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Ethical Enhancement

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?

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16 Comment on this post

  1. It did not look shoddy at the time. It emerged from a meeting of the mathematics of probability and statistics with evolution theory and genetics in 19th century Britain. Much of its success was also due to the prevailing belief in the “moral science” of utilitarianism among the scientific community and intellectuals.

    The early 20th century development of IQ testing and analyses was accepted as being a reparable science. Although QI analyses may have a few legitimate uses, it is unquestioningly used by Herrnstein and Murray to promote their political and racist prejudices (they go well beyond ‘shoddy scientific basis’). I assume you have not read them, but I can assure you that their ‘3%’ claim is not just nonsense it is a big lie. (If you are going to tell a lie, make it a big one).

    Those that support the new eugenics movement always claim the 19th century eugenics was founded upon shoddy science and the Nazis moving ‘beyond sterilization to extermination of the genetically unfit’. (If they had kept with sterilization would that have been acceptable?) Of course much of the science has subsequently been found to be incorrect, but that is the case for much of the rest of science. They also claim that the new eugenics is all about “individual” chose and not the ’imposition of a State vision’. But as before, there is a massive use of statistics and population IQ analyses. So no change there. As before, individuals are not left to make choices for themselves, they are informed from above that they have a “duty” to enhance their children and accept eugenics to benefit society. Indeed, as you do in your blog, we are usually left with an ominous question that if ‘enhancement is both good for society and good for the individual? Should such enhancements, like education, be obligatory?’ If the answer is “yes” we are back to bad old eugenics with much of the same (shoddy) science and State intervention.

    1. Indeed, as you do in your blog, we are usually left with an ominous question that if ‘enhancement is both good for society and good for the individual? Should such enhancements, like education, be obligatory?’ If the answer is “yes” we are back to bad old eugenics with much of the same (shoddy) science and State intervention.

      I agree 100% with this remark. And I add: the said ominous question (sometimes along with the opposition liberty/happiness) always punctuates publications written for a broad audience by the so-called “transhumanists”. But the real question, and one worth a serious discussion instead of being thrown like a slogan, is whether enhancements negatively affect our autonomy and wether this constitutes a reason against enhancements, or a reason to adopt specific politicies meant to avoid the autonomy issue.

      1. Cyprus seems to be doing fine, with a noticed reduction in β-thalassemia cases, a disease which causes severe anaemia and skeletal abnormalities and requires regular lifelong blood transfusions. All they had to do has making genetic screening available, and parents made their informed choices. I wonder, why weren’t they afraid of the Nazis? They sure should have realized that this was a clear move on the religious authorities to promote a coup d’etat and the installation of a totalitarian eugenics’ prone regime. I wonder what could possibly gone wrong with their reasoning to think that the welfare of a not yet born child was more important than avoiding any linkage whatsoever with a past failed political ideology? How can one possibly take proactive action to avoid suffering of future lives if, by doing so, one would increase the odds of being connected with Nazism?

        Let’s just ban any Nazism-related research or ideas, let’s ban good roads, painting, classical music and, of course, dogs. Dogs must have been pivotal to the barbarie of Nazism. They were the bad guys right? We should irrationally hate them! We should, particularly, consistently link any other ideology which elicit us with emotional moral outrage with Nazism, since well, bad guys belong together. We should have a nice big bag of evil, put them there all together and beat them.

        Preventing suffering? Reducing homicides? Helping people leading a better, happier and longer life? This is minor compared our moral duty to fight against anything which gives us an uneasy gut moral feeling. Those things are bad, evil, they are Nazis!

        From the things that make me fear we are not correctly listening to the advices of the Jewish intellectuals of the post-Nazi era and allowing the seeds of totalitarianism to return, such poor and primitive moral reasoning is at the very top of my list.

        1. Putting forward my arguments less ironically, what I am trying to point at is that:
          (1) Nazism was sufficiently complex such that one can not easily debunk any particularly new idea just on the basis of past indirect association with it.
          (2) One clear feature of Nazism, which certainly belonged to the obvious morally bad part of it – or better, which is maybe part of the reason we find it morally wrong – is a kind of black and white primitive morality, which is a feature very much shared by many Reductio ad Hitlerum arguments. In this sense, arguments of these sort are self-defeating.
          (3) Not adopting a proactive stance against preventing suffering of future human beings or in favor of fostering the creation of happier and healthy humans, is also the result of a crude form of morality.
          And finally, much more to the point:
          (4) These kind of potentially dangerous ‘eugenic’ measures – I am not sure using this name is a good choice, giving the higher probability on provoking reductions ad hitlerum – have already being put in to place in many countries, where people were given the choice, and in theses circumstances a huge amount of suffering through horrible diseases was prevented. However speculations on the matter might lead, this is a clear evidence in favor of adopting those measures.

  2. Sorry. My post appears to have lost the opening para. I quoted your ‘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.’

    1. Joao

      Perhaps I did not make myself clear enough. Part of my criticism of the new eugenics movement is that they rewrite history when they falsely claim the science was shoddy. We may think that the use phrenology is a clear sign that they were shoddy sciences, but at the time phrenology was a normal well established highly respected science. They had an obsessive fondness for statistics which does undermine their credibility, but that, as I indicated above, is still with us and cannot be used to discredit 19th century eugenics by the new eugenicists. Their evolution theory and genetics were not correct, but again, we are still improving our understanding of these which does mean we are doing shoddy science. For sure, there were bad scientists then as there are now, and we should always be vigilant about how science, be it shoddy or not, is being used. I think it could be argued that the critics of the science of eugenics should have been more vocal in their opposition. Of course it was not easy when just about every scientific journal up to the end of the 1930s, including Nature, rejected any anti-eugenics research papers.

      In my post I only mention the Nazis in passing because Julian seems to be suggesting that if they had kept with sterilization they would have been reasonably respectable. (I hope he will clarify his position with an outright condemnation of their sterilization policy.) I myself am not much interested in Nazis eugenics because I think the errors lie earlier in Britain, America, France and pre-WI German (the 1911 Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden was a major event in eugenics). The Nazis made concrete what others had imagined. In 1908, D.H. Lawrence wrote

      ‘If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly, and then I’d go out in back streets and main streets and bring them all in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile at me.’(Childs, D, J. 2001. ‘Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats and The Culture of Degeneration’ p.10)

      Was he an extremist at the time and place? Unfortunately not. So let us worry less about the big bad Hun and concentrate upon the origins of eugenics. Let us also not allow the Nazis prevent us from using the word “eugenics”. The loss of word is again only another rewriting of history, it being the eugenics movement in Britain, America, etc. that needs to be understood.

      I think your views on β-thalassemia are a little simplistic. I have sickle cell trait and became the object of research in the 1960s. (Being white and blond they wanted to know more about me and what my genes might do) In the 1970s I withdrew from the research because of how much of the research into sickle cell anemia in the America and this country had become politicised. Genetic screening may have worked in Cyrus but in the USA it became a tool for racism. Of course parents should know about genetic risks and make informed choices. The problem is that they may be badly informed and, as Julian hints at, may be given no choice but the State proscribed eugenic solution to a good society.

      We should be critical of research that misused statistics and seeks to advance ideology and prejudice under the guise of science (Herrnstein and Murray are good examples of this practice). Having now read the Swedish study Julian cites, (‘Medication for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and criminality’, Lichtenstein et al, NMJ), I am again somewhat concerned that it has been hyped by the pro-psychopharmacology lobby and the new eugenicists. The so-called ’criminality’ that the medication is suppose to reduce are almost all very minor offences (i.e. some 96% did not involve imprisonment). Most of these were for one or more ’substance-related crimes’. Given that people with ADHD are particularly fond of ’substances’, I do not think we should be too surprised that if they are given a supply of legal substances, which they might think will be withdrawn if they offend, they will not have much need for illegal substances This might also reduce other offences if they funded their illegal habit by crime. (I worked with heroin addicts when they were supplied by the NHS. There as little crime and most of them recovered unharmed) We also know next to nothing about the groups studied so are unable to determine whether there were other factors at play, i.e. change of environment, type of employment, care, etc.. The group were given a variety of drugs (not just Ritalin as Julian suggests), some uppers and some downers, to put in the vernacular. We would need to know more about the drugs that might be having an effect and whether the treatment regime is having any effect. The drugs had no long-term effects of reducing ’crime’, and even if they had we would have to know whether maturity coupled with the treatment regime was a factor in the reduction of petty offences. The authors raise a brief concern about side-effects but there is no investigation into whether side-effects were reducing the offences. Reducing patients’ libido (minor unspecified sexual offences were quite high in the group) and making them feel so bloody awful they cannot get up to any mischief has been used by the psychopharmacology industry for decades to control psychiatric patients.

      It is an interesting study, but it does not, as Julian claims, show that sometimes Ritalin enhancement can benefit society. It should be placed in the context psychopharmacological research (which has a very bad track record) and worked on from all sides. In most cases it is not scientists that are being shoddy, it is the reporting and use of science to promote a particular ideology that can begin to distort it by not having it under constant scrutiny. We do not want to go back to the days where only scientific research that confirmed eugenics as a societal good was funded and published.

      1. Sorry, you did make yourself clear, I didn’t. I was opposing the idea of debunking “transhuman” or enhancement technologies based on simple comparison to Nazism, not specifically your comment. I should have posted it as a general reply, not a reply to your original response. I have come across this type of failed reason far too often. I agree that reference to Nazism is not a necessary condition for you argument. Nevertheless, I still think it is the case your more reasonable argument does suffer, in a minor form, from the general problems I mentioned, since you did used the Nazi reference.

        If I am now correctly addressing your argument, it appears you are implicit claiming that (a) ‘shoddyismless at the time’ doesn’t entail ‘shoddyismless in the future’ and (b) hence, past shoddyism should not be grounds to exempt a present shoddymless theory. It would seem that is a straightforward argument for your point, clearly (a) implies (b). On the contrary, the argument is neutral, for (a) can be clearly true or clearly false given sufficient loose concepts of shoddy. We ought to focus then on what exactly was the features that enabled a misguided use of science, calling that property shoddy or not is a matter of preference. Moreover, claiming that ‘orienting policy by making use of statistics and theory of evolution was intrinsically related to the bigotry in the past eugenics program’ cannot be true if one grants some aspects of evolutionary theory and statistics are true (hopefully this is uncontroversial?). The use of this science in an arrogant, totalitarian, parochial and racist manner are more inherently related to eugenics’ horrors than statistics. These are the problems I am calling ‘poor and primitive moral standards’. And these problems are something the transhumanist community and pro-enhancers in general are extremely concerned with – hence the discussion of, e.g., moral enhancers. Is vague to use the word transhumanism nowadays, but at its core this philosophy was about the rational use of technology and the cognitive, emotional and moral improvement of humanity. It is clear from, e.g., the abolitionist project created by David Pearce that the movement has very low levels of bigotry. Further, if transhumanism has ever come close to any political ideology was liberal democracy. Of course, certain technologies pose such a higher risks that higher levels of control are necessary.

        I don’t have the time to go through the Swedish study now. My guess is that I would agree with many of your points on it. Nevertheless I would still hold that research should be seen through and oriented for enhancing human beings. Certainly, the critics you put forward are part of this process. Not using Ritalin to prevent crime has also its costs, risks and uncertainties. Also, using hypothetical crime scene simulation Julian presents in the beginning. Also, not using embryo selection to prevent diseases or to enhance human capabilities. Unfortunately, few careful risk-averse counter-arguments are elicited by any of these scenarios. It’s hard to imagine status quo biases aren’t playing a role here. We take a huge amount of pharmacological drugs, however I have rarely seen people opposing the use of aspirin on the basis of poor track record. Few years back, we discovered one of the most widely used protocols to fight common cold was flawed, I don’t see anyone stopping to see a physician. Why we tend to see enhancers in such an exceedingly scrutinizing light? Most medicines lack any kind of long-term safety study, yet if Julian had suggested we ought to increase the use of aspirin he would met fewer conflict. Should the time come when we will have being using Ritalin for crime prevention for decades, what will be creating the same kind of controversies?

        As a personal belief, if Julian tends towards more polemic claims, is for finding important the active public engagement on the debate, contrary to any totalitarian eugenics.

  3. “So let the enhancement industry bloom and let people make their own decisions”

    Hear hear. As long as participation is voluntary I’m with you all the way. As for involuntary participation of criminals in those instances where compulsory medication or other medical intervention can be shown to be beneficial for society (in lowering the incidence of criminal behaviour), I think the evidence would need to be convincing, not just in a statistical sense but also in regard to each case in detail. Even then, it should usually be feasible to use persuasive approaches (lower term of sentence for co-operation etc) rather than force.

  4. The relationship between IQ and criminality, poverty, income etc is complex. It could be argued that any cognitive enhancement that could raise IQ is not in itself enough to improve intellectual or academic performance. In children, but probably also in many adults, family norms and values about the relative value of hard work, resilience, achievement, qualifications, honesty, good citizenship, conflict resolution, etc are significant factors in how one might use the cognitive enhancement. For example, if your family think it’s OK to commit benefit fraud or to lie, and value leisure over work, you might put your new brain power to use in coming up with creative ways to avoid getting a job or going to school. The social context is much more difficult to change than intellectual capacity. It is not a given that people given more freedom to behave morally (e.g. through cognitive enhancement) will do so. I would suggest that children who take Ritalin and then achieve more at school are benefitting just as much from the sense of achievement, increased self- esteem and new identity as from the intellectual development itself, in that these will enable them to change their personal norms and values by seeing themselves as part of a new social group, one that values hard work, personal discipline, etc. It is not automatic that all children on Ritalin will benefit in this way: some may not be able to escape the influence of their families and communities, others may be in schools where there are not enough children with these positive norms to create the right school ethos. Enhancing society as a whole perhaps should focus just as much on providing environments with positive social norms and the opportunity to develop moral reasoning (e.g. to consider the consequences of actions that might have previously seemed normal) so that cognitive enhancement has the best opportunity to work in the right way.

  5. “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.” Could you please provide a source?

  6. Not sure you will get a response from Julian. The paper is at

    I have had a look at this research which yet again Julian misrepresents in his blog. The authors quite correctly state that ’This study provides preliminary evidence…’ There is quite a lot of ‘adjustment for socioeconomic factors’ which is always a sign that the percentages may not be reliable.

    Another study in the NEMJ can be found at

    This study claims a 7 point lowering in IQ in children born to women with hypothyroidism. Again socioeconomic adjustments were made.

    Obviously these studies have nothing to do with ‘enhancement’. Ensuring that pregnant women with defective diets improve their diet, be it in the case of minor iodine deficiency or lack of vitamins, is not ‘enhancement‘, it is good public health. Eugenicists have always promoted their beliefs by claiming that improvements in public health is evidence for eugenics.

    As with the ADHD research, these studies (and others cited in the papers) are interesting and more work needs to be done. It would of course be dangerously irresponsible to iodise salt as too much iodine is as bad as too little and supplements can cause oxidative stress and thyrotoxicosis.

    1. But salt is iodised in a number of countries already. I’m not sure that is dangerously irresponsible of them. Too much salt, iodised or uniodised is dangerous

      1. Firstly let me explain that I can’t give you any links because a post with a URL in it is moderated which can take over a week. So I will cite the title of papers which can be put into a search engine.

        The problem of adding iodine to salt is that some people will get too much and others too little. The resent reduction of salt and use of sea salt in some diets means that some people are not getting enough iodine. (see 1.2.3) Others who have a diet rich in iodine and like adding iodised salt to it get too much iodine. (see 4.5.6.) No doubt iodised salt has produced many benefits, but it does appear to be too blunt an instrument and should, I believe, be replaced by greater monitoring of individuals and public health awareness programmes in the risks of not getting the correct amount of iodine, and where necessary what supplements to take (for many people iodised salt is not the best supplement).

        1.Hypothesis: dietary iodine intake in the etiology of cardiovascular disease
        2. Urinary iodine concentration: United States National Health And Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2002.
        3. Iodine deficiency in ambulatory participants at a Sydney teaching hospital: is Australia truly iodine replete?
        4.Multifactor analysis of relationship between the biological exposure to iodine and hypothyroidism
        5.Thyroid and the environment: exposure to excessive nutritional iodine increases the prevalence of thyroid disorders in São Paulo, Brazil
        6.High prevalence of thyroid dysfunction and autoimmune thyroiditis in adolescents after elimination of iodine deficiency in the Eastern Black Sea Region of Turkey.

  7. Hello, have you looked into stem cells therapy? It seems to be very good: my friend worksin a clinic in Mexico where they give embryonic stem cells treatment and she told me they get better result than anything else… What’s your thought about this kind of treatment? Most people that i talk with are scared because it’s so new!

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