Neuro-cheat if you can’t win?

…if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation of consciousness of effort.

In the preface of Kubla Khan (1816) Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells to have written the poem under an anodyne received by prescription to fight his sleep problems (“vision in a dream”). Only later Coleridge admitted to be addicted to Laudanum, a tincture form of opium very popular among romantic poets that ruined his health and reputation. Nonetheless, would we possess such an impressive poem if its author was not a “dreamy opium eater”?

Today, along with neuroscientific progresses, attention on neuroenhancement is incredibly growing. Ethical concerns about interventions on neural processes by healthy people to improve their cognitive performance comprehend generally two groups of arguments. We may call them safety- and fairness-arguments. Prevailing criticisms tend to fall into the first group where objections are reasonably expressed in terms of risk to both the individual’s mental health (i.e., addiction, and side effects on correlated mental capacities) and other people (for example, due to possible changes in behaviour like negative affect or aggression).

I believe that there is another interesting type of ethical counterarguments, which needs further discussion. If we had safe neuroenhancers available, still we should have to account for claims that neuroenhancement consists in a form of cheating.

Cheating is an intentional violation of rules in order to gain an unfair advantage over others, literature says. When neuroenhancement is used in competitive contexts - for example, by professionals or university students to get a job post or to pass exams -, it is believed that the dishonest behaviour stands in bypassing the use of “natural” interventions like hard work or study. There is a team of people who would think that if Coleridge had proposed his poem at a poetry competition, he should have been excluded because the author was not “him”.

This argument is particularly tricky as the concept of fairness is embedded into the thorny moral issue of “authenticity”.

Cheating involves deception (that is, hiding that one is getting an advantage) but deception is not intended as the moral core. It is also claimed that the introduction of new enhancing technologies usually precedes the capacities of existing rules to suffice to deal with these new technologies, so that it does not matter if rules are not explicit because the unfair advantage should be always banned through the formulation of new rules. There is also the circumstance in which someone has easy access to these technologies while others have not, but this is escapable by granting equal access. So the real intriguing question is: are we justified to forbid neuroenhancement because it is cheating? I actually think we are not.

In the first place we should consider that merit is something there is no consensus about. Claiming that individuals’ merit depends on “natural” abilities, or still that these abilities should be trained by “natural” efforts is slightly an inconsistent assumption. What is the presumed boundary that divides natural means from artificial ones? Would it correspond to identifying acceptable and inacceptable means? Should we exclude people with glasses, prostheses or heart valves from job competitions? And also, are natural means all safe and moral ones? We should also consider that a lot of powerful drugs come from gardens, not from laboratories, and that the effects of maltreating parenting are as equivalently instantiated in adults’ brain structures regulating self-control and motivations as physical trauma.

When we intuitively believe that means to compete should be “authentic” we should reckon that this might hide some other underlying implicit attitude. Prohibitionist choice is a conscious or unconscious way of endorsing a system justification perspective, or rather a conservative view to justify the existing social order. For social order, I mean a hierarchy of in-group favouritisms exercised by members of dominant groups, like rich and culturally influent people, over subordinated groups, such as economically or mentally disadvantaged people, to perpetuate social inequality. Beyond neuroenhancement, there are other more serious forms of cheating in social competitions we should be really concerned of, such as the case of someone who passed an exam in return for money or sexual favours, or people who got a job position on the basis of family relationships. Bribery and nepotism are tolerated by those who want to conserve existing social structures and divisions, yet they really represent inferences of totally external forces beyond the individual’s merit. Neuroenhancers, which however interact with the individual’s genetic and neural equipment, are potentially a way to undermine the status quo by preventing social marginalization of non-privileged people and thus balancing social dynamics.

What is cheating then? It goes without saying that cheating is everywhere in animals’ social relationships and has evolutionary grounds, as it is a crucial strategy for animals to survive and reproduce. A lot of forms cannot be ascribed to severe dishonesty, and in many cases implicit rules are hardly clear. One could choose to stay awake all night long to complete a paper - no matter how, yet it would appear odd to claim that it is required that in order to avoid disparities a minimum number of hours of sleep should be compulsory before examination deadlines.

Some authors worry whether individuals could feel socially pressured to use neuroenhancers. Nevertheless as long as it is free and autonomous choice, this decision must be always a subjective cost-benefit evaluation.

After all it should be admitted that restrictions would not support societal goals because at the end of the day what social contests are interested in are the best results.   


Farah M. J. (2015) The unknowns of cognitive enhancement. Can science and policy catch up with practice? Science 350: 379-380 doi:10.1126/science.aad5893

Schermer M. (2008) On the argument that enhancement is ‘‘cheating’’ J Med Ethics 34: 85-88 doi:10.1136/jme.2006.019646



Elisabetta Sirgiovanni (Sapienza University of Rome)