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Does Kantian Ethics Condone Mood and Cognitive Enhancement?


The author examines whether Kantian ethics would condone the use of pharmaceutical drugs to enhance one’s moods and cognitive abilities. If key assumptions concerning safety and efficacy, non-addictiveness, non-coercion, and accessibility are not met, Kantian ethics would consider mood and cognitive enhancement to be impermissible. But what if these assumptions are granted? The arguments for the permissibility of neuroenhancement are stronger than those against it. After giving a general account of Kantian ethical principles, the author argues that, when these assumptions are granted, Kantian ethics no longer justifies the prohibition of neuroenhancement, and responds to two objections.

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  1. Since it would risk dating the paper, I hesitate to list specific psychotropic drugs and prefer to leave this as undetermined as possible. The ethical issues and arguments should continue to be relevant even if different enhancers are used. See Chatterjee [2] for examples of enhancers, and the prediction: “it is inconceivable that enhancements will not be used widely” (10). Moreover, “taking” or “use” refers to patterns of behavior rather than to a single act, since the former seems more controversial and hence more worthy of analysis.

  2. To broaden the discussion, I discuss mood and cognitive enhancement together and will sometimes use the term “neuroenhancement.” Zohny [3] places these under the category of “psychological enhancement.” The details of the differences between them need not concern us, and the structure of the arguments appears to be similar. Some of the cognitive enhancers have an affect on our moods and affects, and vice versa. The 2003 President’s Council on Bioethics report ([4]: 214) asks if it would be permissible to give memory-blunting drugs that could free us from the emotional burden of intrusive and painful memories to people who have suffered grievous disappointments or witnessed horrifying events. Zohny [3] argues that neurologically it makes little sense to distinguish the cognitive from the non-cognitive (including mood and motivation) as separate targets of pharmacological intervention. Finally, Vrecko [5] finds that stimulants’ effects on people’s emotions and feelings are important contributors to their perceptions of improved academic (one kind of cognitive) performance.

  3. The scope of this paper is limited to this non-therapeutic use by consenting adults. Moreover, it concerns neither drugs taken to create psychedelic or hallucinatory experiences, nor drugs such as marijuana used for either recreational or religious reasons.

  4. The concept of “happiness” can be broadly understood to include not only health but also those goods (e.g., achievements, prosperity, wealth, renown, power, etc.) that are conducive to happiness and which may be more directly the goal at which people who use neuroenhancers aim.

  5. Even so, it is still worth discussing the ethical implications of the possibility that this trend might increase in the future. In any case, the argument of this paper does not hinge on the truth of the claim that use is becoming more prevalent.

  6. The present paper articulates the principles of Kant’s ethical theory with respect to enhancement. Likewise adopting a Kant-inspired approach, Meyers [1] seeks to establish (what Meyers calls) a “reflective equilibrium” between moral intuitions and broadly Kantian ethical principles. Cf. [15].

  7. Since Kant did not consider cognitive and mood enhancement by drugs per se, I offer a Kantian account by looking at his writings in ethics (cf. [16]) and anthropology, examining in particular his arguments about rational agency, humanity as an end in itself, and self-control.

  8. Just to give one of many possible examples, Shell points out the resources Kant can bring to bear on controversies in bioethics. A key term in her correction of the misrepresentation of Kant as a rigid dualist is “embodied” rationality ([17]: 334). Note also the title, The Embodiment of Reason [18].

  9. Kant’s formula of humanity states: “So act that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means” (Groundwork 4: 429). Kant’s texts are cited using an abbreviated name, followed by the volume and number in the Academy Edition (Akademie Ausgabe) of his writings (e.g., 4: 428). The volume and number are listed and easily identified in the English translations cited (see References). “Groundwork to a Metaphysics of Morals” (in Kant [19]) is hereafter abbreviated as “Groundwork.”

  10. The formula of universal law: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you at the same time can will that it become a universal law” (Groundwork 4: 421).

  11. “Act in accordance with maxims of a universally legislative member for a merely possible realm of ends” (Groundwork 4: 439).

  12. E.g., a nation-state or even the global community. Where one draws this line need not be addressed here.

  13. One might well wonder at this point if there is something special about enhancements as opposed to health care and medical treatment. There is an ethically relevant difference here, and it has to do with accessibility and raising the average baseline. The relevant difference is that, on the assumption that there is an acceptable distinction between medical treatment and enhancement, the former would not raise the species-typical average baseline, whereas enhancement would. In a condition of unjust access to enhancement, this would effectively create an unfair playing field. Medical treatment or therapy can sometimes be scarce and unequally allocated; however, it does not raise the baseline but instead restores to average species-typical levels. A proper consideration of this complex issue, however, would lead to difficult questions about how much inequality can be permitted in a society, the distinction and relation between justice and equality, and what actions (or maxims) are ethically permissible for agents who live in a society with an unjust allocation of the goods in question.

  14. Chatterjee [2] observes that there are significant institutional and economic impediments to such enhancement research on healthy individuals.

  15. I thank an anonymous review of this journal for suggesting this comparison.

  16. Kant’s is not the only ethical theory that would prohibit enhancement on the basis of some or all of these grounds. Presumably, utilitarian and consequentialist approaches would likewise object to the lack of access and raise concerns about distributive injustice. Aristotelian approaches would take issue with dependence and abuse, cheating and getting ahead unfairly, and, significantly, even with the idea of enhancement itself insofar as the epistemic benefits resulting therefrom might not constitute an achievement creditable to the user [14].

  17. Kantian ethics would forbid using pills to “get ahead” or cheat, since it violates the principles of fair competition (and the universal law principle). Meyers [1] argues that scholarship/science and art/creative activities are, unlike sports, non-competitive (or at least have a different kind of competition) – which thus makes enhancement permissible in scholarship/science. Though I agree with part of Meyers’s conclusion, I am not fully convinced of the distinction between competition in sports and its analog in academic/scientific/artistic practices. The domains of academia/science/art are surely competitive in that participants compete for grants and funding, positions or posts (tenured or otherwise), acceptance by publishers or juries, titles and prizes, and perhaps even students or followers, not to mention the prestige and honor that accompany these. It is easy to imagine two professors (only one of which engages in enhancement) competing for the same (i.e., numerically same token) tenured post (or grant, prize, etc.). Such competition seems integral to the practice of “academia” and not merely subsidiary and incidental. (Meyers addresses this objection toward the end of the paper.) If neuroenhancement is to be shown to be permissible (on Kantian grounds) in the fields of science/scholarship and art, additional arguments would be helpful.

  18. For instance, Paul Guyer ([26]: 410) maintains that, for Kant, our most fundamental obligation would be not to destroy (e.g., by murder or suicide) rational agents, and our next most fundamental obligation would be not to destroy (e.g., by lying) the conditions for the free exercise of rational agency. The corresponding claim would then be that not only does enhancement not destroy these conditions, it also helps develop and fosters them.

  19. Applying Kantian moral philosophy to genetic engineering, Gunderson [15] argues for a similar claim.

  20. Meyers’s [1] example of “Samantha,” who uses cognitive enhancement to help her write a book, illustrates this point nicely: the drugs help Samantha concentrate, but the ideas are still hers. This is the kind of enhancement that is under discussion in this paper. As Murray notes ([28]: 514), in considering the permissibility of enhancement we should take into account the meaning and purpose of the activities being enhanced, their social context, and other persons and institutions affected by the activities. From a Kantian perspective, it is hard to see what is wrong if a writer uses enhancers to help her complete her novel; it is easy to see that it would be wrong to take an enhancer just before entering a spelling bee competition, if the rules did not allow all competitors to do so, since it would amount to a form of cheating. (I thank an anonymous reviewer of this journal for the latter example.)

  21. Meyers [1] rejects this analogy on the grounds that there is a morally significant difference of degree between the enhancer and coffee, the former providing a significantly larger cognitive boost.

  22. It is unconvincing to claim that caffeine is “natural” while an enhancing drug is not. As Nussbaum and countless other scholars have noted, such appeals to “nature” are rarely helpful ([30]: 372).

  23. An enhancing drug could either intensify a certain mood or emotion (e.g., joy) or moderate it (e.g., anxiety). Whether or not such alteration would count as enhancement depends on the particular circumstances.

  24. It is worth recalling that this paper concerns amoral or non-moral aims such as happiness, health, and success, and passes over the topic of moral improvement, though moral enhancement is an important ethical issue and merits its own discussion (e.g., Sorensen [33]). Chatterjee [11] for instance asks, “If struggle is important to the development of character, does the use of pharmacological interventions to improve cognition or modify affect undermine this process?”

  25. Kant suggests that tattooing is unethical on the grounds that it uses the human being as a mere means, namely, as artful decoration (Critique of the Power of Judgment 5: 230; [31]). Yet it is not hard to imagine a compelling argument that some instances of tattooing do not violate Kantian ethical principles.

  26. Although Bostrom defends enhancement, he expresses some (but only some) sympathy for this point about self-overcoming. “Perhaps it would be slightly preferable, from the point of view of Dignity as a Quality [which he adopts from Hungarian philosopher Kolnai], if the better mood resulted from a naturally smiling temperament or if it had been attained by means of some kind of psychological self-overcoming.” But he then adds his pro-enhancement view: “But if some help had to be sought from a safe and efficacious pill, I do not see that it would make a vast difference in terms of how much Dignity as a Quality could be invested in the resulting state of mind” ([32]: 190; emphases added).

  27. Acknowledgments: For their comments or suggestions, the author would like to thank Kathleen Duffy, William Lauinger, Elizabeth Mannino, Amanda Pirrone, Tim Schelling, Elisa Schwab, and three anonymous reviewers of this journal.


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Clewis, R.R. Does Kantian Ethics Condone Mood and Cognitive Enhancement?. Neuroethics 10, 349–361 (2017).

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  • Applied ethics
  • Kantian ethics
  • Mood and cognitive enhancement
  • Dignity
  • Humanity, rational agency