Pharmacological Neurological Enhancement (“PNE”) is the use of drugs to improve brain function to a beyond-normal level. Methylphenidate, also known as Ritalin, has become increasingly popular among students to improve study habits and test-taking abilities, even though the purpose of Ritalin is to treat symptoms of ADHD. This is just one example of common use of PNE. Although this is a relatively young area of study within the sphere of medicine, its ethics are already subject to widespread debate. As Christians, we have a responsibility to consider if participating in PNE, now or in the future, can coexist with following Christ in the best way possible.
The difference between treatment and enhancement
There is vast confusion, even in the medical community, regarding what qualifies as cognitive treatment and what qualifies as cognitive enhancement. Typically, treatment is considered anything done with the intent to cure an illness, whereas enhancement is considered something which propels brain function to a level beyond what is normal. That which is not medically necessary is usually considered enhancement.
But often, there is fierce debate as to what is medically necessary and what is not, what is normal brain function and what is not, and even what qualifies as an illness and what does not. To simplify, let’s consider treatment anything that uses pharmacological methods (methods involving drugs) to cure an illness only, and enhancement anything that uses pharmacological methods to improve brain function where brain function is not at all impaired.
The value issue
There are plenty of moral concerns related to PNE, but let’s examine just a few. William Cheshire, a Christian ethicist and professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic, has written extensively on this issue. His primary worry is that, if or when PNE becomes normal and even expected, human beings will be valued not for the Imago Dei they bear, but for the extent to which they are able to contribute to society. Overall intelligence will spike as a result of PNE, which will lead to the worth of a person derived from how smart he may become, rather than for who he is and who he was created by.
Cheshire is also concerned about how other important aspects of being human will be influenced. He notes, “Too much emphasis on cognitive productivity might damage our appreciation of the creative and sensitive natures of ourselves and others.” This is because if human beings are only focused on cognitive ability, then other, God-given aspects of life— “human inspiration, subtlety of language, nuanced humor, altruism, sacrificial love, relational commitment, religious devotion,” and others—will quickly fade from importance.
The social benefits
A person in favor of PNE will often argue that the benefits that will result from common use of PNE outweigh any moral concerns that exist. Social benefits of neuro enhancement include the ability of an airline pilot or a surgeon, for instance, to perform their jobs at a faultless level and stay alert for hours longer than they would otherwise be able. This sounds like a great benefit at first, but when we examine the logical implications of common use of PNE to enhance job performance, we encounter a serious problem—coercion.
Cheshire says this: “(the) use of technologies introduced as optional, once they are widely adopted, often become expected . . . (enhancers may) become a systematic instrument to nudge us more and more into a 24-hour society in which people are expected to always be available to perform.” This leaves individuals who do not wish to take these drugs in a place where they, practically speaking, have no real choice but to do so. And, as PNE becomes more and more common, becoming employed or remaining employed may even be contingent upon an individual’s willingness to participate. This potential all but eliminates respect for human autonomy.
A biblical understanding
We as human beings need rest, and often. We were not designed to function without ceasing. Our bodies have distinct and clear signals which let us know that it is time to rest. To ignore or artificially delete these signals can and will lead to harmful and even unforeseen consequences. And to recognize these signals is to recognize that we are not God, and that God sustains the world without our help. Rest can be an act of worship.
Romans 12:1 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is true and proper worship.” What does it mean to be a living sacrifice? Well, it does not mean to modify ourselves away from how we were created. We are not to be automated sacrifices, or fake sacrifices, but holy and living sacrifices.
Technology is a gift from God, and growth is expected of Christians. But I urge you to consider if participating in PNE is truly a healthy form of self-improvement, or if its harmful implications may reject the way of Christ.
Cheshire, William. “Drugs for enhancing cognition and their ethical implications: a hot new cup of tea.” Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics 6.3 (2006). Taylor & Francis. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1586/14737220.127.116.113
Maslen, Hannah, et al. “Pharmacological Cognitive Enhancement—How Neuroscientific Research Could Advance Ethical Debate.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, Frontiers Media S.A, 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4052735/