Why is Cognitive Enhancement Deemed Unacceptable? The Role of Fairness, Deservingness, and Hollow Achievements


We ask why pharmacological cognitive enhancement (PCE) is generally deemed morally unacceptable by lay people. Our approach to this question has two core elements. First, we employ an interdisciplinary perspective, using philosophical rationales as base for generating psychological models. Second, by testing these models we investigate how different normative judgments on PCE are related to each other. Based on an analysis of the relevant philosophical literature, we derive two psychological models that can potentially explain the judgment that PCE is unacceptable: the “Unfairness-Undeservingness Model” and the “Hollowness-Undeservingness Model.” The Unfairness-Undeservingness Model holds that people judge PCE to be unacceptable because they take it to produce unfairness and to undermine the degree to which PCE-users deserve reward. The Hollowness-Undeservingness Model assumes that people judge PCE to be unacceptable because they find achievements realized while using PCE hollow and undeserved. We empirically test both models against each other using a regression-based approach. When trying to predict judgments regarding the unacceptability of PCE using judgments regarding unfairness, hollowness, and undeservingness, we found that unfairness judgments were the only significant predictor of the perceived unacceptability of PCE, explaining about 36% of variance. As neither hollowness nor undeservingness had explanatory power above and beyond unfairness, the Unfairness-Undeservingness Model proved superior to the Hollowness-Undeservingness Model. This finding also has implications for the Unfairness-Undeservingness Model itself: either a more parsimonious single-factor “Fairness Model” should replace the Unfairness-Undeservingness-Model or fairness fully mediates the relationship between undeservingness and unacceptability. Both explanations imply that participants deemed PCE unacceptable because they judged it to be unfair. We conclude that concerns about unfairness play a crucial role in the subjective unacceptability of PCE and discuss the implications of our approach for the further investigation of the psychology of PCE.

Download options


    Upload a copy of this work     Papers currently archived: 72,879

External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server

Through your library


Added to PP

41 (#281,083)

6 months
1 (#386,016)

Historical graph of downloads
How can I increase my downloads?

Author Profiles

Julian Savulescu
Oxford University
Thomas Douglas
Oxford University

Similar books and articles

Cognitive Enhancement: Methods, Ethics, Regulatory Challenges. [REVIEW]Nick Bostrom - 2009 - Science and Engineering Ethics 15 (3):311-341.
Integration of Cognitive and Moral Enhancement.Vojin Rakic - 2012 - Filozofija I Društvo 23 (2):91-103.
Voluntary Moral Enhancement and the Survival-at-Any-Cost Bias.Vojin Rakić - 2014 - Journal of Medical Ethics 40 (4):246-250.
The Perils of Moral Enhancement.Aleksandar Dobrijevic - 2012 - Filozofija I Društvo 23 (2):104-110.
Justice, Fairness, and Enhancement.Julian Savulescu - 2006 - Annals of New York Academy of Science 1093:321-338.
The Myth of Cognitive Enhancement Drugs.Hazem Zohny - 2015 - Neuroethics 8 (3):257-269.
Cognitive Extension, Enhancement, and the Phenomenology of Thinking.Philip J. Walsh - 2017 - Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 16 (1):33-51.