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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

How pills undermine skills: Moralization of cognitive enhancement and causal selection

E. Mihailov, B. R. López, F. Cova & I. R. Hannikainen
Consciousness and Cognition
Volume 91, May 2021, 103120


Despite the promise to boost human potential and wellbeing, enhancement drugs face recurring ethical scrutiny. The present studies examined attitudes toward cognitive enhancement in order to learn more about these ethical concerns, who has them, and the circumstances in which they arise. Fairness-based concerns underlay opposition to competitive use—even though enhancement drugs were described as legal, accessible and affordable. Moral values also influenced how subsequent rewards were causally explained: Opposition to competitive use reduced the causal contribution of the enhanced winner’s skill, particularly among fairness-minded individuals. In a follow-up study, we asked: Would the normalization of enhancement practices alleviate concerns about their unfairness? Indeed, proliferation of competitive cognitive enhancement eradicated fairness-based concerns, and boosted the perceived causal role of the winner’s skill. In contrast, purity-based concerns emerged in both recreational and competitive contexts, and were not assuaged by normalization.


• Views on cognitive enhancement reflect both purity and fairness concerns.

• Fairness, but not purity, concerns are surmounted by normalizing use.

• Moral opposition to pills undermines user’s perceived skills.

From the Discussion

In line with a growing literature on causal selection (Alicke, 1992; Icard et al., 2017; Kominsky et al. 2015), judgments of the enhanced user’s skill aligned with participants’ moral attitudes. Participants who held permissive attitudes were more likely to causally attribute success to agents’ skill and effort, while participants who held restrictive attitudes were more likely to view the pill as causally responsible. This association resulted in stronger denial of competitive users’ talent and ability, particularly among fairness-minded individuals. 

The moral foundation of purity, comprising norms related to spiritual sanctity and bodily propriety, and which appeals predominantly to political conservatives (Graham et al., 2009), also predicted attitudes toward enhancement. Purity-minded individuals were more likely to condemn enhancement users, regardless of whether cognitive enhancement was normal or rare. This categorical opposition may elucidate the origin of conservative bioethicists’ (e.g., Kass, 2003) attitudes toward human enhancement: i.e., in self-directed norms regulating the proper care of one’s own body (see also Koverola et al., 2021). Finally, whereas explicit reasoning about interpersonal concerns and the unjust treatment of others accompanied fairness-based opposition, our qualitative analyses data did not reveal a cogent, purity-based rationale—which could be interpreted as evidence that purity-based opposition is not guided by moral reasoning to the same degree (Mihailov, 2016).