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Toward a More Banal Neuroethics


The prospect of enhancing ourselves is exciting. It excites both attraction and repulsion. It opens up vistas that previously featured only in dreams: the promise that we might acquire powers that we had attributed to the gods of myth. For many people, this represents a great opportunity, or an opportunity for greatness. For many others, these same vistas are profoundly disturbing. For these people, cognitive enhancement does not promise godlike powers; rather, it threatens our humanity. For them, cognitive enhancement risks making us less, not more, than human.

Erik Parens1 has insightfully connected these two attitudes to two impulses that have played a major role in modernist (and postmodernist, if there is any such thing2) thought, although for Parens the attitudes themselves, and the conflict between them, is much older, finding expression in the very first book of the Bible. These impulses can be seen in the conflicting understandings of the paradigmatically modern ideal of authenticity. Whereas what Charles Taylor3 calls the “boosters” of modernity understand authenticity as self-creation, the knockers of modernity understand it to require being true to a pre-existing self. Both these attitudes are characteristically modern (the knockers’ opposition to modernity is itself as characteristically a modern attitude as the boosters promotion of it). Noting that both attitudes are deeply modern, Parens points to what both sides share. Each is attached to the characteristically modern ideal of authenticity, albeit they understand authenticity differently. Moreover, adherents of each do not find the values and attitudes of the other either unfamiliar or entirely unattractive. Modernity boosters— who from now on I will refer to as optimists—operate out of what Parens calls the creativity framework, which emphasizes our obligation to transform life, whereas knockers—who from now on I will call pessimists—operate out of the gratitude framework, which emphasizes our obligation to be grateful for what we have been given. But although each operates out of this framework, if we are honest, we will admit that we are each quite comfortable in both, although typically more comfortable in one than the other. Both frameworks resonate with us. The conflicts of modernity are not merely between thinkers; they are internal to each of us.

I believe that Parens is right in claiming that both frameworks resonate to some extent with each of us. Unlike Parens, however, I think they are very deeply modern attitudes; attitudes that are deeply constitutive of we moderns. Although both attitudes no doubt have premodern roots, they become central only in modernity. The optimistic impulse that leads to embracing cognitive enhancement is recognizably a descendant of Enlightenment faith in progress and rationality and, even more closely, of the celebration of technology that characterized the science of the Victorian era and the art of the Italian futurists. The suspicious attitude of the pessimists is just as recognizably a descendant of the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, with its celebration of nature, of tradition, and of the wisdom of the ages. Optimism and pessimism both find powerful artistic expression in the modern novel and contemporary cinema, thereby illustrating how both resonate with all of us. The utopias of the optimists and the dystopias of the pessimist find ready audiences; often the very same audience. So deeply ingrained in all of us are these conflicting attitudes that many successful films, for instance, combine both in uneasy tension. The Frankenstein myth warns against the dangers of meddling with the natural order, thereby communicating the pessimistic attitude, but it owes much of its fascination to its depiction of what might, just, be technologically possible.

Given how deeply these two attitudes resonate with we moderns, a kind of ambivalence is the predicable response to the prospect of powerful new technologies. We should expect most of us to feel strongly about technologies that seem to promise to transform us: many of us will be strongly attracted, many strongly repelled, and many—perhaps most—strongly attracted and repelled (depending on temperament and the extent to which we have been shaped by the conflicting myths of modernity). For Parens, these facts entail that we have an obligation to give expression to both impulses. For him, both frameworks demand equal respect, and we are required to balance both. None of us genuinely inhabits only one framework; moving between them, being ambivalent, is itself the thoughtful and authentic response.

It is, however, one thing to say that both frameworks resonate with each of us and quite another to say that each is intellectually respectable. Our attitudes are the product of a messy mix of enculturation and innate dispositions; that we have them tells us something about our history and our culture, not about their truth. To see this, we need only to note that for us contemporaries, negative implicit attitudes toward people of other races and to women and homosexuals resonate with most of us (even with women and homosexuals) at the same time that we are explicitly committed to equality regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation.4 Clearly, it is false that the conflicting attitudes are each equally worthy of respect, that the thoughtful person ought to move between them, seek to balance them or to see wisdom in ambivalence. That both sides resonate with each of us does nothing to show that truth is not decisively on only one side.

Elsewhere,5 I have suggested that what Parens calls the “gratitude framework” has empirical commitments that are false; the truth lies decisively on the creativity side (although I also believe that many of the claims that have been justified on the basis of the gratitude framework are in fact true: a false framework may sometimes lead to true claims). Neither side has a monopoly on truth in its particular claims, but one side only operates out of a justifiable framework. In this chapter, however, I want to make a different claim, one that should be acceptable to proponents of both sides (and indeed to those who think that ambivalence has its merits): the fact that we experience the conflict to which Parens points is a significant obstacle to the neuroethical assessment of new technologies. The ambivalence that these technologies trigger in us makes us especially bad at coming to a proper view of their merits and dangers. For this reason, I will suggest, we ought to avoid triggering this ambivalence rather than (as Parens suggests) embracing it.

The profound ambivalence to which Parens points is a reflexive response to the new and the unfamiliar. Once a technology comes to be widely used, in fact, both reflexively generated attitudes fade. The familiar, with its all too accustomed powers and limitations, no longer holds out the promise of a novel transformation and no longer triggers optimistic fascination. It is taken for granted, its presence is seen as natural and inevitable, and it no longer arouses pessimistic fears (think of the way that Heidegger6 explicitly contrasts bridges with the products of “technology”).

Optimism and pessimism track novelty and the unknown, not genuine transformative possibilities nor genuine dangers. Technologies become familiar and monotonous despite their genuine transformative power and despite the enormous harms they might bring (sometimes, in a single package, they bring both: the internal combustion engine has transformed our sense of space, quite literally reshaping urban environments and making international travel routine, and it has contributed very significantly to what seems likely to be catastrophic climate change, yet we feel neither the appropriate awe nor the appropriate fear at its use and ubiquity). The history of our recent responses to technology therefore warrants the following induction: any genuinely or apparently novel technology will trigger the optimistic and pessimistic attitudes, one or the other in each of us, and both in many. These reactions will be strong. And they will be unreliable.

Rather than thinking, with Parens, that because both attitudes resonate with us both ought to be respected, the induction suggests that neither should be respected. We ought to set them aside, just because they are the expected responses to novelty rather than to anything specific about the technology under consideration. But a further conclusion follows, too: setting them aside will be extremely difficult because the attitudes will play a subterranean role in our attempts to assess the technologies on their merits.

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