Erving Goffman Stigma

1 January 2017

An ethics of enhancement should not rest on blanket judgments; it should ask us to distinguish between the kinds of activities we want to enhance. Both students and academics have turned to cognition-enhancing drugs in significant numbers—but is their enhancement a form of cheating? The answer should hinge on whether the activity subject to enhancement is zero-sum or non-zero-sum, and whether one is more concerned with excellence in process or excellence in outcome.

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Cognitive enhancement should be especially tolerated when the activities at stake are non-zero-sum and when the importance of process is outweighed by the importance of outcome. The use of cognition-enhancing drugs does not unnaturally cheapen accomplishments achieved under their influence; instead, cognitive enhancement is in line with well-established conceptions of collaborative authorship, which shift the locus of praise and blame from individual creators to the ultimate products of their efforts. an essay on performance-enhancing drugs, author Chuck Klosterman (2007) argues that the category of enhancers extends from hallucinogens used to inspire music to steroids used to strengthen athletes—and he criticizes those who would excuse one means of enhancement while railing against the other as a form of cheating:

After the summer of 1964, the Beatles started taking serious drugs, and those drugs altered their musical performance. Though it may not have been their overt intent, the Beatles took performance-enhancing drugs. And . . . absolutely no one holds it against them.

Although he may be exaggerating on both points, Klosterman still suggests a serious argument about our society’s tolerance of performance-enhancing drugs: tacit acceptance of performanceenhancing drugs in one sphere of human activity should entail toleration in other spheres, and anything else is hypocrisy. On the contrary, I consider the attitude he criticizes to be basically correct: meaningful ethical judgments on performance enhancement require meaningful distinctions among the activities that are subject to enhancement. It is possible for a consistent ethical schema to excuse the Beatles and condemn Palmeiro.

I focus my argument on cognition-enhancing drugs (CEDs) and their effects on one’s understanding of cheating and human accomplishment. Although CEDs raise a number of difficult ethical questions—including issues of distributive justice, social pressure to conform, and “hubris” in altering human nature—I set those questions aside to focus in depth on cheating and accomplishment. I also refer frequently to the use of CEDs in academic settings, which already has been a significant focus of debate; but the arguments I develop could, in principle, be extended to many other settings.

I argue that two distinctions among activities are especially important for developing a coherent ethics of enhancement. The first is between activities that are zero-sum and non-zero-sum. The second is between activities that are predominately characterized by what I call “process goods,” excellence in the performance of an activity, or by “outcome goods,” the benefits an activity creates. Activities in academic settings may fall anywhere in this framework; willingness to tolerate the use of CEDs should largely depend on where the activities fall.

Among the most common CEDs are modafinil, methylphenidate, and dextroamphetamine, which are available under the brand names Provigil, [ 146 ] Goodman • CoGnitive enhanCement, CheatinG, and aCComplishment Ritalin, and Adderall, respectively. Although originally developed to treat diagnosed conditions ranging from narcolepsy to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, their off-label use has been reported to increase users’ recall, attention span, and ability to focus on cognitive tasks; in addition, modafinil has been shown to increase wakefulness (Butcher 2003; greely et al. 2008).

Some CEDs also seem to enhance users’ “executive function,” or problem-solving ability (Mehlman 2004, p. 484). Beyond the currently available drugs, research into Alzheimer’s disease and other causes of cognitive decline in the elderly is likely to contribute, intentionally or not, to the further development of CEDs: The federal government’s annual expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars on Alzheimer’s research alone may result in CEDs that are safer and more effective than those currently available (Mehlman 2004, p. 485). Anecdotal reports provide some insight into the effects of CEDs and the subjective experience of their use.

Perplexed, I got up, made a sandwich—and I was overcome with the urge to write an article that had been kicking around my subconscious for months. It rushed out of me in a few hours, and it was better than usual. . . . I was just able to glide into a state of concentration—deep, cool, effortless concentration. It was like I had opened a window in my brain and all the stuffy air had seeped out, to be replaced by a calm breeze. Once that article was finished, I wanted to do more. I wrote another article, all of it springing out of my mind effortlessly. (Hari 2008)

Another journalist, David Plotz of Slate, found similar results in his own unscientific experiment. He recorded the effects of two days of modafinil use in real time: “Today I am the picture of vivacity. I am working about twice as fast as usual. I have a desperate urge to write. .

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