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View Program and Text Highlights

The video highlight shows our panelists in action. The Discussion Guide frames their debates in contemporary terms, while the Ethics Reader grounds the discussion in the philosophy of the past.


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Should students use memory-enhancing drugs to improve academic performance?

A father and college-age son, played by Justice Antonin Scalia and Joshua Foer, respectively, debate the son's choice to use a memory-enhancing drug, Rememberall, to improve his performance on his final examinations. Scalia argues against taking the drug, arguing that there is a moral obligation to accept yourself as you are, even if you are not the smartest or the strongest. Foer counters by reminding his father that as a child he was always pushed to gain a competitive edge in academics. What is wrong with taking the memory-enhancing drug if it is deemed to be safe and everyone else is taking it?


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Framing This Discussion (from the Discussion Guide)

The goal of enhancement is nothing other than the betterment of human life—to make life more enjoyable for the one living it, more productive, more useful for self, family, and society. There are "natural" forms of enhancement that have always been approved. Indeed, simple practice can enhance natural abilities and, in the process, transform the human body to accommodate them. For example, practicing the piano, training at sports, or studying hard can lead to greater intellectual or physical dexterity and more success in the respective fields than not doing these things. But in certain competitive environments, simply studying hard, as recommended by Justice Scalia, may not be enough for Joshua Foer's success if other students are taking legal and apparently safe stimulants to gain an edge. But, if everyone is enhanced, there is no more competitive advantage, the price of competing has been raised, and the competition made more dangerous for all participants.

For a deeper examination of the analysis abridged here, see the Discussion Guide.

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Philosophical Grounding of This Discussion (from the Ethics Reader)

John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, excerpted below, urges those seeking neuro-enhancement to consider the "quality" of the happiness they may find and radiate to others.

According to the Greatest Happiness Principle . . . the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those who, in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison. This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence . . . might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation. . . .

To read selections from philosophical texts relevant to this program, see Ethics Reader.

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