all its varied and constantly changing dangers–creativity?

  26. I read this thing and thought it was just as full of holes in logic as you did. I was going to write something up, but you did a much better job summarizing my critiques than I ever could. Nicely done!The one thing I would add is that this line was also particularly bad: “And this would be the case even if one conceded what is most assuredly dubious—namely, that public policy could be crafted and enforced so as to minimize the deleterious effects of the widespread distribution and use of such drugs.”As if the current public policy of making them illegal is effective in stopping usage and doesn't have the deleterious effect of turning many otherwise law abiding citizens into outlaws purchasing drugs of unknown quality over the internet. Cough,, cough.

  27. This is a great post. I'm very glad this has been said. You make a better arguement than Bernard, but ultimately a healthy, informed adult should be able to make these choices for themselves. Creativity may be useful for some professions and not for others, and if these drugs surpress creativity (which I am not convinced of) then someone can choose not to use them. If I have 5 units of work to do today and 10 units of time to do it, and normally I finish one unit work/unit time, then I have 5 units of time to persue other creative activities. If these drugs help me complete one unit work in 0.5 units time, that leaves much more time to persue these these. Assuming one works because they have to (not because they want or enjoy it) as I do, thats a win in my book.

  28. Totally. Adults absolutely should be able to make these choices for themselves. What I'm worried about here, though, are the high school kids who don't have the same freedoms and have other parental and societal pressures to deal with. Also, their brains are still going through rapid developmental changes and drugs like these could potentially interfere with those normal processes, affecting them later in life. Creativity is basically having mental flexibility–being able to imagine more than one way to do something. When you're conditioning yourself (even without drugs) to think in one particular mode, say every day at work, then you're strengthening those pathways and not spending time strengthening others. Having free time is great, but how are you going to spend it if your creative pathways are so under-utilized? In any case, creativity was just one example of a way of thinking that could potentially be sacrificed for, say, fact memory. There are certainly other mental faculties that could be adversely affected, or maybe there are none. The point is that we really don't know enough, either about the drugs or about the brain to really have make an informed decision.

  29. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't want to better ourselves. If natural evolution is so slow, maybe we should try to upgrade ourselves. The time will come when science and medicine will advance enough to eliminate all negative side effects and everybody will be able to buy steroids online or anti aging hormones with no risk. There are a lot of moral arguments against doing that but the truth is, anyone wants a longer life, a better body and mind.

  30. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't want to better ourselves. If natural evolution is so slow, maybe we should try to upgrade ourselves. The time will come when science and medicine will advance enough to eliminate all negative side effects and everybody will be able to buy steroids online or anti aging hormones with no risk. There are a lot of moral arguments against doing that but the truth is, anyone wants a longer life, a better body and mind.

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