Sunday, June 17, 2012

The following is a series of quotations from a scientific/philosophical article that I recently read about some of the impending ethical issues of human enhancement technology, pertaining particularly to cognitive enhancement in this specific case. The quotations occur in the paper in the order that they are listed below; I have simply removed the examples and extraneous elaboration. I apologize in advance for the unconventional quotation format, but Blogger's quick-formatting options are limited and right now I do not feel like struggling with mark-up text, nor do I feel like presenting the quotes "properly" in one huge paragraph full of disorienting ellipses. Regardless:

"Another worry is that all the possibilities offered by cognitive enhancement might lead us to view those people with below-average cognitive ability as diseased, rather than as part of the normal human spectrum of abilities."

"...included in this group of people will be those whose cognitive functioning falls so far below the average that society deems them incapable of making important life decisions - such as where to live and what to do with their lives - which must instead be delegated to a carer. Cognitive enhancement could enable these people to gain autonomy over their own lives; however, given their impaired cognitive abilities, it is probable that they would be deemed incapable of consenting to receive enhancing treatment."

"That enhancing treatment should be withheld from severely cognitively-impaired people might be seen as a consequence of our current way of thinking about medicine. According to this way of thinking, it is acceptable to treat a severely cognitively-impaired person for conditions recognised as diseases or injuries, such as cancer or a broken leg, despite the fact that he is incapable of giving consent. Generally, we believe that such treatment is acceptable because it is in the person’s best interests; whereas leaving him untreated would be contrary to his best interests. On the other hand, it is not clear that an avoidable enhancement, such as a facelift, would be in his best interests. Since very low intelligence, like having facial wrinkles, is not universally recognised as a disease state, it is questionable on the current medical model whether it serves the best interests of a cognitively-impaired person to undergo cognitive enhancement treatment."

"This medical model, according to which treatment for disease is seen as necessary whereas enhancement is seen as gratuitous, is arguably outdated."

"Moving away from a model that associates medical treatment with disease would enable cognitively-impared people to recieve enhancing treatment without committing ourselves to the view that such people are diseased."

[Nick Bostrom and Rebecca Roache, Ethical Issues in Human Enhancement, New Waves in Applied Ethics, 2008, pages 16-17]


  1. Hmm. I can't say that I know much about this topic, but the author does make some well-reasoned points. It's a very fine line. Their first statements speaks of viewing people with below-average intelligence as diseased...which is disrespectful and limiting for those people. On the other hand, the medical model requires that level of intelligence to be defined as a disease in order to necessitate treatment. It strikes me as a Catch-22. Do you have the same impression?

    1. It's definitely a catch-22 as it is now. But what the authors are saying is that the medical model needs to be revised so that we are not committed to viewing people of low intelligence as diseased. The current medical model is committed to the treatment of disease and injury. It has an almost all-encompassing "therapy" focus. And that's great, don't get me wrong, but it is philosophically limiting. In order to treat people in situations where they are unable to provide consent, their condition must qualify as a potentially damaging disease or injury.

      The authors are saying that the medical model needs to be revised to focus on the promotion of general well-being, rather than focusing exclusively on treatment, because the general promotion of well-being includes the treatment of disease and injury. If this can be done, enhancement technology will begin to become more commonplace and acceptable, and we can use the technology to increase the quality of peoples' lives without having to believe that their previous states were conditions that required treatment.

      Maybe I'm just repeating exactly what the authors said, but the point is that yes, it is a catch-22, and it will be until people start thinking about the ethics of the model itself rather than the ethics of the technology used in the field.