Friday, November 23, 2007


Mind Hacks links to major research on how we can "enhance" ourselves mentally through the new pharmaceutical and other technologies in the future. Of course, enhancements might not be limited to preventing brain failure or making us smarter. The question arises, as it always does with this, if we can "enhance" offenders as well at far less cost than warehousing them and teaching them how to be better at offending, then will we be appropriately concerned about the ethical and snowballing implications that also come up? Here's the exec summary:

Executive summary
People have long been interested in improving their brainpower. Developments in medicine and pharmacy could provide new ways of doing that but because they raise ethical issues that have not been widely discussed, there is a need for public debate about them. In Part One, this paper sets out some definitions and a framework for debate.

Drugs and medical interventions designed as therapy for people with diagnosed problems are likely to be sought in future by healthy people to “improve” on nature. It is important to distinguish, however, between what is possible now or will be in the near future and more abstract speculation about longer-term developments. In Part Two, the document examines the evidence (or lack of it) for different methods of enhancement, including nutritional supplements, pharmaceuticals and surgery.

People may not only want to choose enhancement for themselves but also for their children. The possibilities and limitations of genetic manipulation and selection as a means of enhancing future people are also covered in Part Two.

Individuals have always been able to try and improve their own or their children’s intellectual abilities through study and effort. The possibility of shortcutting that process and lessening the effort required by using nutrition, drugs or medical techniques is more controversial. Part Three considers why this might be.

It looks at the speculation about how the new technologies might bring about either positive or negative social and cultural changes, affecting not only individuals but the fabric of society. Arguments that have been put forward by those for and against such a change are briefly summarised.

One of the main arguments concerns interconnectedness. For the purposes of discussion, the paper looks at cognitive functioning as if it could be isolated from other parts of a person’s life. In reality the potential risks or benefits of cognitive enhancement for other aspects of individuals’ personality, such as emotional stability and creativity, cannot be isolated. People are also interconnected in a social sense, so that choices made by some are likely to impact on others and possibly on society at large. This is highlighted throughout the paper and discussed in detail in Part Three where some suggestions are considered about how a balance might be attained between personal liberty and responsibility to the community.

Why we may have quite different moral views about different methods, even though they all have the same goal, is also discussed in Part Three.

Almost anything we try may have some unforeseen side-effects or carry some risks. In order to decide whether change should be regulated, the scope and limits of what individuals should be able to choose for themselves or for other people also need to be discussed. Part Four sets out the arguments for and against limiting choice and considers how regulation, if needed, might be implemented.

The main questions arising from the paper are summarised in Part Five. The BMA does not have policy or recommendations to put forward on these issues but would welcome informed public debate about how, as a society, we should respond to these developments.

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