Limits of Performance Enhancement

antlers.jpgImagine it’s 2020, you’ve begun working at a firm, and you’re having trouble keeping up. All the other employees are working 75 hours a week, take no vacations, and seem both alert and happy all the time. You ask some confidantes there “how do you do it?” All mention some variety of cognitive enhancement: one takes modafinil to concentrate, another uses chemicals that were originally designed for fighter pilots. Do you take the pills to keep up?

That was one of a few hypos posed yesterday during a presentation I made to the Yale Information Society Project. Though I thought the problematic nature of that situation pretty intuitive, I got pushed to specify exactly what was wrong. So here are some ideas, from different perspectives:

1) Safety: What if the drug shortens lifespan? Surely that’s a problem that would make this scenario pretty analogous to steroids in sports. I hope no one seriously thinks that we want to allow athletes to risk terrible consequences in the future to compete better today. I also think that even a small increase in risk to health ought to render the “super worker” pills problematic. . . . though I admit it’s hard to specify how much. Shortening life expectancy by a month? a year? 10 years? I’ll admit that the choice between those options is an inevitably ideological one.

But let’s assume for now these pills are as safe as caffeine. What’s the harm then? Four takes below the fold…


2) Human Essentialism: Might we think that it is human nature to be a bit overwhelmed, somewhat harried, by a 75-hour workweek with no breaks? I suppose there are always some pleasure-wizards among us able to spin the straw of exertion into golden good cheer. But this is a case where that naturally small portion of us is becoming a new norm–or at least a group with disproportionate chance of success.

3) Unfair Competition: Though I’m partial to the view that there is an essential human nature, let’s now set the argument in a “thinner” version of public reason, ala Larry Solum and Rawlsian political liberalism. What if only a few employees know about the cognitive enhancement pills? There could be some norms of disclosure, or laws requiring it. But what if cognitive enhancement options are very expensive? They might end up amplifying existing class stratification. But imagine the pills are well-known and cheap–are they still a problem? I think so, for two reasons.

4) Bad Evolution: Here’s where the illustration above comes in. Robert Frank has been looking at parallels between evolutionary theory and economic theory. He worries that certain competitive dynamics in the workplace mirror unhealthy evolutionary processes in animals. For example, it’s of great advantage to one elk in a herd to have much bigger antlers than the rest. But an antler arms race may well destroy his relative advantage. And it threatens to weigh elks down, increasing health problems. Peacocks are another classic example.

5) Sacrifice of Objective Well-Being: Of course, the question raised by 4) is–what are the analogs to the health problems caused by massive antlers? If we can’t come up with anything along the lines of 1) above, we’ve got to go back to a “thicker” rationale. My hunch is that we can develop such an idea by developing some of Martha Nussbaum’s ideas about emotions as implicit judgments of value. When technology affects the emotional responses that commonly underlie judgments of value, the cart is before the horse: instead of using our values to judge technology, we are letting technology itself erode those values.

So for instance, here, if we commonly had a value that a weekend day was for rest and recreation, the pills I’ve mentioned may do more than simply focus workers on their tasks and brighten their mood. That focus may well be achieved by blunting the sense of unease or discomfort that motivates our adherence to a “day of leisure” ideal. To the extent we want (successful) people devoted to more than their job, loss of that ideal is objectively bad.

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