Enhancing the disadvantaged

A new edition of the American Journal of Bioethics explores a unique aspect of enhancement technologies – the possibility of remedying social disadvantage through cognitive enhancement.

Social disadvantage is taken by many to be structural and very difficult to remedy. The AJOB edition takes this as a given, and considers enhancement as an alternative strategy.  

In a target article for the edition, University of Texas at Houston bioethicist Keisha Shantel Ray argues that the use of cognitive stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin is a morally acceptable way to improve the academic performance of disadvantaged children and, indirectly, remedy social inequality.

“What morally matters when we are disadvantaged through luck, or through no choice of our own, is how disadvantages affect access to resources and how we address these disadvantages. Stimulants could be one way to address these disadvantages by giving students the tools to function within their disadvantaged setting. Some may be unwilling to use stimulants for these purposes…however, I argue that we have to be willing to consider stimulants as an option because we are not correcting students’ disadvantages in other, more traditional ways.”

Ray acknowledges the common argument that enhancements are a kind of superficial solution for a deeper problem; but she believes a pragmatic approach may be necessary. 

“Stimulants may be a better practical and just solution in our current unjust situation”.

Sebastian Sattler (a sociologist from the University of Cologne) and Ilina Singh (a neuroscientist from Oxford) are sceptical of Ray’s proposal, and note that there have been no clinical trials to test the enhancement potentials of prescription stimulants in healthy children. (Sattler also expressed his concerns in an AJOB blog post).

Anthropologists Fred B. Ketchum (University of Chicago) and Psychiatrist Dimitris Repantis (Charite – University Hospital Berlin) argue that Ray’s approach is a subtle way of medicalizing social disadvantage:

“We contend that Ray’s argument relies on an untenable distinction between “social” and “biological” pathologies. Social scientists and philosopher of medicine have long demonstrated that biological norms are not independent of social norms, but always intertwined with them.” 

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | bioenhancement, enhancement, moral enhancement, public policy, reproductive revolution

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