Smart pills vs. motivation pills – is one morally worse than the other?

Imagine a huge pile of unwashed dishes reminds you that you should clean your kitchen. Would you rather take a pill that increases your ability to clean very elaborately or one that helps you get off the couch and actually bring yourself to start cleaning? No hard decision for me…

Certain substances like methylphenidate can not only enhance cognition, but also motivation or, to be more precise, self-regulation. This is not too surprising as treating conditions associated with decreased self-regulation like ADHD often is a main purpose of such medication.

However, while cognitive enhancement has been debated a lot, it seems that only now ethical debate turns to motivation enhancement as a potentially contentious topic. In their recent post on this blog, Hannah Maslen, Julian Savulescu, and Carin Hunt convincingly argue that “the advantage procured by reducing the subjective effort or psychological burden involved in persisting with cognitive or physical training may be substantially more beneficial than increasing one’s (latent) capacity to perform well, but leaving the aversiveness of training intact.” They conclude that “the most controversial human enhancement is not radical cognitive or physical enhancement. What is most controversial is the enhancement of the will and self-discipline. To have a will of iron is, in today’s world, an enormous advantage given the power technology affords.” I agree.

Interestingly, many people seem to see matters differently. Tom Douglas, Felix Heise, Miles Hewstone, and I recently conducted an experiment, in which we investigated laypeople’s views on motivation enhancement as compared to cognitive enhancement.

We found that motivation enhancement is seen as significantly less morally wrong than cognitive enhancement. Specifically, participants judged the behaviour of a student who uses enhancers while studying for exams as less wrong when this enhancer was described as “motivation pills; to be keener to study and overcome motivational problems” than when the purpose of this enhancer was described as “smart pills; to think faster and more clearly”.

Moreover, we found a slight difference with regards to deservingness in favour of motivation enhancement. Participants tended to judge the student who uses “motivation pills” as more deserving of praise and success than the student uses “smart pills”. In other words, in the eyes of laypeople cognitive enhancement undermines deservingness somewhat more than motivation enhancement does.

What we cannot tell yet is why lay people judge this way. Our data give a first indication that perceptions of unfairness might play a crucial role. Overall, participants tended to see advantages gained through enhancement as more unfair when it took the form of “smart pills” as compared to “motivation pills”. And the more individual participants deemed advantages acquired through enhancement as unfair, the more morally wrong they found this enhancement and the less deserving they deemed the user to be. However, our data don’t tell a clear causal story here – more research is needed to investigate the underlying psychological processes.

Overall, however, it seems that lay people see motivation enhancement as less problematic than cognitive enhancement – a judgement I wouldn’t prematurely subscribe to.

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