July 1, 2022

Are cognitive neuroenhancing drugs ethical? German ethicists say No

The near frontier of human enhancement is coffee on steroids: the drugs of the future that will make you smarter, sharper and quicker. This is misguided and risks being unethical, argue four German ethicists in the latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics.

The near frontier of human enhancement is coffee on steroids: the drugs of the future that will make you smarter, sharper and quicker. Even now, a quarter of American students are said to use psychostimulants. About 5% of workers in Germany use pharmaceutical drugs to enhance their cognitive functions. A survey in Nature once revealed that many American scientists regularly use ritalin and modafinil. This has led some bioethicists to advocate research into cognitive neuroenhancement as a matter of urgency.

This is misguided and risks being unethical, argue four German ethicists at the International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities at the University of Tübingen in the latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics. They contend that the neuroenhancers are wrong on two counts.

First, the assumption that a non-addictive drug will appear is probably false. The latest research suggests that “the neuronal correlates of key cognitive concepts, such as learning and memory, are so deeply connected with mechanisms implicated in the development and maintenance of addictive behaviour so that modification of these systems may inevitably run the risk of addiction to the enhancing drugs”.

Coffee is often cited as a neuroenhancer which is harmless and has no ethical drawbacks. However, coffee does not work in the same way as these drugs: “there is a neurobiologically definable difference that is highly relevant to addiction medicine between coffee consumption and the use of drugs such as modafinil, which indicates the addictive potential of the latter. Coffee and neuroenhancers are not the same.”

Second, its supporters believe that neuroenhancement poses no moral challenges, especially if, as they assume, the drugs are unlikely to be addictive. However, the danger of addiction is so great and so proximate and the potential benefits are so remote and hypothetical that on balance, it would be immoral even to conduct clinical trials.

For instance, although drugs might raise IQ, and therefore productivity and social success. But IQ in developed countries is rising anyway. Why risk addiction? On another level, there would almost certainly be great social pressure to use neuroenhancers. Refuseniks would be forced into lowly-paid jobs or would be forced to compromise their principles.

With all these dangers in mind, the German ethicists argue that the research into the benefits of neuroenhancers is simply too dangerous to waste precious research funds on it. 

Michael Cook
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