The Ethics of Boosting Brainpower

Cognitive enhancements are on the scientific horizon — ways of making our brains function better. But they will only be available to those who are able to pay for them?

The BMA (British Medical Association) have issued a discussion paper about the ethics of the development and use of cognitive enhancements, interventions such as nutritional supplements, pharmaceuticals or implants which can improve mental functioning. It recognises that developments in medical interventions used for people with problems are likely to be seized upon by healthy people in order to “improve on nature”, either for themselves or their children, as a continuation of the tendency to improve their mental functioning through providing an environment conducive to learning.

It does seem, however, as if a certain barrier is crossed when we are talking about medical interventions. But that is not what I wanted to write about here. One of the arguments the BMA cites as a reason for caution is “interconnectedness”, the fact that a difference in cognitive functioning affects all other types of functioning, e.g. the emotional and creative, and also the fact that personal choices impact on society as a whole.

I would argue that it works the other way too: what society chooses to spend money on impacts on individuals. As far as society as a whole is concerned, the most basic ways of boosting brainpower — a good diet, a reasonably stress-free life, an intellectually stimulating environment — are by no means available to all.

There are plenty of studies showing a link between cognitive functioning and poverty which need to be seriously investigated. It may be the case that the cognitive functioning of society as a whole could be enhanced by spending the research and development money in quite a different way.

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In fact it may be very difficult, morally, to justify the spending of vast sums of money to develop drugs and procedures for the very wealthiest of the world’s population to perfect themselves, rather than prioritising the fight against poverty. While there will always be richer and poorer people in any given society, when economic circumstances become a strong indicator of health and well being, it is clear that something is seriously wrong.

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