Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ethics and the Extended Mind: My Abstract for the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities

Title: The Ethics of Neuroenhancement Reframed: Applying the Extended Mind Hypothesis

Neuroenhancement refers to the elective use of medical interventions to enhance neurologic functions such as cognition, mood, and attention. Many find such interventions acceptable, and consider it foolish to eschew them. However, others view neuroenhancing interventions morally troubling because of the fundamental way they can affect an individual’s personhood and autonomy.
The ethical debate is shaped by how deeply the enhancement is thought to alter an individual. Supporters consider these alterations to differ merely by degree from other ubiquitous interventions, such as ingesting caffeine for attention and wakefulness. Detractors characterize neuroenhancement as a fundamentally different kind of alteration compared to other attempts to optimize or improve authentic human performance; some call for new ethical guidelines regarding what they consider neuroenhancement’s unique moral challenges. Therefore, progress toward an ethical analysis of neuroenhancement can be made by effectively characterizing it in either the degree or kind camps.

The extended mind theory (EXTENDED), principally defended by Clark, supports characterizing neuroenhancement as a difference of degree from acceptable interventions. EXTENDED claims that the mind does not stop at the skin and skull, nor does it merely lean on external objects for data storage and processing, but actively inhabits extracorporeal objects and processes. According to Clark, EXTENDED considers any process out in the world to be cognitive if, were it done exclusively in the head, we would not hesitate to consider it a cognitive process. Therefore, technologies that facilitate external cognition, from the pen to the smartphone, are examples of genuine augmentation of mind.

If EXTENDED characterizes some tool use as genuine neuroenhancement, then human experience with technology offers many ethical precedents, which range in degree of alteration. We present Chatterjee’s four crucial ethical concerns about medical neuroenhancement, and then reframe them in light of some of these precedents. (1) Individuals’ safety—Medical neuroenhancements must balance the burden of even mild side effects against the benefit to the otherwise healthy subject. However, “side effects” of extended mind enhancements, such as multitasking and attentional load, are widely considered acceptable for the otherwise functional individual. (2) Character—Medical neuroenhancement threatens to alter an individual’s sense of identity or of what gives meaning to a human life. But, since external enhancement involves tool use, which has been described as uniquely human, shunning neuroenhancement may in fact deny an essential feature of human nature and identity. (3) Justice—The access to and distribution of medical neuroenhancements are inherently inequitable. However, since emerging technologies can produce increasingly powerful tools at lower costs, neuroenhancement may therefore be a mechanism for the less affluent to “catch up.” (4) Autonomy—Some participants, competing for high stakes at narrow margins, feel coerced to use medical neuroenhancements. Nevertheless, the required use of assistive technology (e.g. autopilot devices) has been considered a welcome enhancement to one’s native abilities and the safety of others.

Ultimately, EXTENDED stands to reconcile the degree and kind camps. By placing neuroenhancement on an historical continuum that varies by degrees, EXTENDED offers a unique kind of ethical approach to these new concerns.


Anonymous said...

Thoroughly impressed; extended-mind hypothesis is well described and the ethical issues of neuro-enhancement are clear. See you in Minnesota (if U can afford it).

astupple said...


Thanks for the compliment, seriously. I deeply fear that I will lose coherency with this topic.

Yes, I'll be in Minnesota for sure. Hopefully I will see you there, feel free to email me if you're inclined to divulge your identity :)