10 November 2011
Last night in Newsnight I was in the studio with Jeremy Paxman and Professor Barbara Sahakian waiting to debate a film report about the use of drugs for cognitive enhancement. See the whole thing here, it starts at about 24 minutes. Many scientists and students, it seems, are already routinely taking Modafinil to make themselves more alert. It is not widely approved but it does seem to be available on the internet. Dr Anders Sandberg suddenly appeared to speak about future pharmaceutical developments which would provide ‘moral enhancement’. Narrowly avoiding a snort swiftly followed by a guffaw, I realised that it is time we started providing our scientists with some kind of elementary education.
Perhaps I can start here. Moral enhancement cannot be a scientific project because neither term has any measurable meaning that can be universalised. Rather, it is an ideological project which would hand power to an oligarchy of neuropharmacologists who would be permitted to decide that somebody – probably them – had the power to determine our moral status. This embodies the familiar delusion of many powerful and prejudiced people that all history and culture attained some kind of apotheosis at the moment of their birth. The point is that there are as many definitions of morality as there are human societies. Dr Sandberg spoke about making people less violent which sounds fine until you realise that, for example, the Taliban would regard such a drug as immoral, refuse to take it and conduct a gleeful onslaught on the newly pacific remainder of the world’s population. Or perhaps sublimated violent impulses are good things, making people creative or successful. Steve Jobs may be a good example.
Or look at it this way. In my undrugged state of mind, I decided to do A. I then take a morally enhancing pill and decide, instead, to do B. The pill – and ultimately somebody like Dr Sandberg – has decided that B is morally superior to A. This has nothing to do with me and, therefore, nothing to do with my moral status, I am merely a pill popper, and everything to do with somebody else’s idea of what I should be. In morality, there is a thing called ‘agency’ – but perhaps I am going too quickly.
Ah, you or they will say, but we already use pills to quell psychotics or ease the woes of manic-depressives. What’s the difference? The difference is that current medical convention has drawn a firm line between what constitues a disorder and what does not. You may argue about where that line is draw but to argue against its existence is to advocate pharmacological anarchy and the creation of a systematically drugged human sub-species in the control of Big Pharma. I suspect we are already half way there.