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Neuroethics

, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 323–335 | Cite as

Enhancing the Nature-of-Activities Account of Enhancement

  • Jay SpitzleyEmail author
Original Paper

Abstract

Many find it intuitive that those who use enhancements like steroids and Adderall in Olympic weightlifting and education are due less praise than those who perform equally well without using these enhancements. Nonetheless, it is not easy to coherently explain why one might be justifiably due less praise for using these technologies to enhance one’s performance. Justifications for this intuition which rely on concerns regarding authenticity, cheating, or shifts in who is responsible for the performance face serious problems. Santoni de Sio et al., however, have recently defended a justification for this intuition which avoids the problems competing justifications face; the nature-of-activities justification. This justification relies on a conceptual analysis of the nature of activities and does not require the defense of any particular ethical stance concerning the use of enhancements. Santoni de Sio et al. claim that the success of the nature-of-activities account requires distinguishing between practice-oriented activities and goal-directed activities. I, however, show that this distinction is both deeply problematic and unnecessary. After exposing the weaknesses of Santoni de Sio et al.’s original account, I defend a simpler and less problematic version of the nature-of-activities account. The revised account is capable of both justifying this intuition of less praise and allowing one to determine when enhancements should be deemed permissible, impermissible, or obligatory for a given activity.

Keywords

Praise Enhancement Nature-of-activities Responsibility Authenticity Cheating 

Introduction

Many think there are situations in which individuals who use enhancements to succeed are due less praise than others who are equally successful but do not use enhancements [1]. For instance, if Donald and Clarence both hit 70 home runs in a season, but only Donald used performance-enhancing drugs to do so, it might seem intuitive that Donald’s accomplishments warrant less praise than Clarence’s. Even though people have a largely negative attitude towards praising the enhanced, finding a coherent and plausible account which justifies this attitude is no easy task. Some institutions, such as sports associations and universities, have been dealing with the problems which enhancements present for a long time. For each enhancement invented, decisions need to be made regarding the contexts in which using the enhancement is permissible, impermissible, or obligatory. Furthermore, it needs to be determined what effects, if any, the use of each new enhancement has on our practices of praise and blame. The endless production of new enhancement technology continues to force more organizations to make these types of decisions regarding enhancements. For instance, universities are now being forced to determine what stance to take regarding increasingly available cognitive enhancement drugs like Ritalin and Adderall.

Given that there are good reasons to prohibit certain enhancements (for instance, some are dangerous) and that enhancements can influence the extent to which an enhancement-user is praiseworthy or blameworthy, many organizations need to clarify where they stand on these issues. Such organizations might worry that in order to determine whether a certain enhancement should be considered permissible or impermissible, they would need to be able to identify a full set of necessary and sufficient conditions for when praise is due, as well as to what degree it is due. However, one might instead argue that if these organizations can identify a single condition which is necessary for praise in the activity which the organization oversees, and this condition is not met when an individual uses a certain type of enhancement, then the organization can justify less praise being due towards the enhanced individuals. Santoni de Sio, Faber, Savulescu, and Vincent attempt to argue for this type of position in their defense of what they call the “nature-of-activities” justification [1, 2]. The nature-of-activities account is intended to justify the Less Praise Intuition (LPI) – the intuition that individuals who perform activities while enhanced are due less praise than if the individual were to perform the activity without the use of such enhancement. They argue this intuition is justified on the grounds that some enhanced individuals are missing the point of the activity they seem to be engaged in, and thus, are due less praise than non-enhanced individuals who otherwise perform similarly but do not miss the point of the activity in this way. That is, “enhanced actors engage in very different activities; because of this, we need different yard-sticks to assess their performance” [1].

Santoni de Sio et al. claim that the nature-of-activities justification for the LPI relies heavily on a distinction between two types of activities; practice-oriented and goal-directed. While I believe the nature-of-activities account is valuable, I argue that their account’s use of this distinction is both problematic and unnecessary. After exposing the weaknesses of Santoni de Sio et al.’s account, I defend a preferable understanding of the nature-of-activities justification. I conclude that my revised version of the nature-of-activities justification of the LPI is coherent and both less complex and less problematic than other justifications for the LPI. Furthermore, despite doing away with the purportedly fundamental distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities, I contend that my simplified version of the nature-of-activities account remains loyal to most substantive aspects of Santoni de Sio et al.’s original account while also justifying the LPI and allowing one to determine when enhancements should be deemed permissible, impermissible, or obligatory.

Santoni de Sio et al.’s Nature-of-Activities Account

Santoni de Sio et al. [1] argue that we cannot justify the LPI on the grounds that praiseworthiness shifts to people other than the enhanced individual (e.g. to those who made the enhancement) nor can this intuition be justified on the grounds that an individual, in virtue of using an enhancement, alters their personal identity. Santoni de Sio et al. argue that both of these justifications rely on a problematic understanding of the relevant metaphysics.1 Furthermore, the LPI cannot always be justified by considering enhancement to be a form of cheating [6]. According to Santoni de Sio et al. [1], enhancement is neither necessarily intentionally fraudulent nor necessarily giving anyone an unfair advantage.2 In light of these problems which alternative justifications of the LPI face, Santoni de Sio et al. argue that the LPI is best justified in virtue of the enhanced actors engaging in activities that are different from the activities non-enhanced actors are engaging in. That is; because enhanced individuals are not performing the same activity as non-enhanced individuals, the praiseworthiness of the enhanced individuals and non-enhanced individuals should not be measured in the same way. Nonetheless, several distinctions must be made in order to understand how enhanced performers might be engaging in different activities than non-enhanced individuals.

First, Santoni de Sio et al. introduce a distinction between two different types of activities, and they take this distinction to be fundamental to the nature-of-activities justification. Goal-directed activities are those that are prominently defined by an external goal, whereas practice-oriented activities are prominently defined through internal goals. To illustrate what types of activities should be considered goal-directed, Santoni de Sio et al. provide several examples in which the goal of the activity is “external” to performing the activity. “For instance, share trading is probably predominantly about making money, medicine is predominantly about healing, and the military is predominantly about defense of the realm” [1]. Contrastingly, chatting with friends, running, and reading fiction are not about any external goal [1, 2]. These latter activities can be considered practice-oriented activities, as the point of these activities is “internal” to performing the activity.3

Next, Santoni de Sio et al. employ a distinction between constitutive and regulative rules. Whereas regulative rules may stipulate how to best reach a certain goal, constitutive rules are more fundamental to the activity itself and actually define the activity and its constitutive parts [10, 11]. For instance, driving on the right side of the road would be a regulative rule for driving a car, but not a constitutive rule, since it is possible to perform the activity of driving a car without doing so on the right side of the road. Santoni de Sio et al. [1] consider constitutive rules to be those that “stipulate practices within those activities that constitute those activities’ internal goals – and in abandoning or infringing such rules one abandons or misses the point of those activities.” To illustrate the importance of constitutive rules for their account, Santoni de Sio et al. frequently cite constitutive rules of sports and games. For instance, they claim that it is a constitutive rule of running a marathon that one does not wear roller skates, and therefore, someone who travels 26.2 miles on roller skates is doing some activity other than running a marathon.4

Last, Santoni de Sio et al. differentiate between coarse-grained and fine-grained descriptions of activities. Activities can be described coarsely (e.g. running) or more finely (e.g. running the 110 M hurdle race in Michigan high school division four track and field), and the rules of these activities can change depending on which description we use. Presumably, activities described more finely-grained will have more rules which apply to them. Santoni de Sio et al. argue that on a sufficiently fine-grained description, enhanced persons participating in a practice-oriented activity may be violating a constitutive rule of that activity and, therefore, would be missing the point of the activity in the same way a “marathon runner” on roller skates is missing the point of running a marathon. Therefore, on a description which is sufficiently fine-grained, an enhanced individual would be participating in a different activity than a non-enhanced individual. Since the enhanced individual misses the point of the activity that is under evaluation and they thereby fail to perform the praiseworthy activity, on Santoni de Sio et al.’s nature-of-activities account, the LPI is justified.

In sum, the nature-of-activities justification for the LPI avoids the problematic metaphysical commitments which the responsibility-shifting justification and the authenticity justification face. Furthermore, the nature-of-activities justification can avoid the problems which result from assuming enhancement must be a form of cheating. On Santoni de Sio et al.’s nature-of-activities account, the LPI is justified when enhanced individuals do not, on a sufficiently fine-grained description of a practice-oriented activity, perform the same activity as non-enhanced individuals. In violating a constitutive rule of the activity, the enhanced individuals miss the point of the activity and are thereby due less praise, or no praise at all, for the activity they fail to perform.

Santoni de Sio et al.’s methods for determining the normative status of enhancements are noteworthy in that they rely on a conceptual analysis of the nature of activities and not on any particular ethical argument for or against the use of certain enhancements (though many ethical arguments can be accommodated). I believe there is merit in this type of approach. Nonetheless, it seems that there is a simpler and less problematic way to understand the nature-of-activities account. In what follows, I will address problems with Santoni de Sio et al.’s version of the nature-of-activities justification for the LPI and defend a simplified account which maintains the foundation Santoni de Sio et al. have laid. My version of the nature-of-activities account does away with the problematic and unnecessary distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities, while still allowing for a clear, simple, and helpful method of both justifying the LPI and determining, for any activity and for any given normative domain, which types of enhancements should be deemed permissible, impermissible, and obligatory.

Problems with the Practice-Oriented vs. Goal-Directed Distinction

Santoni de Sio et al. [2] state: “Our main claim is that in order to determine whether enhancement is forbidden, allowed, or obligatory, one must attend to the metaphysical characteristics of the activity in question, and in particular whether the activity is prominently goal-directed or practice-oriented.” While I agree that the nature-of-activities justification can be a useful conceptual tool for clarifying whether certain enhancements might be permissible or impermissible for a given activity, determining whether an activity is prominently goal-directed or practice-oriented is a problematic feature of this account.

The distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities seems to focus on the fact that some activities, like share trading, are prominently defined in terms of an external goal (like making money) while other activities, like reading fiction, are prominently defined in terms of an internal goal (like performing the activity itself). Santoni de Sio et al. also claim that most activities are complex in this regard, having both external goals and internal goals, and the way to determine whether these complex activities are practice-oriented or goal-directed is to refer to how they are prominently defined. However, identifying whether an activity is more prominently defined in terms of an internal goal or external goal is not easy. Perhaps Bob plays football professionally both because he loves the sport and needs to make money to support his family. It is not easy to decipher which of these goals is most prominent. To aid in this regard, Santoni de Sio et al. [2] offer the following:

A simple test to realize whether a certain activity is goal directed or practice-oriented is to try to mentally eliminate either the realization of the internal or external goals of a given activity, and see which one would result in the loss of that activity’s point. Would it make sense, for instance, to go out with friends if one did not enjoy their company, or to play a certain game if one did not find the activity amusing or challenging or interesting? As the answer to both questions is negative (setting aside other goal[s] like wishing to develop the friendship or to acquire an appreciation for the games), one may conclude that those are practice-oriented activities. In contrast, would it make sense to work full-time at a brokerage without the prospect of making money or to work as a physician without the prospect of healing patients? As the answer to both of these questions is negative (assuming one does not, for instance, view these mainly as the realization of a childhood dream which it is important to pursue or a promise which has to be maintained, i.e. that becoming a broker or a physician was your ambition or something you promised to do), one may conclude that these are goal-directed activities.

This test is not as helpful as it may first appear. For instance, can we make sense of Bob’s playing professional football without the internal point of playing for his love of the sport? Yes, since his playing football is a means for him to make money for his family. Therefore, Bob’s playing professional football is not clearly a practice-oriented activity. Nonetheless, we can also make sense of Bob’s playing professional football without the external goal of making money: it makes sense because he loves the sport. Therefore, Bob’s playing professional football is not clearly a goal-directed activity nor is it clearly a practice-oriented activity. However, according to Santoni de Sio et al.’s version of the nature-of-activities account, determining whether an activity is practice-oriented or goal-directed is the single most crucial step in determining whether it might be permissible for Bob to use enhancements while playing football. Therefore, this version of the nature-of-activities justification fails to provide us with a clear conclusion regarding whether it would be permissible for Bob to use certain enhancements. This same problem applies to anyone who participates in an activity with both an internal and external goal.

Santoni de Sio et al.’s distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities also runs into a problem with subjectivity. That is, it seems that whether an activity is practice-oriented or goal-directed will depend on subjective features such as the participant’s goals, intentions, or motives. When explaining how to use their “simple test”, Santoni de Sio et al. [2] suggest that having an internal goal can prevent an activity from being a goal-directed activity, and that an activity which includes an external point can prevent that activity from being practice-oriented. They state that going out with friends and playing certain games can be considered practice-oriented activities only when we are “setting aside other goal[s] like wishing to develop the friendship or to acquire an appreciation for the games” [2]. Similarly, working full time at a brokerage and working as a physician can only be considered goal-directed activities when we are “assuming one does not, for instance, view these mainly as the realization of a childhood dream which it is important to pursue or a promise which has to be maintained, i.e. that becoming a broker or a physician was your ambition or something you promised to do” [2]. However, if we do not set aside these considerations (which seem to be perfectly reasonable sorts of considerations which apply to many, if not most, people and activities in everyday life), then whether one is participating in a practice-oriented or goal-directed activity will depend on subjective aspects of individuals, like their motivations, desires, and intentions.

Admittedly, there are good reasons to take an individual’s desires and intentions into consideration when determining what activity they are performing. Someone who is running to avoid being eaten by a bear might not be performing the activity of “going for a run”. Similarly, we might not consider an FBI informant gathering information from a criminal they have gotten chummy with to be “chatting with a friend”. However, in the context of defining activities for the purposes of determining whether or not enhancements may be permitted for a given activity, it isn’t feasible to identify the intentions and motivations of each participant before determining whether enhancements would be permitted for each individual, given their collection of desires, motivations and intentions. If this subjectivity were embraced, whether a given student, surgeon, pilot, or athlete is permitted to use enhancements would depend on that individual’s motivations for doing so. While Santoni de Sio et al.’s original view might be coherent, it provides a remarkably impractical, and therefore unhelpful, method of determining whether an enhancement should be deemed obligatory, permissible, or impermissible for a particular activity. This problem might be lessened by the fact that Santoni de Sio et al. appeal to collective concepts such as societal values and how activities are “prominently defined”. Nonetheless, without knowing where to look to determine which values are important or which definition counts as the most “prominent”, one will likely lack the specificity required to determine whether a given activity specifically rules out a given type of enhancement. Thus, at the very least, a serious epistemic problem will remain.

The most significant problem Santoni de Sio et al.’s original account faces lies in their description of goal-directed activities. They state: “As goal-directed activities are defined through the goal that they attain (the outcomes they bring about), there are no conceptual, or a priori limits to the way in which or the means by which these activities may be performed, and so the current rules of the practice can be changed without any particular concern for the point of the activity being lost or the nature of it being distorted” [2]. As a first note, there are conceptual limits to every activity. For any activity, one may violate the conceptual limits of that activity by failing to do what is conceptually required for participating in that activity. A person who is awake is violating the conceptual limits of performing the activity of sleeping. Considering this obvious problem with Santoni de Sio et al.’s description of goal-directed activities, I believe the point that Santoni de Sio et al. were trying to make regarding goal-directed activities was that, insofar as a goal is a prominent aspect of the conceptual requirements of an activity, then as long as that goal is achieved, the activity has been performed. But this is false. Though achieving the goal may be necessary for performing the activity successfully, this does not mean that the achievement of the goal is sufficient for performing the activity. Surgeons may have the goal of healing a patient [2], but if they achieve this goal by only administering medication to the patient, then they did not perform surgery. Stock brokers may have the goal of acquiring money [2], but if this money is acquired by finding a ten-dollar bill on the street, then they did not perform the activity of stockbroking. Therefore, achieving the goal of an activity is not sufficient for performing the activity. Rather, how the goal is pursued matters. But if the way in which we perform the activity matters, then it seems these purportedly goal-directed activities have some conceptual rules about how the goal is to be reached, thus making them practice-oriented activities.

If goal-directed activities are activities that truly have no conceptual limits other than the pursuit of some goal, then the only goal-directed activities are those where one simply pursues a single goal. For example, the activity of making money would be defined by the goal of making money, and since the only conceptual limit of this activity is that the goal of making money is being pursued, “making money” would be a goal-directed activity. However, if goal-directed activities include only this narrow class of coarsely-defined activities, then none of the activities which Santoni de Sio et al. seem to be concerned with are actually goal-directed activities. On the other hand, if practice-oriented activities are those activities which do have conceptual limits regarding how they can be performed (and thus constitutive rules apply), then almost all activities are practice-oriented, including all the examples Santoni de Sio et al. discuss. Thus, the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities, which Santoni de Sio et al. claim is fundamental to the nature-of-activities account, is useless for Santoni de Sio et al.’s purposes.

The Revised Nature-of-Activities Justification for the LPI

If the nature-of-activities justification does not (and cannot) rely on the purportedly fundamental distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities, then how can we make sense of the nature-of-activities justification for the LPI? Here is my proposal: In order to determine whether the LPI is justified, we need to first identify what the point or goal of an activity is and, second, identify the conceptual limits of how one may pursue this goal. As I have argued above, activities like surgery and stock broking do have conceptual limits other than the goal of each activity. There are also conceptual limits regarding the way one might play professional football, chat with friends, and play chess. If an enhancement does not violate one of these conceptual limits, which can be thought of as constitutive rules of the activity, then the enhancement is not, on conceptual grounds, impermissible. Thus, an enhanced individual would not necessarily be missing the point of the activity. If, however, the constitutive rules of the activity preclude this type of enhancement, then an individual enhanced in this way would be missing the point of the activity and this form of enhancement is conceptually impermissible. Therefore, those who use this enhancement would understandably be due less praise, since they not only violated a rule of the activity, but a rule so fundamental to the nature of the activity itself that they failed to even perform the activity at all.

Whether enhancements are prohibited on conceptual grounds will depend on how finely-grained the activity is described. By taking performance-enhancing drugs, Bob may be violating a constitutive rule of playing professional football in the league which Bob intends to play, but these enhancements would likely not violate the constitutive rules of ‘playing football’ more generally. On coarse-grained descriptions of activities, the rules may allow for more variation regarding what results in one missing the point of the activity. However, when we have a fine-grained description and can specify more precisely how the activity must be performed, then we can more easily determine which types of enhancements, if any, would violate the constitutive rules of the activity.

Although Santoni de Sio et al. conclude that the nature-of-activities justification can justify less praise for enhanced individuals, their version of the nature-of-activities justification seems to suggest that enhanced individuals would be due no praise at all. That is, it seems intuitive that an individual would not be due any praise for an activity which they did not engage in, and on the nature-of-activities account, enhanced individuals fail to perform the activity they would otherwise be performing if they did not use the enhancement. Santoni de Sio et al. do not directly address this issue, but I think it can be resolved.

As Anscombe [12] argues and Santoni de Sio et al. recognize, a single action can be legitimately described in many different ways, and even under the same description activities can be divided into multiple parts which can be analyzed separately. The proponent of the nature-of-activities justification can acknowledge this fact and recognize that activities that are more finely-grained will have more constitutive rules than the activity will when more coarsely defined. Thus, more coarsely-defined activities will have less conceptual limits which apply to them. In virtue of using enhancements, the enhanced individuals are sometimes participating in less activities, since some activities conceptually preclude the use of enhancements. Therefore, while an enhanced individual would be due praise for some activities, a non-enhanced individual who acts similarly could be due more praise overall since they are participating in many of the same activities as the enhanced individual, plus the additional activities which have constitutive rules against enhancements. This again emphasizes how important it is to carefully and appropriately identify the relevant activity before evaluating whether a certain type of enhancement should be permitted and the amount of praise that might be justifiably due. How finely-grained you describe the activity will determine whether any rules regarding this activity are constitutive or regulative, and which ones (if any) would rule out certain types of enhancement. Taking clear and thoughtful steps to identify the nature of an activity allows one to begin a fruitful discussion regarding the permissibility of enhancements for a given activity.

Recognizing that an activity can have many descriptions and, thus, be comprised of many different goals also helps alleviate some worries regarding subjectivity. On the one hand, one might worry that the conceptual limits for Bob playing professional football to enjoy the sport and the conceptual limits for Bob playing professional football to make money are different and perhaps even contradictory. Thus, we could end up with conflicting conclusions whether it is permissible for Bob to take performance-enhancing drugs and play football.

On the other hand, if Bob is playing professional football both because he loves the sport and because he needs to make money to support his family, we can simply consider Bob’s playing professional football to be more than one activity. By considering Bob to be engaging in two different activities, we can acknowledge that the conceptual limits for engaging in each of these two activities will be different, and even that these conceptual limits could possibly contradict one another. As Santoni de Sio et al. would agree, using certain enhancements would likely violate the constitutive rules of playing professional football on a sufficiently fine-grained description of the sport. However, using enhancements would not seem to violate the constitutive rules for Bob’s goal of making money. So, what should we say about the permissibility of enhancements for Bob? Well, insofar as he wants to play professional football, he needs to obey the constitutive rules of professional football and not use certain enhancements which undermine the point of the sport. If Bob does use enhancements, we can say that, on an adequately fine-grained description, Bob is not playing professional football. Supposing his goal of making money does not preclude enhancements, he can still succeed in performing the activity of making money.5 In short, Bob’s participation in professional football can be considered to be many different activities. Some of these activities can require that he not use certain enhancements, and some will not. Therefore, Bob’s use of certain enhancements could be conceptually ruled out by some of these activities but not others. In deciding whether or not to enhance, one must consider where their values lie and then decide which activities they would like to engage in.

To further clarify exactly how this nature-of-activities justification for the LPI works, I’ll take a step back and look at things from a broader perspective: For any activity which one might otherwise be praiseworthy for, there are many reasons that an individual could fail to deserve praise. One reason could be that an individual did not succeed in the relevant activity (they did not win the race, lift the weights sufficiently high, etc.). Other reasons could include that the individual cheated, that some other person performed the activity, or that the individual did the action unintentionally. All that the nature-of-activities justification for the LPI needs to succeed is that it can identify one necessary condition for praise which is not being met due to the individual using a form of enhancement. The condition which this account pinpoints is the requirement to follow some rules of an activity. However, one would only be due less praise as a result of breaking a rule if the rule was a sufficiently important rule for performing the activity, such as a constitutive rule. This is why I take the LPI to be justified only when enhancement violates the rules which are vital both to the success of the activity and for praise due for this success - the constitutive rules.6

If we adopt my revised account of the nature-of-activities justification for the LPI and apply it to discussions regarding the permissibility of a particular enhancement for a particular activity, we would need to first determine what the point of the activity is. Once this has been established, we would determine whether using this type of enhancement would, on a sufficiently fine-grained description of the activity, result in one missing the point of the activity. If using this form of enhancement does result in one missing the point of the activity, then there is a constitutive rule against such enhancement and using the enhancement is conceptually impermissible. Therefore, individuals who use this enhancement would be breaking a constitutive rule of the activity and would justifiably be due less praise than if they had performed similarly and not enhanced.

It might seem unhelpful to justify the LPI by essentially claiming that enhancements are allowed unless there are rules against them. However, once we understand concerns about enhancement to be concerns about the violation of a conceptual rule of an activity, the nature-of-activities account can guide the discussion towards discerning what the relevant aspects of the activity are and whether a certain type of enhancement would violate a constitutive rule of the activity. Moreover, this justification does not depend on any strange metaphysical commitments or the assumption that using enhancements must be a form of cheating, nor does it require the defense of any particular ethical stance in favor of or against the use of certain enhancements. Furthermore, at no point do we need to rely on the vague and problematic distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities. Therefore, my version of the nature-of-activities account is simpler and less problematic than competing justifications for the LPI.

Determining the Normative Status of Enhancements

Thus far, I’ve explained how the nature-of-activities account can justify the LPI. The account I’ve spelled out allows one to determine whether an enhancement is conceptually permissible or impermissible. Nonetheless, it says nothing regarding whether the enhancement should be considered morally or legally permissible. Since Santoni de Sio et al. intend that their nature-of-activities justification can say something about when enhancement should be considered permissible, impermissible, or obligatory with respect to these other domains, and since my account does away with the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities, one might worry that the distinction which I consider unnecessary is actually crucial for determining the normative status of enhancements with respect to non-conceptual domains (moral, legal, etc.). While I agree that more needs to be said in order to determine the normative status of enhancements, I will again defend an account that is modeled after Santoni de Sio et al.’s nature-of-activities account but is more concise than Santoni de Sio et al.’s original account in that it does not require the deeply problematic distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities.

Santoni de Sio et al. Do Not Rely on the Practice-Oriented vs. Goal-Directed Distinction

Not only is it possible to determine the normative status of enhancements without using the practice-oriented and goal-directed distinction, I argue that Santoni de Sio et al. themselves [2] do this. That is, when explaining when enhancements should be considered impermissible, permissible, and obligatory, Santoni de Sio et al. do not clearly or seriously rely on the distinction between practice-oriented activities and goal-directed activities, despite their claims that this distinction is fundamental to the nature-of-activities account.

When discussing whether certain enhancements might be considered impermissible, Santoni de Sio et al. [2] claim that there are two important factors to consider. First, do considerations for the current nature of the activity rule out the type of enhancement in question? (Are there currently constitutive rules against the enhancement?) Second, supposing that the considerations for the current nature of the activity do rule out this type of enhancement, are these considerations valuable enough to maintain the current nature of the activity? (Are the reasons for keeping the constitutive rules and the point of the activity as a whole the same more valuable than the reasons to change the rules and the point of the activity?) Santoni de Sio et al. argue that if the answer to all of these questions is “yes”, then this type of enhancement should be considered impermissible. However, neither of these factors mention whether the activity is goal-directed or practice-oriented, nor does the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities seem to contribute anything towards determining how we answer these questions. Thus, although Santoni de Sio et al. argue that the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities is of utmost importance for determining whether enhancements are impermissible or not, they don’t seem to employ this distinction themselves while explaining when enhancement is impermissible.

In their discussion regarding when cognitive enhancement is permissible, Santoni de Sio et al. [2] claim there are two possible scenarios. “The first involves all those practice-oriented activities that are not appreciably morally significant.” Santoni de Sio et al. [2] argue that enhancement should be permissible in these cases because “even if the use of cognitive enhancers results in a change in the nature of the activity in which an agent is engaged, there is no moral reason to forbid this change. In such cases, agents should be permitted to utilize cognitive enhancement technologies if they wish.” It seems that their justification for considering enhancement to be permissible lies in the fact that there is no moral reason to forbid the enhancement. However, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think that there can’t also be goal-directed activities that have this sort of moral insignificance. Moral significance was not a factor which differentiated practice-oriented and goal-directed activities, and so we should expect that there are both practice-oriented and goal-directed activities with sufficiently little moral significance such that enhancements would be permissible. For instance, grocery shopping and getting one’s teeth cleaned are not (for most of us, I presume) activities that are done for some internal purpose, but rather they are done to accomplish some external goals (acquiring groceries and having clean teeth). Nonetheless, if enhancements existed that could change the nature of these goal-directed activities, there doesn’t seem to be any moral reason to forbid this change since these activities are morally insignificant. Therefore, Santoni de Sio et al.’s justification for considering enhancements to be permissible seems to apply to practice-oriented activities as well as goal-directed activities. And if this is the case, then the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities is not necessary or relevant for determining whether an enhancement should be considered permissible.

The irrelevance of the practice-oriented and goal-directed distinction continues in Santoni de Sio et al.’s [2] explanation of the second way enhancements can be deemed permissible. “The second way in which cognitive enhancement can be permissible involves strongly goal-directed activities. Here, the benefits of better results achieved in the enhanced version of the activity count as a decisive moral reason for allowing cognitive enhancement.” The first problem with this explanation is that Santoni de Sio et al. do not discuss what differentiates a strongly goal-directed activity from any other goal-directed activity. Therefore, one might assume that the distinguishing feature of this category is that strongly goal-directed activities are the kinds of activities in which better results are achieved when individuals use enhancements. However, there again does not seem to be any reason to think that there are not practice-oriented activities which can achieve better results if individuals are enhanced. After all, people use enhancements for all sorts of activities (including practice-oriented activities like sports) specifically because of the better results that are achieved by those who use them.

Perhaps then we should understand “strongly goal-directed” activities to be those goal-directed activities on which much moral significance is placed. The thought would be that practice-oriented activities are not morally significant (or are less morally significant), while goal-directed activities are morally significant (or are more morally significant), and some goal-directed activities are strongly morally significant. This understanding would seem to cohere with Santoni de Sio et al.’s [2] association between practice-oriented activities and morally innocuous activities. They claim, “A paradigm class of morally innocuous activities is non-competitive hobbies or passtimes. Such activities are typical practice-oriented activities – the point of engaging in a hobby is given by doing certain things in a certain way.” Nonetheless, while paradigm cases of morally innocuous activities may be typical practice-oriented activities, it doesn’t follow that all practice-oriented activities are morally innocuous. The fact that many practice-oriented activities, such as sports, are competitive and depend on interactions with others suggests that they are morally significant by nature. Furthermore, competitive sports employ thousands of individuals, make billions of dollars, and the outcomes of these sporting events affect the lives of countless people in a deep, emotional, and personal manner. All of this suggests that at least some practice-oriented activities are “strongly” morally significant. Therefore, while little moral weight seems to hang on the practice-oriented activities which Santoni de Sio et al. frequently mention, we don’t have reason to think that all practice-oriented activities are morally innocuous or insignificant.

However, even if it is the case that there are no “strongly” morally significant practice-oriented activities, the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities would still not be necessary for determining when an enhancement is permissible. Instead, the distinction between activities that are “strongly” morally significant and those activities that aren’t would be the only distinction that is necessary. We know that the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities does not capture the distinction between morally significant and morally insignificant activities, because if it did, one wouldn’t need to further distinguish between goal-directed activities and strongly goal-directed activities. Therefore, the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities is not necessary for determining when an enhancement should be considered permissible.

While I have argued that Santoni de Sio et al. do not themselves rely on a distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities when determining when enhancements are impermissible and permissible, they most clearly do not use this distinction when explaining when enhancements should be considered obligatory. They [2] argue: “The moral principle that may underlie an obligation for certain professionals to enhance themselves is what we call the Easy and Safe Beneficence principle or ESB. ESB: If an agent can perform a certain easy, safe, and permissible action A that will allow her to reduce or eliminate suffering for those depending on the agent, then she should A.” ESB does not mention practice-oriented or goal-directed activities at all. What matters for ESB is whether the activity is easy, safe, permissible, and can reduce or eliminate suffering for those depending on the agent. However, none of these considerations are built into the notions of what it takes to be a practice-oriented or goal-directed activity. Thus, the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities is irrelevant to the considerations which matter for the ESB principle. If the obligation to enhance arises from ESB, and it is irrelevant with respect to ESB whether an activity is practice-oriented or goal-directed, then the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities is also irrelevant to when enhancement is obligatory.

In sum, when explaining when an enhancement is impermissible, Santoni de Sio et al. [2] do not rely on a distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities. Rather, they focus on whether the nature of the activity rules out the enhancement and whether we have more reason to rule it out than permit it. In their explanation for when an enhancement is obligatory, Santoni de Sio et al. attend only to their ESB principle, which does not at all depend on a distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities. Although Santoni de Sio et al. mention practice-oriented and goal-directed activities when explaining when enhancements are permissible, their justification seems to rely solely on whether the activities are morally significant or whether the benefits of a considered type of enhancement are significant enough to override conceptual rules which may currently prohibit the enhancement. However, the difference between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities does not seem to have anything to say about whether an activity is morally significant or whether the benefits of an enhancement can be significant enough to permit the enhancement. Thus, even when Santoni de Sio et al. themselves [2] explain and apply the nature-of-activities justification, the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities is irrelevant for determining whether an enhancement is permissible, impermissible, or obligatory.

Determining Normative Status without the Practice-Oriented vs. Goal-Directed Distinction

If we do away with this distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities, how can we use the nature-of-activities account to determine whether a given enhancement is permissible, impermissible, or obligatory? I argue that the same general framework which Santoni de Sio et al. provide in their nature-of-activities account can be applied to make such determinations.

Recall that when determining when an enhancement is impermissible, Santoni de Sio et al. argue that there are two important factors to consider; first, whether the current nature of the activity rules out the considered type of enhancement, and second, whether the considerations in favor of keeping the nature of the activity unchanged are sufficiently valuable to justify maintaining the current nature of the activity. It seems that these two factors can also capture what is relevant for determining when enhancements are permissible and obligatory [13]. Considerations for whether an enhancement produces morally significant results, or better results generally, can be taken into account within the second factor – when one determines how valuable the considerations are in favor of and against the use of the enhancement. That is, the results of using an enhancement can be a contributing factor for determining the extent to which the use of an enhancement is valuable. Similarly, Santoni de Sio et al.’s ESB principle can also be a contributing factor used in determining the value of using an enhancement. If using an enhancement meets the conditions specified in ESB, then using the enhancement can be considered so valuable that the enhancement should be obligatory. Since all of the considerations Santoni de Sio et al. make use of when determining whether enhancements should be deemed permissible, impermissible, and obligatory can be subsumed into the two factors they argue are relevant for determining when an enhancement should be considered impermissible - whether the current nature of the activity rules out the type of enhancement, and whether these considerations in favor of maintaining the current nature of the activity are sufficiently valuable to maintain the current nature of the activity - these two factors are all that is needed for the nature-of-activities account to determine the moral status of enhancements. Furthermore, since the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities is irrelevant to these two factors, this distinction is unnecessary for the nature-of-activities account to successfully operate.

In order to give proper consideration to these two factors and determine the normative status of a given enhancement, we must first take the same steps that are necessary for the nature-of-activities justification to determine whether the LPI is justified; we need to first identify what the nature, or goal, of an activity is and, second, identify the conceptual limits of how one may pursue this goal. If using the enhancement does not violate a constitutive rule of the activity on an appropriately fine-grained description, then the enhancement is (currently) permissible. If using the enhancement does result in one breaking a constitutive rule of the activity, and thus, an enhanced individual is no longer participating in the same activity as non-enhanced individuals, then the enhancement is (currently) impermissible. However, in determining whether the constitutive rules of an activity should change – whether the enhancement should be considered permissible, impermissible, or obligatory - one needs to further consider the value of what is to be gained by allowing or requiring the enhancement in comparison to prohibiting or merely permitting it.

It might be that an enhancement violates the nature of an activity by breaking a constitutive rule of the activity, but also that what is gained by using the enhancement is more valuable than the rule(s) against this enhancement. For example, although Olympians used to be required to compete nude, it was judged that the benefits which came from wearing clothes were more valuable than the Olympic rule against these enhancements. When cases such as this arise, we ought to simply change the rules and permit the enhancement, thereby also changing the nature of the activity itself. Furthermore, in cases where the benefits of the enhancement are sufficiently valuable (perhaps, for instance, if the enhancement satisfies Santoni de Sio et al.’s ESB principle), the enhancement can be deemed obligatory, thus making what was previously considered an “enhancement” a new requirement for the activity. For example, it was eventually determined that wearing clothing in the Olympics is sufficiently more valuable than a rule requiring or permitting nudity, and now wearing clothing is required in the Olympics. Similarly, if an enhancement is currently permissible but we have stronger considerations in favor of prohibiting it, then we should change the rules of the activity and thereby change the nature of the activity itself such that the enhancement is deemed impermissible.

Although this aspect of my version of the nature-of-activities account maintains the spirit of Santoni de Sio et al.’s [1, 2] original view and allows us to reach the same conclusions about enhancement, my version does so without complicating the justification in vague ways which require superfluous distinctions. Furthermore, with regard to the goal of determining whether enhancements should be considered permissible, impermissible, or obligatory, the nature-of activities account has the added benefit of allowing one to distinguish between many different types of considerations and allowing us to reach conclusions with respect to the domain we find relevant. That is, it is possible to distinguish the normative status of an enhancement specifically with respect to one type of consideration, and this can be extremely useful for organizations and philosophers alike. The conceptual rules regarding an activity are usually different from the moral rules regarding the activity, and both of these sets of rules usually differ from the legal rules and the rules an organization or business has regarding the activity. Nonetheless, the account I propose allows each of these domains to determine the appropriate normative status with respect to the relevant considerations for that domain.

If an enhancement violates a conceptual rule of an activity, that enhancement is conceptually impermissible. If an enhancement violates a legal rule of an activity, that enhancement is legally impermissible, and so on and so forth for moral rules, the rules of a particular organization, etc. With regard to deciding whether these rules should permit, prohibit, or require a type of enhancement, we can look at the type of value-laden considerations relevant to a given domain and determine what the normative status of the enhancement should be. That is, if there is greater moral value in allowing surgeons to use cognitive enhancements when performing strenuous surgeries than there is in disallowing surgeons to use cognitive enhancements in these circumstances, then we should consider cognitive enhancements to be morally permissible in these circumstances. Similarly, if a professional football league deems prohibiting all forms of steroids to be more valuable for the league than permitting steroids, then the professional football league should consider the steroids to be impermissible for the purposes of participating in the league. Of course, many of these considerations will, and should, overlap (the rules of a professional football league can, and should, coincide with moral and legal rules). Nonetheless, it is a virtue of the nature-of-activities account (both the account I’ve defended and Santoni de Sio et al.’s original account) that we can investigate these considerations individually, thus allowing organizations and moral theorists alike to determine whether enhancements should be deemed permissible, impermissible, or obligatory with respect to the considerations and normative domains they find relevant.

Last, by allowing each domain to determine whether enhancements should be permissible, impermissible, or obligatory with respect to their own domain, we can avoid additional problems of subjectivity. For instance, whether an enhancement is permitted by a professional football league would not depend on a player’s goals, intentions, or motives, nor would this determination be made by “society” generally. Rather, those in charge of the league rules can consider where the league’s values lie and determine whether the enhancement should be deemed permissible for the purposes of playing in that league. Likewise, lawmakers can consult where legal values lie and determine whether it is more beneficial from a legal standpoint to require that certain professionals use cognitive enhancement drugs in dire circumstances. Although determining the correct moral status of enhancements can be difficult, this doesn’t seem to be any more problematic than other questions about what morality requires, permits, and prohibits. In short, there may be different considerations either in favor of or against an enhancement for each domain, and each domain can deem a given enhancement to be permissible, impermissible, or obligatory with respect to that domain and independent of others. Thus, a given enhancement might be conceptually permissible, morally obligatory, and yet legally impermissible. Since alternative justifications for the LPI, such as the responsibility-shifting and authenticity justifications, do not allow for this sort of domain specificity, the nature-of-activities account has a significant advantage over competing justifications for the LPI. Furthermore, by dropping the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities, my version of the nature-of-activities justification has a leg up on Santoni de Sio et al.’s version of the nature-of-activities justification as well.

To summarize, we can use the nature-of-activities account to both justify the LPI and determine the normative status of enhancements, all without using the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities. By removing this dubious distinction from discussions regarding the ethics of enhancements, this revised account is simpler and less complicated than Santoni de Sio et al.’s original formulation, yet it maintains the same spirit and allows one to draw similar conclusions. Furthermore, my modified version of the nature-of-activities justification still avoids the problems which responsibility-shifting, authenticity, and cheating justifications for the LPI face.

Conclusion

Santoni de Sio et al. [2] state: “Our main claim is that in order to determine whether enhancement is forbidden, allowed, or obligatory, one must attend to the metaphysical characteristics of the activity in question, and in particular whether the activity is prominently goal-directed or practice-oriented.” I have argued, however, that this distinction between goal-directed and practice-oriented activities is both problematic and unnecessary. The nature-of-activities justification for the LPI is best understood to require only an analysis of what is conceptually required for a given activity under a sufficiently fine-grained description. That is, one must first identify what the point, or goal, of an activity is and, second, identify the conceptual limits of how one may pursue this goal. If an enhancement violates one of these conceptual rules of the activity, then one who uses this form of enhancement is not performing the same activity as non-enhanced individuals. These enhanced individuals, therefore, do not deserve the same amount of praise as non-enhanced individuals, and this justifies the LPI. Since this version of the nature-of-activities account can justify the LPI without making use of the distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities, this distinction, and the problems that come with it, can be removed from the nature-of-activities account.

Furthermore, this distinction is not necessary to determine whether enhancements should be considered permissible, impermissible, or obligatory. Supposing one has determined the nature of an activity, the conceptual rules which apply to this activity, and whether the enhancement is currently conceptually permissible or impermissible for the given activity, one can determine whether enhancements should be considered permissible, impermissible, or obligatory with respect to a given domain by simply considering whether permitting, prohibiting, or requiring the use of the enhancement would be sufficiently valuable or disvaluable with respect to that domain. For instance, if the moral considerations in favor of allowing surgeons and pilots to use cognitive enhancements in certain circumstances outweigh the moral considerations in favor of prohibiting their use of cognitive enhancements, then we should consider surgeons’ and pilots’ use of cognitive enhancements to be morally permissible in the specified circumstances. This approach makes use of the substantive aspects of Santoni de Sio et al.’s account without requiring that one employ the problematic distinction between practice-oriented and goal-directed activities. Furthermore, this version of the nature-of-activities account continues to avoid the problems which responsibility-shifting, authenticity, and cheating justifications face, all the while relying on conceptual analysis of the nature of activities as opposed to the defense of any particular ethical view either in favor of or against certain enhancements. Taking the nature-of-activities justification seriously can allow moral theorists, universities, businesses, lawmakers, and sports associations alike to coherently and clearly discuss whether using a type of enhancement warrants less praise for a given activity and which sorts of enhancements should be deemed permissible, impermissible, and obligatory with respect to the considerations which they take to be important for a given activity.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    The enhanced individuals, not the creators of the enhancement, are the ones who actually perform the praiseworthy action and the activities that led to their accomplishments (e.g. practice). Enhancements do not strip the enhancer of their contributions to the action which they performed [3]. Furthermore, enhancements do not bring about a change in one’s numerical identity such that we should consider the enhanced individual to be a different person [4, 5, 6].

  2. 2.

    It is possible that the LPI may be justified even when enhancement is unintentional or not the result of a blameworthy action. Additionally, if everyone could enhance, then enhancement would not be unfair. So, if an unequal playing field is the worry, then we could simply allow enhancement and the problem would be solved [6, 7].

  3. 3.

    Santoni de Sio [8] employs the same nature-of-activities approach when discussing the ethics of care robots, using the same examples and general descriptions to draw out the relevant distinctions. Murray [9] also discusses the importance of identifying the point, or goal, of an activity when determining whether to permit or prohibit certain enhancements in sports.

  4. 4.

    Of course, as Santoni de Sio et al. discuss, some rules are arbitrary and which rules are considered constitutive can be a matter of how finely we’d like to describe the nature of the activity. These rules can change with time, and when they do change the point of the activity will change as well.

  5. 5.

    Of course, if it is required that Bob play professional football in order for him to make money, then once it is discovered that he is violating a constitutive rule of the sport, he will likely no longer make money. Nonetheless, this failure to make money is not a conceptual consequence of his use of enhancements, as his failure to play professional football would be.

  6. 6.

    It is important to note that I am not claiming that the nature-of-activities justification tracks what generates or best explains our intuitions regarding enhancement and praise. It is possible that our intuitions about the praiseworthiness of enhanced individuals are the result of an array of factors which are unrelated to the constitutive rules of an activity.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyFlorida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA

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