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On the argument that enhancement is “cheating”
  1. M Schermer
  1. Dr M Schermer, Dept. Medical Ethics and Philosophy of Medicine, Erasmus Medical Center, Office AE 340, PO Box 2040, 3000 CA Rotterdam, The Netherlands; m.schermer{at}


One frequently used argument in the discussion on human enhancement is that enhancement is a form of cheating. This argument is well-known in relation to doping in sports, but recently it has also been used with regard to cognitive enhancement in the context of education and exams. This paper analyses the enhancement-is-cheating argument by comparing sports and education, and by evaluating how the argument can be interpreted in both contexts. If cheating is understood as breaking the rules in order to gain an unfair advantage over others, it can be argued that some enhancements are a form of cheating. This problem of cheating is, however, relatively easy to remedy by either changing the rules, or by instituting controls and sanctions. This does not, therefore, constitute a categorical objection to enhancement. A further analysis of the intuitions behind the enhancement-is-cheating argument, however, shows that if sports and education are understood as “practices”, with their own internal goods and standards of excellence, some potential problems of enhancement can be articulated. These concern the internal goods and standards of excellence that are characteristic of specific practices. Seen from this perspective, the important question is how enhancement technologies might be embedded in specific practices—or how they might corrode them.

  • cheating
  • cognitive enhancement
  • doping in sports
  • psychopharmacology

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  • Competing interests: None.

  • iIssues of health and safety are of course very important with regard to the regulation of doping in sports. While top sport itself is a rather unhealthy activity, the use of various kinds of doping has side-effects and health risks of its own. Due to the competitive setting in which it is used, the voluntary nature of its use can also be called into question. For the sake of the present argument, however, I will set aside those concerns and focus on the issues of cheating and fairness.

  • iiAs Brown16 and McNamee17 have argued, the distinction between external and internal goods may not be as clear as MacIntyre suggests. However, I believe this is an analytic distinction, which holds heuristic power and enables us to express a certain type of value that is specific for practices.

  • iiiAnother example, which I owe to an anonymous reviewer, is the discussion about Casey Martin, a professional golfer who, because of a leg-disorder, claimed the right to use a golf cart. This prompted debate on whether walking is part of the excellence of playing golf.

  • ivSee Farah et al. 2004.20 Another example of a situation where the issue of “cheating” might come up would be that of an employee who gets a job promotion because the use of modafinil has enabled him to make much longer hours than his competitors. Would he be cheating or playing unfair?

  • vDisregarding here, again, for the sake of the argument, other concerns such as health risks or social pressure.

  • viA point shared between educational tests and sports is that the most efficient means to a certain goal are often ruled out—I owe this point to an anonymous reviewer.

  • viiThese issue were also at stake in a recent discussion in The Netherlands about entrance-exams, for instance for medical school. While traditionally there were no such exams in The Netherlands, there have been some universities experimenting with selection of the best students. As it turned out, exam results did not predict success in the study. Moreover, it is another question altogether whether grades, test results or success in cognitive performance predict very much about the ability to become a good doctor.

  • viiiFor extensive discussion on the question of whether teaching and education are practices in themselves, or part of other practices, see vol 37, no 2, of the Journal of the Philosophy of Education. I will not try to resolve this debate here; for my present purpose what matters is that there are internal goods involved in educational practices that ought to be distinguished from external goods.

  • ixLike, for example, perseverance, critical and independent thinking, and curiosity.

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