The future of perfection

By Eric Mathison

Julian sat on the second floor of the Taylor Family Digital Library. He had been there nine hours, was planning to stay until the building closed, go home to study until the early morning, maybe sleep for a couple hours, then return to campus to write his engineering final. Two days before, he had spent over 40 hours in the TFDL without leaving– the library was open continuously to afford students extra study time during finals.

Julian, which isn’t his real name, and I met that day when I asked him if he knew where I could buy Adderall or Ritalin, two drugs commonly used to help people study better. After flashing a look that suggested he was more annoyed with the interruption than that I was asking him to break the law, he pulled out an unmarked bottle and asked how many I wanted. Julian was the second person I had to ask, and it took me just over 10 minutes to find some Ritalin, including the time it took to buy a coffee.

For an article on athletic doping in Sports Illustrated in 1997, the authors asked Olympic athletes the following question: “If you were given a performance-enhancing substance and you would not be caught, win all competitions for five years, then die, would you take it?” To the surprise and worry of many, over 50 per cent of the athletes said that they would take the drug.

Imagine that a similar drug could exist for academics, so that we could ask the best in every academic field the analogous question: If you were offered a drug that would cause you to achieve the height of academic success in your field (Nobel prize, Fields Medal, Pulitzer), but you would die within five years, would you take it? How important is that type of success?

The athletic and academic scenarios are both hypothetical. No drug exists that can ensure success to such a degree in either athletics or academia. But while most people are aware that performance-enhancing drugs are available to athletes, the popularity of drugs that improve mental performance– cognitive enhancers– is much less publicized. A researcher at the University of Kentucky found that over half of third- and fourth-year students at that school had used cognitive enhancers like Ritalin or Adderall. At the most competitive schools, those numbers are much higher.

We have crossed a threshold. Drugs that can improve memory, creativity and attention are no longer science fiction. The difference between the above scenario and current reality is that neither the payoff nor the danger is so great, but both payoff and danger do exist.

With drugs that were developed to help alleviate conditions like Alzheimer’s and narcolepsy but are being used by healthy individuals, we are only in the first phase of cognitive enhancement. If pharmaceutical companies began developing drugs for the explicit purpose of enhancing cognition, society would undergo a dramatic transformation.

Many are worried about this prospect. Huxleyian fears spring to mind, with different classes of people based on intelligence the end result. Or, because intelligence development will proceed in tandem with physical development, people worry that the result will be something like the film Gattaca, which was also released in 1997. In such a world, not only would intelligence be promoted after birth, but parents could also choose the height, sex, eye colour and athletic potential of their children– characteristics that are currently left to the whims of genetic chance.

But whatever the dystopian worries about cognitive enhancement might be, they can’t stem from the same reason so many people consider doping in athletics wrong. To see why this is so, consider cycling, one of the sports most commonly associated with prohibited drug use.

Last week two important verdicts were reached regarding doping and cycling. American federal prosecutors announced that the two-year investigation into U.S. Postal, the cycling team for which Lance Armstrong rode for six of his seven Tour de France victories, was complete and that no charges would be made. Then Alberto Contador, who has been the most successful cyclist since Armstrong’s last win, was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title for a barely-detectable amount of a prohibited drug in his blood.

Suppose that evidence was brought forth to unquestionably incriminate Armstrong. Spectators find that behaviour so contemptible not because there’s something theoretically unethical about using performance-enhancing drugs, but because using a banned substance would have given Armstrong an unfair advantage. The unfairness of the advantage, however, doesn’t stem from some intrinsic nature of the product. The use is unfair because the rules of competition say it’s impermissable to use that amount of that particular substance.

All games have structure through rules. These rules limit a sport like cycling from “do whatever you want” to the hundreds of rules in professional cycling, including very specific rules about the materials and shape of the bicycles, and which aids athletes may use. The rules can’t prohibit all performance enhancement, because that would restrict things like sleep, eating, training and technologies such as aerodynamic clothing.

The rules are arbitrary, but rules for all games are arbitrary– all that matters is that the participants agree to the rules. If you go to play baseball with your friends, but they all agree to play cricket instead, the game won’t work because there are conflicting sets of rules.

Contador’s suspension last week further illustrates this example. He claims that he ingested the banned substance clenbuterol from contaminated steak. While Contador doesn’t contest the result of the test, he does contest that he knowingly ingested the drug to enhance his performance.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport overseeing the case even has a clause to allow for such a possibility, but they ruled that Contador might have taken greater amounts previously, benefited from them, and then stopped taking the drug with enough time before the start of the Tour de France. If that is the case, Contador did have an unfair advantage– he broke the rules of the game, even though the rules could state that a higher amount of clenbuterol is permissible than the current amount.

Additionally, Contador can’t claim that he never agreed to the rules. While such tacit approval exists in many games– street hockey regularly lack the full rulebook of an NHL game– Contador signed a number of contracts agreeing to the rules regarding prohibited drug use.

Fairness and inequality

Paul ErdÅ’s was a famous Hungarian mathematician who died of a heart attack in 1996. He authored or co-authored over 1,500 academic papers (more than any other mathematician in history); won the Wolf Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in mathematics after the Fields Medal; and was famous for his eccentricities, which included his use of cognitive enhancers. In addition to drinking huge amounts of coffee, ErdÅ’s used amphetamines. After successfully abstaining from amphetamines for a month to win a bet, he said, “Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper.”

People oppose open access to drugs that currently are prescription-only for many reasons. The most common worry is that such open access will create an inequality between people who can access the drugs (the wealthy and powerful) and those who can’t. This is said to be unfair because, just like with all other claims of inequality, the have-nots usually haven’t done something to deserve their lot in life– it’s just bad luck.

Inequality from cognitive enhancers might indeed be a serious problem, but it’s no different than other forms of inequality surrounding academic success (I would be more inclined to apply to Harvard if I could afford it). But inequality concerns can be alleviated with social programs like government subsidies, so such worries aren’t really about the use of cognitive enhancers, but rather with unjust distribution.

Many people think that using cognitive enhancers is wrong for reasons other than inequality. Matt Lamkin in The Chronicle gives one possible example: he says that while some schools have instituted formal bans on study drugs like (non-prescribed) Ritalin, they have almost entirely used fairness-type arguments as justification. If a drug provides improper assistance, this isn’t necessarily a case against banning the drug. Rather, the schools are saying that it’s illegal and expensive to acquire such drugs now, which makes it an unfair advantage for those who don’t want to break the law or who are poor.

Lamkin’s own approach is different. He argues that cognitive enhancers could instill negative habits in students, and could thereby “corrode valuable practices that education has traditionally fostered.” Drugs that increase attention, for instance, could encourage procrastination. Rather than actually improving the quality of students’ work, study drugs will help students achieve the status quo with less effort. It’s tempting to look at decreasing study times among students as a sign that energy drinks and the internet are already doing this.

Lamkin points out that his argument cuts both ways. There is the possibility that drugs will corrode valuable practices, but study aids like Ritalin or Adderall might help a student get more out of the university experience, because students using them can engage more deeply in their work. So, perhaps a student couldn’t understand the full beauty of a mathematical proof without the use of drugs– he simply lacked the intellectual capacity, no matter how much effort he put into the problem, to reach comprehension. A cognitive enhancer, however, could help him achieve his goal.

Julian from the TFDL says he began using Ritalin in his second year because he couldn’t keep his grades up while working part-time to pay rent. When I asked him if he thinks it gives him an unfair advantage, his reply was based on equality: “Some of the people in my class don’t have to work– they can just study all the time. It isn’t that they’re smarter, it’s that their parents are paying for everything.” He usually gets the drugs from friends with prescriptions, rather than paying for them.

Differences of perfection

The Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel offers a more fundamental problem with cognitive enhancers. In an article for The Atlantic, which later became part of his book The Case Against Perfection, Sandel argues that “The steroids and stimulants that figure in the enhancement debate are not a source of recreation but a bid for compliance– a way of answering a competitive society’s demand to improve our performance and perfect our nature. This demand for performance and perfection animates the impulse to rail against the given. It is the deepest source of the moral trouble with enhancement.”

Sandel’s case against cognitive enhancement, as well as genetic engineering, is that having so much control over the outcome of our lives will prevent us from appreciating the gift that life is. Talk of life as a gift might seem to imply a gift-giver, but Sandel thinks the non-religious can appreciate this viewpoint also. This appreciation will be compromised if we really do have control over most of the variables that impact the outcome of our lives.

Sandel claims that perfection isn’t an ideal at all. He argues that if we aim for perfection, we will become too controlling of our destinies, micromanaging every area of our lives, from the colour of our eyes to the attributes of our children. With advances in cognitive enhancement, Sandel worries that, like genetic engineering, society will lose sight of valuing what’s out of our control.

It isn’t clear what sense of perfection he has in mind, but because his argument is against perfection in any of its manifestations, on the one hand he doesn’t have to worry about defining the wrongness of one specific conception. On the other hand, we need a way of distinguishing exactly how far toward perfection we ought to go. Presumably Sandel doesn’t want to say that no further advancement is valuable– that would rule out cures for harmful diseases, alleviating the suffering of the poor, and the end of intellectual progression.

Perhaps Sandel has something like the following in mind: society can still improve, without the perfection of individuals. We can eliminate unjust social situations without trying to perfect ourselves, making it a collective process, rather than an individual one. But this still leaves open the possiblity for collective perfection, where as a group we aim for a specific goal, the pursuit of which would be greatly aided by cognitive or genetic advancement.

If this is so, Sandel is mistaken because using cognitive enhancers doesn’t suggest that being smarter is an end in itself, any more than using a tutor or a computer or a cup of coffee implies that goal. Yes, we can use those things for the endless pursuit of making more money, but we can also use them for more worthwhile endeavours.

Individually we have different conceptions of exactly how we should improve our natures, but society is silent on exactly what those improvements ought to look like. To suggest like Sandel does that we ought to eventually stop such improvement is an error, because the types of improvements possible through cognitive enhancers– moral improvements through increased empathy; emotional improvements through more focused contemplation of the arts; and yes, intellectual improvement– are the types of improvements we find wholly worthwhile as a society in other circumstances.

I can appreciate the gifts that I have, but why can’t I improve myself in concert with such appreciation? Indeed, to accept the status quo regarding intelligence is to squander the gift.

Our pursuit for understanding

There is a specific type of improvement that strikes me as worthy of pursuit, which doesn’t lead me to the dystopian interpretation Sandel has in mind. We can use cognitive enhancers to better the lives of everyone. Brilliant researchers could do even more brilliant research with the use of such drugs, and opponents of cognitive enhancers are wrong to think that the eradication of some of the world’s most terrible diseases would make us guilty of hubris or ungratefulness.

Imagine how much better we could understand our place in the universe if the best minds in society had access to drugs that would improve their mental performance. Paul ErdÅ’s’s achievements are just as impressive with the knowledge that he used amphetamines, because it’s what ErdÅ’s discovered about the world that is of value, not the means of achieving the result.

Unlike in sport, where the accomplishment is relative to arbitrary limitations, science, mathematics and the humanities have no such limitations, and we shouldn’t impose them. This doesn’t mean that things with arbitrary limitations are inferior. After all, the blues and some types of poetry are highly restricted (arbitrarily), but they are still important to our lives.

I’m incapable of understanding the works of ErdÅ’s, Einstein or Hawking, but with the use of cognitive enhancement I could get closer to such understanding. In no way would such knowledge be diminished by the use of drugs. On the contrary, understanding the development of ideas is exactly the purpose of a university, and it is one worthy of pursuit. Our lives are enriched through acquiring knowledge, and cognitive enhancers are one additional way we have of continuing that pursuit.

The fact that cognitive enhancers can be a gift doesn’t mean that this outcome is inevitable. A number of issues must be addressed. Perhaps greatest among them is the question of distribution, which if left unaddressed will allow the powerful in society to get increasingly more powerful. This worry, as I’ve previously stated, goes far beyond cognitive enhancement. Education already suffers from a lack of equal access, and more powerful study drugs will only exacerbate differences of access.

Other possible issues include people being forced to use drugs, because of demands from employers, or too much access, for instance by making the drugs unrestricted for children.

So yes, there are challenges. But human history is filled with challenges that have been overcome. Inventions like the university, the printing press and the internet have helped us achieve amazing intellectual accomplishments. Cognitive enhancers are the next step in our progress.

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