Bioethics Blogs

Where there’s a will there’s a way: Enhancing motivation

by Hannah Maslen, Julian Savulescu and Carin Hunt

A study examining pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement found that participants’ subjective enjoyment of various memory and problem-solving tasks was significantly greater when they had taken modafinil (a drug originally developed for narcolepsy) compared with placebo, but that mood ratings overall were not affected (Muller at al 2013). The authors of the paper therefore concluded that, in addition to the various performance effects, ‘an important finding of this study is that there was a striking increase in task motivation’. Whilst a lot of attention has been paid to the ethical implications of enhancing cognitive performance, much less has been paid to the striking task-motivation finding. We suggest, however, that motivation enhancement might be the more contentious effect, from an ethical point of view.

There has been much discussion about whether the use of biomedical enhancements constitutes cheating, or otherwise undermines the value of achievements facilitated by such enhancement. If you use a memory enhancer to learn more French vocab or use steroids to bulk up your muscles then, it is sometimes argued, you should be praised less for your linguistic fluency or heavy lifting – things have been made ‘too easy’. However, merely enhancing capacities in this way does nothing to guarantee that you will ace the language test or win the weight-lifting competition. If you took an enhancer and sat in front of the TV, your linguistic proficiency or sporting prowess would remain unaltered, or perhaps even diminished. Even if you took a memory enhancer and spent the time expertly completing soduku puzzles, this alone would not generate results on your language test.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.