Smarter Than Thou, Holier Than Thou: The Dynamic Interplay Between Cognitive and Moral Enhancement

The debate about the desirability of using drugs to enhance human skills encompasses cognitive abilities such as memory and attention, and moral capacities such as emotional empathy and a sense of fairness. These two strands of literature in bioethics have grown relatively independent from each other, and an implicit framing assumption has emerged suggesting that apparently morally neutral cognitive capacities and paradigmatically moral capacities are distinct and vary independently of each other.

Here, we identify key distinctions between competing accounts of cognitive enhancement and moral enhancement and argue that, despite the polarized nature of the bioethical debate, cognitive and moral capacities are intertwined. For example, moral behavior can be improved by enhancing “morally neutral” abilities such as attention span; and cognitive skills can be honed by means of socio-moral interaction. Further, cognitive skill is frequently assigned the abstract status of virtue and treated in the same way as more paradigmatically “moral” traits. We argue that the distinction between moral and cognitive enhancement is more apparent than real, since despite being nominally treated as distinct, cognitive and moral skills are frequently interdependent.

As such we present evidence to support the claim that the enhancement of these two kinds of capacities cannot be clearly disaggregated from each other in the way that the theoretical poles of the debate in the literature suggest. We synthesize relevant scientific and bioethical literature and combine it with a line of analysis derived from Peter Hacker to show more clearly the terms of what can be said intelligibly about cognitive and moral skills and their enhancement. As a result of this analysis, we conclude that ethical questions in human bioenhancement are only fully intelligible at the level of persons imbued with feelings, thoughts, intentions, desires, values, and abilities, embedded within a particular social context, rather than at the level of pharmacological modulation of particular cognitive or affective capacities which, though conceptually distinguishable, in the embodied context of moral agency are profoundly intertwined.