December 3, 2010

Gavin Enck: "Cognitive Enhancers, Students, and Virtues" [CFI conference on biomedical enhancements]

Is using cognitive enhancers at school cheating? Gavin Enck argues that it's not cheating, but that it's unfair. He uses two primary arguments: 
  1. Problem of moral luck
  2. Intellectual or moral virtues
Is there any difference between cognitive enhancers and, say, laptops? Or coffee? The difference of degree is what's important. And the qualitative boost is lower relative to Adderall and Provigil. Similarly, the laptop does not impact on the 'person' to the degree that a neuropharmaceutical does. 

Enck analogizes the competitiveness in sports to competitiveness in academia. He asks, is there an intentional violation of the rules, fairness? He argues yes, that the student is deliberately seeking an unfair advantage, but is not explicitly cheating. 

[Enck has a very restrictive and strange definition of cognitive enhancement, one that greatly constrains (and even confuses) the scope of 'permissibility.'] 

He also argues that the student with socio-economic advantages will have greater accessibility to cognitive enhancers, which leads to greater unfairness. Same can be said for an academically-supportive network, but it would be ludicrous to say that the student has an unfair advantage. So again, the degree matters to Enck.

Enck talks about a virtues based approach. Some intellectual virtues are a moral good; seeking academic achievement is a moral good unto itself. In other words, we value (and reward) those who work hard at their academic goals. We value those efforts that seek true beliefs. 

[Enck fails to note that the student on cognitive enhancers (a) may be working as hard as the student not on enhances and (2) is any less dedicated to seeking true beliefs.]

Virtues are not the kinds of things that require chemical assistance. Seeking true beliefs does not require enhancement. 


Why does chemical enhancement make a virtuous act less virtuous? Enck argues that it matters within the context of academia -- because it's a competitive environment. 

1 comment:

@GregoryJRader said...

George, what do you think about these assertions? This analogy between academics and sports is used quite commonly, particularly as it relates to "fairness". The analogy seems valid if we restrict our scope to the academic institution trying to "grade" people fairly, but it fails when we broaden our context. Education does not exist for sake of arbitrary competition but instead to further the capabilities of the students. If a pharmaceutical allows a student to learn better and further his goals, shouldn't that speak for itself. If students plan to continue using these pharmaceuticals once they enter careers, then their performance on these drugs is representative of how they will perform on the job.