Fiala on ethics: Brain hackers raise social questions about learning, understanding

FresnoJune 28, 2013 

Is it ethical to use "smart drugs" to improve cognitive function?

Legal concoctions of vitamins, herbs and nutrients are advertised as improving memory, focus and mental acuity. Some of these supplements claim they can produce lucid dream states and lessen the need for sleep. And prescription drugs are being used in illegal ways as mental stimulants, aimed at enhancing memory and concentration.

So-called "brain hackers" claim that cognitive function can be enhanced by sending mild electrical current through the brain. At least one company is marketing a trans-cranial electrical current device to video game players as an upgrade for the gamer's brain.

Assuming that these things really work, one obvious ethical issue is health and safety. But if we assume that neuro-enhancers can be used safely, another ethical issue is fairness. It doesn't seem fair for people to artificially enhance performance in school or in business, especially if these enhancements are not widely available to everyone.

One might also worry that the learning that occurs through brain hacking doesn't really count. It seems like cheating. Of course, these products won't do the learning for you. They help you focus and retain information better and faster. But you still have to do the studying. If it is acceptable to drink coffee during a cram session, is it also acceptable to use another, more powerful chemical that can help you focus even better?

If learning is primarily about creating pathways in the brain, resulting in new skills and abilities, then there is nothing inherently wrong with brain upgrades that help build those pathways more quickly. Flashcards help and so might a drug. Result-oriented learning will encourage the use of the most efficient tools. From a result-oriented standpoint, it doesn't matter that you took a chemical shortcut so long as you actually end up knowing the thing you set out to learn.

But learning and thinking are not only a means to an end. They are also ends in themselves. Aristotle suggested this when he said that learning gives us the liveliest pleasure. One source of the pleasure of learning is the resultant mastery — the ability to perform or do something as a result of learning. But there is also pleasure in the very process of practicing and working at mastery. Is the road of learning enjoyable for its own sake; or is the point to achieve mastery as quickly as possible?

The brain-hackers want to shorten the process, perhaps underestimating the pleasures of practice and study. They are primarily focused on performance and achievement. If a short cut can be found, why not take it?

But Aristotle and others would argue that the road matters as much as the destination. Learning and thinking are also deeply social activities, which build connections with other people through the shared effort of the process. There is no mechanical or pharmaceutical shortcut to building community and developing relationships.

In a culture of high-stakes testing and dog-eat-dog economic struggle, it makes sense that people would want to hack their brains, looking for a competitive advantage.

In our culture, there are tangible rewards for those who can process and recall information quickly and accurately. Quick thinkers get better grades, bigger scholarships, and higher-paying jobs. Slow thinkers are left languishing in the dust.

But quick processing and recall skills are merely mechanical: machines can process and recall information much faster than we can.

Machines cannot, however, evaluate what is worth thinking about. The brain hackers are focused on the question of "how fast?" But they forget to ask "how come?"

There is no quick answer for the deeply human question of what matters and why it matters.

Existential questions require unhurried contemplation. But our caffeinated, video-game culture has no time for ruminating and mulling things over.

We spike our brains, filling them with images and words from dawn to dusk.

We are competitive thinkers, looking for an edge in a world that has little patience for the poets and dreamers who pause to wonder about the point of the hustle.

In the end, we may find that the faster we arrive at our destination, the less we understand why we wanted to get there in the first place.

 

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. He invites your suggestions at fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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