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The Ethics of Neuroenhancements: Should We Create Smarter, More Virtuous People?

Session A: July 13 – July 23, 2020
9:30 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Philosophy and Society
Ian Peebles

Should we use biotechnologies to alter the genetic and neural bases of individuals to create smarter and more virtuous people?  This course will explore the ethics of both cognitive enhancements and moral bioenhancements.  Students will learn about the potential means for cultivating these neuroenhancements – such as drug therapies, CRISPR-Cas9, (non-)invasive brain stimulation, and optogenetics – while also exploring the philosophical literature discussing the ethical and social implications of these interventions.  The module will culminate in the students weighing in on the ethics of neuroenhancements through a group presentation.

This module will consist of both synchronous and asynchronous meetings.  For each day, readings, reading responses, and asynchronous sessions should be completed prior to the synchronous session.  The major platforms to be used include Zoom, Canvas, and Flipgrid.

Learning Outcomes:

  1. To familiarize students with the tools of analytic philosophy, specifically deductive reasoning and first order logic. 
  2. To develop a basic understanding of the neuroscience undergirding neuroenhancements.
  3. To familiarize students with neuroethical debates regarding neuroenhancements.
  4. To learn how to critically read philosophical texts and charitably engage others through Socratic discussion. 
  5. To introduce students to the sort of interdisciplinary research possible and career opportunities available in the field of neuroethics.


  1. Reading responses (daily assignment) – Students will summarize (in no more than a paragraph) one of the assigned readings (student’s choice) and ask a few questions that they think are important regarding the text.  When applicable, this summary will consist of an argument reconstruction, in standard form, of the main argument of their chosen article.
  2. Group presentation (final day of module) – In groups, students will present an argument responding to one of the questions listed below.  Their presentation will include defining key terms, highlighting key distinctions, and presenting their argument in standard form, as well as the rationale for each premise and responses to potential objections.  They will have 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of Q&A with their peers.

    Potential questions include (but are not limited to):
    1. Are neuroenhancements ever morally permissible?  Why or why not?
    2. Is there a duty to utilize neuroenhancements?  Why or why not?
    3. Are neuroenhancements a form of eugenics?  Why or why not?
    4. Is the treatment/enhancement distinction a useful one in the ethics of neuroenhancements?  Why or why not?

Please note, while there may be class time for groups to meet, students should expect to meet outside of class in order to prepare their presentations.

Tentative Schedule:

Day 1 – What does philosophy have to do with neuroscience?

  1. Asynchronous
    1. Student introductions.
    2. Introduction to argumentation, deductive reasoning, and first order logic.
  2. Synchronous
    1. Module introduction and syllabus presentation.
    2. Introduction to neurophilosophy.
    3. An exercise in arguing.

Day 2 – The neuroscience of neuroenhancements

  1. Asynchronous
    1. How to read philosophy.
  2. Synchronous
    1. What are cognitive enhancements?  What are moral bioenhancements?  How do they relate?
    2. Introduction to the biotechnological means for neuroenhancements.
    3. The treatment/enhancement distinction.
  3. Readings
    1. Selection from Harris, “Enhancements are a Moral Obligation” in Human Enhancement (2009).
    2. Flower, “Lifestyle Drugs: Pharmacology and the Social Agenda”(2004).
    3. Selection from Kass et al, “The Limitations of the ‘Therapy vs Enhancement’ Distinction” in Beyond Therapy (2003).

Day 3 – The ethics of neuroenhancements

  1. Synchronous
    1. Constructing a moral theory.
    2. Introduction to moral theories.
    3. The ethics of neuroenhancements.
  2. Readings
    1. Selection from Shafer-Landau, The Fundamentals of Ethics 4th Ed. (2017).

Day 4 – In favor of neuroenhancements

  1. Synchronous
    1. What are the strongest reasons in favor of neuroenhancements?  How might critics of neuroenhancements respond?
  2. Readings
    1. Selection from Persson and Savulescu, Unfit for the Future (2012).
    2. Selection from Savulescu, “Genetic Interventions and the Ethics of Enhancement of Human Beings” (2007).

Day 5 – Against neuroenhancements

  1. Synchronous
    1. What are the strongest reasons against neuroenhancements?  How might proponents of neuroenhancements respond?
  2. Readings
    1. Agar, “Moral bioenhancement is dangerous” (2015).
    2. Selection from Buchannan et al, From Chance to Choice (2000).
    3. Optional – Selection from Kass et al, Beyond Therapy (2003).

Day 6 – A morally-contoured perspective on neuroenhancements

  1. Synchronous
    1. Constructing a decision tree to determine when it is morally permissible to use neuroenhancements.
  2. Readings
    1. Selection from Agar, Truly Human Enhancement (2013).
    2. Anomaly et al, “Great minds think differently” (2019).

Day 7 – What do neuroenhancements have to do with eugenics?

  1. Synchronous
    1. Eugenics: from Galton to the present.
    2. Is the use of neuroenhancements eugenic?  How should we understand the ethics of eugenics – liberal or otherwise?  Is there a duty to procreative beneficence?  If yes, does this duty require the practice of (liberal) eugenics?
  2. Readings
    1. Savulescu, “Procreative Beneficence” (2001).
    2. Selection from Agar, Liberal Eugenics (2004).
    3. Optional – Selection from Sandel, The Case Against Perfection (2007).

Day 8 – Case Studies

  1. Synchronous
    1. Review case studies related to neuroenhancements.  Case studies will include, but are not limited to:
      1. Cases of mental health
      2. Cases of criminal activity and imprisonment
      3. Cases related to parents’ reproductive choices

Day 9 – Presentations

  1. Synchronous
    1. Each group will have 10 minutes to present, with 5 minutes for Q&A.