, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 173-184
Date: 05 Jul 2011

Ethical Considerations in the Framing of the Cognitive Enhancement Debate

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Abstract

Over the past few years the use of stimulants such as methylphenidate and modafinil among the student population has attracted considerable debate in the pages of bioethics journals. Under the rubric of cognitive enhancement, bioethicists have discussed this use of stimulants—along with future technologies of enhancement—and have launched a sometimes forceful debate of such practices. In the following paper, it is argued that even if we focus solely upon current practices, the term cognitive enhancement encompasses a wide range of ethical considerations that can usefully be addressed without the need for speculation. In taking this position it is suggested that we divide cognitive enhancement into a series of empirically-constructed frameworks—medical risks and benefits, self-medication and under-prescription, prescription drug abuse and over-medication, and finally, the intention to cognitively enhance. These are not mutually exclusive frameworks, but provide a way in which to identify the scope of the issue at hand and particular ethical and medical questions that may be relevant to enhancement. By a process of elimination it is suggested that we can indeed talk of cognitive enhancement as an observable set of practices. However, in doing so we should be aware of how academic commentaries and discussion may be seen as both capturing reality and reifying cognitive enhancement as an entity.