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Enhancement in Public Contexts

What a social group regards as enhancement cannot be automatically extended to any individual, anywhere, and what can be enhanced at an individual level may not necessarily be extrapolated to an entire culture or to all of humanity. This appears to be especially the case for cognitive enhancers. Still, it is likely that the quest for generic cognitive enhancers will continue. There is ongoing hope for neurological interventions that will be able to enhance anyone, anywhere, no matter what they are doing in their lives. Desires to “improve the human condition” conjure proposals for a proverbial “rising tide” of neuroscientific and neurotechnological modifications that will “raise all brains” and in so doing “elevate all minds.”

Dwelling on piece-meal contextuality rather than uniform advancement can sound like a surrender to defeatism and a victory for elitism. To be sure, elitism is a valid worry. Why should those with so much get even more—and such potent gifts, too? Those who want humanity as a whole to benefit, however, tend to make sweeping generalizations about the good of humanity and what it means to be human. But being human means many things, including the exercise of some intelligent supervision over what “the good life” shall specifically mean and what achieving the good life shall entail. Each human being is a nonstatic being-in-evolution, employing abilities to optimize survivability and flourishing both by altering environments and one’s own “being.”31-32 In this pursuit, individuals and communities query potential conditions for achieving good lives within the environs they find themselves. Queries can also eventually arise about the long-term consequences of such pursuits. It is just as natural for humans to question where their journeys are going as it is to embark on them. Looking ahead, unavoidable questions include: how much can humans be enhanced without deforming or destroying aspects of the social or natural world on which life relies? And, will human character and moral progress be sustained if hopes for enhancement become realized?

Enhancement is inevitable because humans, as a species, are exploratory and experimental. But this does not imply that obligations inherent to and derived from this experimental (and self-determining) impulse should be neglected. We have stated elsewhere and reiterate here that science and technology are human endeavors conducted in the sphere of human existence.33 Thus, there is a duty to evaluate the contexts and consequences of any such experiments. This duty applies no less to those who undergo enhancements than to those eager to apply them. In this light, setting and meeting high standards of informed consent develops far greater importance and necessity. Extending the boundaries of what is possible through the articulation of scientific knowledge and tools creates conditions of uncertainty, which are also conditions permitting closer inquiry.

The avant garde nature of brain sciences is evidently generating a host of unknowns: new questions about the brain; unpredictable consequences to novel neuroscientific techniques and technologies; and uncertainties about side effects of such interventions on the nervous system, the organism in which that nervous system is embodied, and the ecology (i.e., environment, society, culture) in which these embodied organisms are embedded and func- tion.34 However, we argue that this need not compromise current and/or future research enterprises. To the contrary; given these unknowns, we believe that continued research (inclusive of examination and re-evaluation of uses in real- world practice) is the only way to allow more thorough, detailed insight and a growing understanding of potential benefits, burdens, risks, and harms that such interventions may incur.

Responsible conduct of this research (whether in trials or through longitudinal examination of effects in use) dictates attention to what William Casebeer35: 226 has referred to as “the 3 Cs”: character, consequence, and consent. An additional “3 Cs” are called for here as well: the realistic assessment of the capacities—and limitations—of any neuroscientific and neurotechnological intervention to be used, continuities between research and clinical care of those receiving interventions,36 and due appreciation of context. Contextual re-evaluation is precisely what happens when the interdependencies among the other Cs are taken seriously. Concern for context emerges from realizing how the other 5 Cs are not just independent boxes to be checked off; each C must be regarded as mutually relevant and relative.

 
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