November 3, 2010

Should we say yes to cognition enhancing drugs?

Gary Miller's paper in the Journal of Philosophy, Science and Law is worth checking out: Cognition Enhancing Drugs: Just Say Yes?
My goal is not, however, to persuade that cognition-enhancement is “good” or “bad” or “moral” or “immoral.” Nor is my goal to advocate policy change. Instead, thinking pragmatically about the ways other unconventional utilitarian initiatives have gained traction, my aim is to persuade academics and policy advocates that if their efforts to prompt change in regard to this issue are ever to succeed, they must first take account of the human cognitive flaws and motivational biases that may well lead a majority of the public to reject such a prospect. I argue that, regardless how miniscule the risks or how blatantly obvious the benefits, a majority of U.S. citizens is unlikely to support the unrestricted dissemination of cognition enhancing drugs, because each individual member of the majority will be led astray by cognitive biases and illusions, as well as logical fallacies.

If this premise is accurate, then the people of the United States may already be suffering an opportunity cost that cannot be recouped. While a minority of the U.S. electorate can challenge the constitutionality of a policy enacted by a majority, a minority cannot sue to challenge the legislature’s refusal to enact a specific policy. In other words, we in the minority have no way of claiming we were harmed by what “good” could have come—but did not come—due to the legislature’s inaction. We cannot claim the “opportunity cost to the greater good” as an injury, and we cannot compel a court to balance that opportunity cost of inaction against the individual interests that dissuaded the majority from action. Our only recourse is to compel the majority to change its stance via persuasion.

In Part I of this article, I will set out a descriptive account of human morality and rationality in order to explain why advocacy for cognition enhancement is met with moral indignation. Then, in Part II, I will discuss how a better understanding of human cognitive deficits sheds new light on the best strategies for persuading irrationally indignant opponents of utilitarian initiatives. The method of persuasion I will present is a form of moral entrepreneurism modeled on Cass Sunstein’s “libertarian paternalism” and further informed by evolutionary theories of morality, as well as empirical research on legal legitimacy, compliance, and the logic of social reciprocity.

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