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.

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.