Bioethics Blogs

An Ethical Argument for Regulated Cognitive Enhancement in Adults: The Case of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS)

by Selin Isguven

Introduction: Human Enhancement, Enhancement vs. Treatment

Human enhancement consists of methods to surpass natural and biological limitations, usually with the aid of technology. Treatment and enhancement are considered to be different in that treatment aims to cure an existing medical condition and restore the patient to a normal, healthy, or species-typical state whereas enhancement aims to improve individuals beyond such a state.  However, the line between treatment and enhancement remains debatable. There is no one agreed-upon definition of the normal human condition; this definition depends on factors such as time period and location, among many. In fact, the debate stems from discussions about the scope of medicine and the definition of ‘healthy.’  For some, like Norman Daniels, a healthy state is the absence of disease whereas for others, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), it is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”[1] These two definitions of a healthy state are clearly not identical and there exist similarly differing opinions on what is considered ‘beyond’ healthy, as well.[1]

This article aims to demonstrate the case in favor of the regulated use of cognitive enhancement by examining a technique called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), while addressing common ethical arguments against cognitive enhancers as well as the ethical obligation for proper regulation. The case for regulated use is primarily articulated through a lens of safety and a comparison is drawn between enhancement and treatment in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Although the aim is to extend regulated use to other similar cognitive enhancers by showing tDCS as a case example, it would be wise to evaluate each technique individually.[1]

Cognitive Enhancement

Cognitive enhancement, also known as neuroenhancement, is the improvement of cognitive functions such as memory, attention, wakefulness, and alertness [2].

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.