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The perils of failing to enhance: a response to Persson and Savulescu
  1. Elizabeth Fenton
  1. Correspondence to Dr Elizabeth Fenton, Harvard University Program in Ethics and Health, 641 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA; Elizabeth_fenton{at}


Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu argue that non-traditional forms of cognitive enhancement (those involving genetic engineering or pharmaceuticals) present a serious threat to humanity, since the fruits of such enhancement, accelerated scientific progress, will give the morally corrupt minority of humanity new and more effective ways to cause great harm. And yet it is scientific progress, accelerated by non-traditional cognitive enhancement, which could allow us to dramatically morally enhance human beings, thereby eliminating, or at least reducing, the threat from the morally corrupt minority. I argue that this apparently intractable dilemma is less difficult to resolve than Persson and Savulescu suppose. Their analysis of non-traditional cognitive enhancement overstates the risks and undervalues the benefits that such enhancement might provide. Once the benefits are better described, it is clear that non-traditional cognitive enhancement could be the means of our survival, not of our destruction.

  • Cognitive enhancement
  • moral enhancement
  • scientific progress

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An intractable dilemma?

The cognitive and moral enhancement of human beings has to date been achieved through so-called ‘traditional’ means—that is, by education and the transmission of knowledge and skill through the generations. We are cognitively and morally more advanced than our predecessors, and this growth has so far proceeded only by the traditional non-technical means of passing on knowledge from one generation to another through education. We are now faced, however, with the possibility of greatly accelerating at least our cognitive enhancement by ‘non-traditional’ pharmaceutical and genetic means. As Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu show in their review of the recent science, the human memory may be modifiable by both genetic and pharmaceutical means that have proved effective in animal models; drugs used in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders may act as ‘smart drugs’ that can enhance memory and learning processes.1 2 With these non-traditional means of enhancing human cognition added to our already powerful traditional means, Persson and Savulescu worry that cognitive enhancement will lead to a pace of scientific progress with which our moral progress cannot keep up. This will result, they think, in a human society imperilled by its own progress, as science allows us to develop more and better ways of destroying ourselves, giving the morally corrupt minority of humanity more and better ways of inflicting that destruction on the species. They argue, then, that either non-traditional cognitive enhancement must be slowed or stopped, or research into moral enhancement must be accelerated to keep pace with research into cognitive enhancement.

One immediate difficulty for their argument, however, is that if moral enhancement is to occur at the genetic or biological level, as they suppose it can and ought to, it will not be possible without significant scientific progress, perhaps accelerated by non-traditional cognitive enhancement. In fact, non-traditional cognitive enhancement will likely lead to the very scientific advances necessary to discover how such biological moral enhancement is to occur. Persson and Savulescu acknowledge this connection between scientific advancement and moral enhancement: “A lot more scientific research is needed before we can be made more altruistic or just by suitable drugs or surgery, or genetic manipulation”.1 They also note that “[moral] enhancement could only be effected if significant scientific advances were made”. 1 But even though cognitive enhancement is likely to be a prerequisite for moral enhancement, Persson and Savulescu argue that moral enhancement is the more urgent task, since even current levels of scientific progress—that is, progress that occurs by means of traditional forms of cognitive enhancement—place us at risk from the ‘tiny minority of humanity’ that is morally corrupt, and seeks to use scientific knowledge for nefarious purposes, such as developing and deploying weapons of mass destruction.

The urgency of moral enhancement appears to place us in a bind of the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don't’ variety. If we continue scientific research into non-traditional enhancement we are advancing the very body of knowledge that could prove to be our downfall, should the morally corrupt minority get their hands on it. But if we do not continue scientific research into enhancement, if we halt it out of concern for the consequences, then we have no hope of achieving the great moral progress that will ensure our survival as a species.i Persson and Savulescu's argument leaves us with an apparently intractable dilemma: scientific progress is both the means of our salvation, and the means of our downfall. Should we or should we not continue to advance science through cognitive enhancement when that progress promises both to increase the possibility of dramatic forms of moral enhancement, and to offer the morally corrupt bent on human destruction new and better opportunities to do so?

The perils of enhancement

This question is made more difficult by the fact that Persson and Savulescu do not always distinguish clearly between scientific progress and cognitive enhancement as the means of that progress. It is perhaps as a result of this lack of clarity that their argument leads them to the surprising conclusion that all forms of scientific progress are instrumentally bad for humans overall, since they increase the chance of ultimate destruction. For this reason, they claim, “it will be bad for us that scientific knowledge continues to grow by traditional means, and even worse if this growth is further accelerated by biomedical or genetic enhancement of our cognitive capacities”.1 This conclusion is surprising because we are accustomed to thinking of scientific progress as a good, and in particular as an instrumental good—that is, something that will increase our quality of life and perhaps our longevity as a species. In other words, we are accustomed to thinking about science in precisely the opposite way from its characterisation in this argument. Persson and Savulescu's argument suggests that on balance, no matter what the benefits of scientific progress are, the risk that that progress will increase our chances of destruction will always be greater. Even if this claim is plausible, it remains an open question whether the risks are worth bearing for the benefits to be gained, or whether, no matter how the risk-benefit calculation comes out, there are moral reasons for favouring one course of action over the other.

Although Persson and Savulescu stop short of concluding that we should stop pursuing scientific progress altogether, their argument suggests that this would be the prudent step to take. Perhaps recognising that this is a not altogether desirable conclusion, given the significance of science to human life, they take the second of the two positions above and argue that the instrumental badness of scientific progress (and the increase in that badness should cognitive enhancement accelerate progress) could be offset by genetic or biological moral enhancement. But as they rightly point out, moral enhancements of this magnitude are not possible at present and unlikely to be possible in the near future. If such enhancements are a condition of scientific progress, so much the worse for scientific progress. They conclude:Therefore, the progress of science is in one respect for the worse by making likelier the misuse of ever more effective weapons of mass destruction, and this badness is increased if scientific progress is speeded up by cognitive enhancement, until effective means of moral enhancement are found and applied.1

Persson and Savulescu are undoubtedly right that if non-traditional cognitive enhancement increases the risk that a morally corrupt minority will destroy humanity, then that increased risk counts as a strong reason against such enhancement. They are also right to draw our attention to the possible benefits of moral enhancement, benefits that would be worth pursuing even without the added motivation of the risks of cognitive enhancement. But it is difficult not to take the above conclusion to imply that unless and until we further understand moral enhancement, we should try to slow scientific progress. This is a troubling conclusion for two principal reasons. First, it pulls us in two different directions, given that the possibility of moral enhancement will only be developed by further scientific progress. It is difficult, if not simply inconsistent, to argue that we should accelerate one and slow the other. Further, it might be argued that the risks we face now from the morally corrupt minority are sufficient, even in the absence of significant non-traditional cognitive enhancement, to make moral enhancement a matter of urgency, thereby making accelerated scientific progress more rather than less appealing.

Second, this conclusion is based on a misleading risk-benefit calculation. The general point of Persson and Savulescu's argument, that scientific progress can sometimes be bad, and faster scientific progress could be even worse, is well-taken. History provides us with countless examples of the ways in which science has been used, or misused, to do great harm. Yet to claim that these instances of harm, and the risks of even greater future harm, are sufficient to justify slowing down scientific progress, or forbidding the means of its acceleration, is to go a step too far. For science has also provided profound benefits, and promises many more. It may even promise to rescue humanity from some of its most serious predicaments.

Risks and benefits

Scientific progress is in many respects a double-edged sword. Nuclear power has given us both clean energy and atomic bombs. In vitro fertilisation has given people with fertility problems the chance to have children; it has also given us the sometimes misused ability to ‘choose children.’ Antibiotics have allowed us to cure otherwise deadly infections; their increased use has also lead to the development of resistant ‘superbugs.’ However, even given the negative side-effects of scientific progress, we would flounder without its many benefits. Persson and Savulescu do not deny that there is a risk-benefit calculation to be done with respect to non-traditional cognitive enhancement, but their analysis of the risks leads them to favour slowing scientific progress down, perhaps stopping it altogether, rather than intensifying it. Using a rational choice example, they argue, contrary to standard decision theory, that it would be ‘almost crazy’ to participate in a lottery in which one has a 1% chance of losing everything, even if there is a 2% chance of gaining a small amount. This case, they suggest, is analogous to the calculation of the risks and benefits of scientific advances: “These advances will almost certainly lead to a small increase of our already high quality of life … but at the cost of marginally increasing the risk of death in the near future, through the misuse of some of these advances.”1 The analogy implies that the marginal increase in the risk of death would make us ‘almost crazy’ to opt for the possibility of small increases in quality of life through scientific advancement, just as it would be ‘almost crazy’ to enter a lottery in which there is a 1% chance of losing everything and only a 2% chance of a small gain.

Unfortunately this analogy fails to make their case. Persson and Savulescu argue, startlingly, that scientific advancement offers only a small increase in an already high quality of life, analogous to the small financial gain one stands to win in the lottery situation. This small increase is offset by the increase in the risk of death that accompanies this small gain. If it were true that ‘we’ already have a high quality of life and/or that scientific advances can offer only small increases in that quality, then the risk of losing everything may well outweigh the potential benefits. But, considering human lives in their infinite variety, both of these claims are questionable. While some people are lucky enough to live lives of sufficiently high quality that scientific progress could offer them only small benefits, a great many more people live lives blighted by precisely the kinds of conditions that scientific progress might help to alleviate. People who struggle with disease, disability, environmental degradation, crop failure or dramatic climatic shifts are just some of those who stand to gain sufficiently large increases in their or their children's quality of life to justify the risks posed by accelerated scientific progress. Even this short list is sufficient to reveal the extent to which Persson and Savulescu have dramatically undervalued the benefits of significant scientific advances. Moreover, as Allen Buchanan has argued, it may be the case that further scientific advances, including biomedical enhancements, will be necessary to maintain the high levels of wellbeing achieved by a number of human beings, in addition to allowing us to make those gains available to those not lucky enough to enjoy them currently.3 Given these potential benefits, a much more careful analysis is needed before concluding that the risks are not worth bearing in the case of scientific progress.

Persson and Savulescu acknowledge that scientific progress accelerated by non-traditional cognitive enhancement could be beneficial, “by better protecting us against threats posed by asteroids, epidemics, etc”.1 But these benefits ultimately pale into insignificance, they claim, in comparison to the risk that humanity will destroy itself by developing the means of such destruction and giving morally depraved people access to those means. We might benefit from accelerated scientific development, but only at the cost of our own survival. This lessens the weight of the benefits in the ultimate assessment: “even if the expected utility of cognitive enhancement outweighs its expected disutility, there may be important reasons not to pursue or employ it, reasons to do ultimately with the very survival of humanity itself”.1

Risk-benefit calculations are seldom, if ever, the final answer on complex moral questions; moral impermissibility is moral impermissibility, regardless of the possible benefits. But Persson and Savulescu do not argue that non-traditional cognitive enhancement is morally impermissible, rather, they argue that it may be undesirable given its risks, suggesting both that there is no outright moral prohibition on cognitive enhancement, and that the risks could possibly be offset by moral enhancement. Moreover, Persson and Savulescu seem blind to the possibility that not pursuing non-traditional cognitive enhancement is no guarantee that humanity will not destroy itself, and could in fact increase the likelihood of that destruction. Non-traditional cognitive enhancement could give us a greater chance of warding off destruction. Take for example the phenomenon of global climate change, an aspect of the environmental depletion that Persson and Savulescu refer to as “one of our biggest moral problems”.1 Supposing that this phenomenon is human-caused rather than ‘natural’, it seems that humans have put their own survival at risk to such an extent that the threat may, without dramatic intervention, be irreversible. Non-traditional cognitive enhancement might be able to produce a solution to this problem, by generating more adept scientists who can figure out ways to reverse the effects of carbon, or invent more efficient forms of transport, or more adept economists who can sell alternative energy to brighter politicians. If we choose not to cognitively enhance human beings by non-traditional means, however, we will almost certainly not find a solution, since the damage done may be too advanced to be offset. In this example time is of the essence, and as Persson and Savulescu point out, cognitive enhancement will likely “speed up a growth of knowledge that would otherwise have taken humanity a longer time to achieve”.1 So it seems, with respect to this major problem, that our survival as a species is in doubt if we choose not to enhance, which means there is a significant cost of not enhancing, especially since the benefit foregone could be nothing less than our survival, Persson and Savulescu's primary concern. The case of global climate change undermines the claim that regardless of how the risk-benefit calculation turns out, ‘reasons to do ultimately with the survival of humanity itself’ ought to prevent us from pursuing non-traditional cognitive enhancement. This case suggests that the survival of humanity may be in jeopardy if we do not pursue cognitive enhancement.

The perils of not enhancing

Given the extent to which Persson and Savulescu undervalue the benefits of non-traditional cognitive enhancement, even the benefits to the development of non-traditional moral enhancements, it is unlikely, as they argue at the beginning of their paper, that in all cases “your cognitive enhancement is likely to be bad news for others, just as their cognitive enhancement is likely to be bad news for you, since it will undercut the boost of your prudential success or wellbeing that your cognitive enhancement by itself promises”.1 As Buchanan has argued, human enhancement is not necessarily zero-sum, in which gains for one person are undercut by losses for another, or individual gains are undercut by losses to society at large. Some enhancements, such as cognitive enhancement, have significant ‘network effects’ such that “the benefit to an individual of being enhanced will depend upon, or at least be greatly augmented by, others having the enhancement as well”.3 In the case of enhancements with network effects, we must consider not only the costs of the enhancement as compared to the benefits of the enhancement, but also the costs of foregoing the enhancement. Certainly, scientific progress accelerated by cognitive enhancement carries costs as well as benefits, and one of those costs is the risk that knowledge will fall into the wrong hands. But ultimately we must weigh that cost against the costs of not making the further scientific (and non-scientific) advancements that could result from non-traditional cognitive enhancements. Those costs, even looking only at the small list of possibly curable human miseries above, may be too great.

The argument that the gains of non-traditional cognitive enhancement for any individual are likely to result in costs for others or for society, is representative of a pervasive distortion of the genetic enhancement debate. As Buchanan rightly points out, arguments against enhancement are more often than not premised on the assumption that the risks of enhancement are social, while the benefits are individual—for example, cognitive enhancement benefits me, but harms society at large by decreasing its chance of survival. This assumption is false, since the enhancement could benefit both me and society, but it is also pernicious, because it stacks the deck against enhancement by setting up a false dichotomy—individuals versus society—overlooking the potential social benefits of enhancement, and thus some of the most powerful justifications for it.3 Non-traditional cognitive enhancement, in part because of the potential it has to lead to non-traditional moral enhancement, is a form of enhancement likely to have significant individual and social benefits. Those social benefits should not be overlooked, even if it is determined in the end that they are not sufficient to outweigh either the costs or any other reasons we might have for not pursuing enhancement (and there are many such reasons, social justice, which I do not discuss here, chief among them). By focusing only on individual gains and social costs the significance of the potential benefits of genetic enhancement are likely to be underestimated. It is by implicitly accepting this distorting assumption that Persson and Savulescu fail to give appropriate weight to those benefits, and so wrongly conclude that the benefits are ultimately irrelevant if our very survival hangs in the balance.

Savulescu has previously voiced significant support for the use of genetic enhancement, arguing that for those enhancements that offer significant increases in wellbeing there is a moral obligation to provide them.4–6 In this paper, the authors endorse a compulsory moral enhancement scheme, should the technology to enhance in this way become a reality. Given this general optimism about the potential of genetic enhancement to improve lives, the concerns about cognitive enhancement do not stem from a suspicion of enhancement technology per se. Cognitive ability, this argument suggests, is a feature of human beings that has an optimum level, above which humans become too clever for their own good. Therefore, we ought not to promote technology that will take us beyond that optimum, for to do so is to imperil our very survival.

In Savulescu's view, an enhancement is “any change in the biology or psychology of a person which increases the chances of leading a good life in circumstances”.4 The contribution enhancements make to increased wellbeing “provides a strong moral obligation based on beneficence to provide them”.4 If enhanced cognitive abilities would lead to increased wellbeing, this conception of enhancement tells us not only that we can pursue such enhancements, but that we ought to do so: “Any biological property which can constitute a capability or disability is suitable for enhancement. This includes: cognitive abilities, social abilities, impulse control, physical abilities, and more. In so far as these contribute to a reasonable chance of leading a reasonably good life, they are candidates for enhancement on the grounds of justice.”4 This claim is not inconsistent with there being an upper limit on the enhancement, but, as has already been pointed out, imposing an upper limit requires the assumption that from that point on, further enhancements carry too great a risk, in this case to society at large. If that risk cannot properly be established, or if concerns about the risks prevent us from seeing the possible benefits, and hence the costs of not enhancing, then the significance of the upper threshold is undermined.


To be sure, neither scientific progress nor cognitive enhancement should be pursued at any cost, and Persson and Savulescu raise important considerations that should temper enthusiasm for non-traditional cognitive enhancement. But important as this emphasis on risk is, it is misleading to suggest that the benefits to be gained from accelerated scientific progress are marginal, especially when they may include the moral advances that are particularly crucial for our continued existence as a species. Persson and Savulescu are aware that their simultaneous endorsement of moral enhancement and resistance to cognitive enhancement is something of a dilemma: “we are in need of a rapid moral enhancement, but such an enhancement could only be effected if significant scientific advances were made”.1 But this ‘damned if you do, damned if you don't’ dilemma is not as intractable as it might appear. Not only is scientific progress key to the kind of moral enhancement they would like to see pursued, the non-traditional cognitive enhancement that is both the fuel of such progress and the outcome of it is likely to have benefits that far exceed the ‘small increases in an already high quality of life’ that they describe. The possibility of such benefits means that there are significant costs of not enhancing. Acknowledging the possibility of such benefits is not to deny that moral considerations might make pursuing cognitive enhancement impermissible. But as Persson and Savulescu show, analysis of risks and benefits is relevant to the discussion of moral permissibility, even if it does not settle the matter. Debates on all forms of enhancement would benefit from more probing analyses of the benefits foregone, should we choose not to pursue this technology.


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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed

  • i Or at least, no way of achieving this progress through the use of enhancement technology, which is the form of moral progress with which Persson and Savulescu are concerned. This does not of course rule out other ways in which moral progress has been and will continue to be achieved. The birth and growth of the international human rights movement is one example of moral progress that was not effected by means of genetic or biological enhancement.

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