Scientists in America have found a way to reduce crime amongst some high risk groups by 30-40%. It involves a simulation of crime scenes where the victim is a hologram representing the potential criminal in question, followed by discussion with a trained therapist. The experience causes the subject to feel greater empathy and reduces violent crime. We should introduce this therapy now, as a matter of priority.
There is no such therapy, sadly. But there is something which promises the same effects in some groups. Ritalin. A Swedish study found that taking ADHD medication significantly reduced the criminality rate amongst those with ADHD: by 32% in men, and 41% in women. ADHD has itself been associated with an increase in criminality.
Some people will argue that this is a therapy for ADHD, not an enhancement. But ADHD is not a disease like cancer – it is likely a variant of normal functioning involving lower levels of impulse control and attention.
Ritalin, Adderall, Modafenil are all taken by thousands of professionals and students to enhance performance, in a similar way to caffeine. The film Limitless was loosely based on modafenil (in fact, Modafenil doesn’t appear to have such a dangerous side effect profile as is portrayed in the film, though there are as yet no long term studies of normal people). Ongoing research into Alzheimers disease and other impairments will lead to other drugs which enhance normal cognition.
Cognitive enhancement has other social benefits. In a very controversial book, Herrnstein and Murray argued that a 3 point increase in IQ would, amongst other things, reduce poverty and the amount of males in jail by 25%, and parentless children by 20%.
But most importantly, enhancement has personal benefits. You need an IQ of 95 to complete a tax return in the US. Enhancing IQ opens up job opportunities, reduces risk of illness and injury, increases income. Enhancing mood makes you happier and physical enhancement allows you to live longer, and feel better while you are at it.
In the future, it will be possible select embryos which are genetically endowed with advantages and talents. China is already running a major research programme to uncover the genetic contributors to intelligence.
But there are major objections.
If we are to enhance certain qualities, how should we decide? Eugenics was the movement early last century which aimed to use selective breeding to prevent degeneration of the gene pool by weeding out criminals, those with mental illness and the poor, on the false belief that these conditions were simple genetic disorders. The eugenics movement had its inglorious peak when the Nazis moved beyond sterilization to extermination of the genetically unfit.
What was objectionable about the eugenics movement, besides its shoddy scientific basis, was that it involved the imposition of a State vision for a healthy population and aimed to achieve this through coercion. The eugenics movement was not aimed at what was good for individuals, but rather what benefited society (or rather, what those in power thought would benefit society). Modern eugenics in the form of testing for disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, occurs very commonly but differs from previous eugenics, because it is entirely voluntary, gives couples a choice over which child to have and the aim is to have a child with the greatest opportunity for a good life.
The critical question to ask in considering whether to alter some gene related to complex behaviour is: would the change be better for the individual? In some cases, this will be difficult to answer.
What do Jim Carrey, Charles Dickens, and Isaac Newton have in common? They all suffered from mental illness in some form, but were also gifted with unusual talent and creativity. Are the two linked? Possibly. In 1993, the psychologist Jamison reported that poets were 30 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the population as a whole. Several large studies have confirmed links between academic performance, creative occupations and bipolar disorder.
Even when we are dealing with something that is uncontroversially good, there is the objection that enhancement will lead to inequality and injustice, a two tiered society of the privileged enhanced and the underprivileged unenhanced, as in the film Gattaca.
But how we choose to distribute enhancement, like health care or education, is a matter of social choice, political decision and public will. We could use it to correct inequality.
And it is a mistake to think that enhancements are inevitably expensive. If you don’t get enough iodine when you are pregnant, your child will have around 10-15 fewer IQ points. He or she may still be normal, but just less smart. This can be prevented by putting iodine in salt. Around 1 billion IQ points are lost around the world each year because of insufficient iodine. It would cost 2-3 cents per person per year to iodise salt.
Drugs are cheap when off patent. Technology, like computing, is generally much more expensive.
What kind of ethical principles should guide us through these new times?
A basic and proven principle is one of liberty. John Stuart Mill famously stated that sole ground for the exercise of state power to prevent someone doing something is that they would cause harm to others. In the case of adults, risk of harm to themselves is a ground only for informing them of risk, not for restricting their liberty.
So let the enhancement industry bloom and let people make their own decisions.
In a welfare state like Australia, there is, however, an indirect kind of harm people can inflict on others: excessive consumption of community resources through taking unreasonably risky choices. If enhancements are very risky, and result in significant social costs, this is a ground for banning them. But we need reasonable evidence to move from a default of liberty.
As the case of Ritalin shows, sometimes enhancements can benefit society. When should we use enhancements for social rather than personal purposes? Clearly offering them as an option is not an infringement of liberty – it is not coercive to make an offer if a person retains the status quo as an option. One easy solution is to make social enhancements available but not obligatory.
But what if, as in the Ritalin and criminal behaviour case, enhancement is both good for society and good for the individual? Should such enhancements, like education, be obligatory?
This requires that we answer a great challenge posed by Dostoyevsky in Brother’s Karamazov. Which is more important, freedom or happiness?