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Is doodling a form of cheating?

The public
often complains about the fluctuating and conflicting attitudes of scientists.  So often do things heralded as good for us
one week turn out to be deadly the next (consider, for example, this recent
about vitamin pills
) that there seems little point in
trying to follow the advice of scientists.  

Some recent
news stories raise the question of whether the public is inclined to dismiss
the conflicting views of ethicists, too.  Ethical
concerns about pharmacological cognitive enhancement have regularly been
reported in the press (see, for example, here
and here);
whilst at the same time—as Dominic Wilkinson has noted on this blog—the
public has embraced non-pharmacological cognitive enhancement in the form of software designed to improve brain power, and the media
currently abounds with docile, non-panicky reports of how instant messaging,
taking short naps,
taking long naps,
listening to The Beatles,
and doodling can all enhance cognition in various ways. 
So far, there have been no reports of ethical concerns about these
activities: nobody is suggesting that students who doodle during lectures are cheating.  It seems that, despite the concerns of some, the public is willing
to embrace cognitive enhancement in a variety of forms.

Do news stories like these show that the public is ignoring
the concerns of ethicists?  I think there
is a more plausible explanation.  These
stories reveal that much of the concern about cognitive enhancement is—in one
sense—not ethical at all, but is a form of conservatism.  There is something odd and unappealing about
taking a pill to enhance one’s memory: it conjures up images of drug use,
dependency, side-effects, and so on, and some worry that embracing such pills will put us on a 'slippery slope' to much graver dangers.  On
the other hand, there is not much that is odd or unappealing about instant
messaging, doodling, or listening to music: these are familiar
activities with well-established places in our lifestyles.  However, with some of these activities, this
was not always so: mobile phone users were frequently viewed as antisocial fifteen
years ago, and in the 1960s many viewed ‘Beatlemania’ with suspicion and
disapproval.  Had claims about the
cognition-enhancing effects of texting and listening to the Beatles been made
at the time when they first made their
appearance, some may have found them as alarming as the prospect of taking pills to enhance memory today.  

This doesn’t entail that the public should ignore
ethical concerns, however.  Rather, it points to the
conclusion that as a society we could save ourselves a lot of bother by getting
clear about exactly which issues we are ethically concerned about, and which we
are merely squeamish about.  Perhaps a good rule of thumb for future debate about enhancement technology would be to ask: Would I be worried about these effects if they were caused by doodling?

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Hi Rebecca. I agree that people tend to adopt a very conservative stance on enhancement when you raise the prospect of enhancing via a pill versus a form of environmental intervention that they are familiar with and already pursue. So with cognition everyone is in favour of reading, writing, etc. to enhance their cognitive capacities but raise the prospect of taking a pill to boost memory, etc. and many are fearful and believe it is in principle wrong.

    This also arises with the prospect of decelerating aging. Everyone is in favour of nutrition and exercise to reduce their risk of morbidity and mortality. Raise the prospect of taking an “exercise pill” or “anti-aging pill” that could actually have a much more significant impact on reducing risk of disease and death and people think it is unethical.

    I suspect two other things are sometimes are work here that explain why people are so conservative. One is a kind of Puritan work ethic. “Back in my day we boosted our brains and hearts with good old fashion reading and exercise; these young’uns want a pill for everything! Hard work builds character you know”. Many people scuff at the idea of an “exercise pill”. For some reason they seem to believe that people who are too busy juggling work and family to find time to consistently exercise, or too poor to buy the most nutritious food or join a gym, *deserve* to have a high risk of morbidity and mortality.

    Secondly, I think people have a (false) sense of control with respect to external enhancing interventions. You often hear people say they don’t want to lift heavy weights for fear of bulking up too much, they are worried they might look like Arnold. The prospect of popping an exercise or memory pill removes the sense of “I’m in control of my biological destiny” and I suspect that concern may play a part of the resistance. Once people realise that their biological destiny is mostly shaped by their evolutionary legacies then they might become more open to the prospect of utilizing pharmaceuticals to improve upon what nature has endowed us with.

    To overcome the bias in favour of environmental enhancements only, I think it is useful to describe all the effects of enhancing interventions without reference to their source (i.e. external environment or pill). So when it comes to the biochemistry of their own brain we can just frame things like: “would you favour an intervention that boosted characteristic X (memory, positive emotions, etc.), with little or no adverse risk, etc.” This would filter out their prejudgements that every enhancing environmental intervention is safe (which is false–exercise poses many risks, such as strains, broken bones and even death) and every potential pharmaceutical intervention rife with adverse side-effects.

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