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Cognitive Enhancement. A Confucian Perspective from Taiwan



In recent decades, human enhancement has become a topic hotly debated in academia.1 Similar to the field of thanatology, which addresses death, dying, homicide, suicide, euthanasia, and assisted suicide, the scholarship in human enhancement is broad in its scope and deep in its subtleties. The line between disease treatment and enhancement as improvement is blurring.2 All the human developmental stages, including prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal, are potential timings for enhancement. In contrast to physical enhancement and longevity enhancement, which have their own subdivisions, mind and behavioral enhancement can be further categorized into cognitive enhancement, moral enhancement, mood enhancement, and more.3,4 As we focus on cognitive enhancement, a nonexhaustive list of the variety of technologies utilized in the broadest sense may include genetic management, education, mental training, physical exercise, social institutions, information technology, food nutrients, psychoactive drugs, and other neurotechnologies such as brain-machine interfaces, transcranial magnetic stimulation, or direct current stimulation.5,6

Almost everyone wants to be smart, but how we get there matters. Debates are vigorous about the ethical permissibility of cognitive enhancement through these new technologies, and a few of the issues included in these discourses are autonomy, liberty, human nature, authenticity, playing gods, hyperagency, fairness/justice, and risk-safety assessments. Basically, most of the ethical discourses about cognitive enhancement are constructed by scholars in Western countries. With rare exception, even most of the empirical data about cognitive enhancement also originates from Western countries. To enrich the ethical and empirical inquiry into cognitive enhancement, it is important to explore how, in different cultures, different styles of thinking—such as Confucianism—might bring forth a different insight into this issue. This might enhance the quality of debate as governments struggle to construct a technology policy of cognitive enhancement with cultural sensitivity.

The meaning of cognitive enhancement is vague and ambiguous in the literature. Different definitions of cognitive enhancement may have different discourse implications. For example, if we recognize enhancement only in contrast to medicine, enhancement technology will be somewhat extraordinary; if we simply take enhancement as methods for betterment, then enhancement technology may become trivial.6 However, for the purpose of this chapter, which links cognitive enhancement to the Confucian discourse, it is necessary to adopt the second interpretation of enhancement since the contrast between enhancement and medical treatment is not a major theme in Confucianism. As regards the scope of cognitive functions in cognitive enhancement, memory, perception, attention, information processing (including reasoning and decision-making), and intelligence will all be included. Some scholars define cognitive enhancement broadly and include cognition, emotion, and motiva- tion.7 However, to a Confucian understanding of cognitive enhancement, self-cultivation (xio shen) as an important way to enhance virtues in oneself in the Confucian discourse actually includes both knowledge and morality aspects. Therefore, the chapter will address moral enhancement as part of the Confucian conceptualization of cognitive enhancement.

In the second section, the chapter delineates briefly the major arguments for and against cognitive enhancement and addresses the need for a Confucian perspective. In the trend of globalized individualistic bioethics (or neuroethics specifically), Confucian theories can enrich ways of seeing and managing issues of cognitive enhancement. In the third section, the chapter reviews the current Confucian discussions on human enhancement (e.g., genetic enhancement) and the variety of Confucian reasoning therein. Although some scholars argue that there is basic tension between biotechnology and Confucian values, other scholars argue that with provisos and limitations Confucians will be open to adopting human enhancement. Bundling the Confucian discourses on human nature, self-cultivation, and harmony, the fourth section explores what a Confucian ethic for cognitive enhancement might look like. When neurotechnology can be used for self-cultivation in ways harmonious with humanity and nature, Confucians will see no reasons why cognitive enhancement should be prohibited. In a democratic society, the public attitudes’ toward technology is important for policy-making. The fifth section describes the results of a public survey in Taiwan regarding whether cognitive enhancement is acceptable. Although Taiwan has a Confucian cultural heritage, not all Taiwanese people are deeply influenced by Confucianism, whether knowingly or unknowingly. The majority of those surveyed disagree that cognitive enhancement is acceptable to society or for self-cultivation. The author explores possible reasons for these results. In conclusion, based on literature review and empirical data in Taiwan, the author proposes Confucian incremental policy-making for cognitive enhancement in the interim.

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