The Role of Ethics in Cognitive Enhancement Users' Experiences


  • Tina Kramarič University of Ljubljana


Morality is seen as an indispensable element of a functioning society, so the use of any potential new medical technologies, including pharmacological cognitive enhancement (PCE), is ethically assessed through the lens of the benefits they may bring to individuals and society. Ethical concerns on PCE such as safety and efficacy, distributive justice, coercion, competitive fairness, or the value of achievement and authenticity are passionately debated in academia, but tend to end in deadlock [1]. The discourse is highly theoretical, and empirical studies are lacking to map potential individual ethical dilemmas in reflecting on the use of cognitive-enhancing (CE) drugs. Typically, the drugs used to achieve CE are prescription drugs for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy (methylphenidate, amphetamines and modafinil) which act on the norepinephrine and dopamine systems. Several reviews on the subject have failed to find a link between the use of stimulants and improved performance on cognitive tests in healthy people [2]. Despite this, the prevalence of PCE is increasing worldwide, suggesting a need to address the research gap in understanding the user perspective on this increasingly pressing issue.

The aim of this Master's thesis is to explore users' experiences of PCE and the role that ethics plays for them, using a qualitative approach. Data will be collected through semi-structured interviews with 3 Slovenian users of PCE drugs and analysed using interpretative phenomenological analysis, which aims to provide insight into how people make sense of important events in their lives, namely their use of PCE. Interviews will be transcribed and analysed individually from a descriptive, linguistic and conceptual point of view, resulting in emerging themes. Finally, patterns across cases will be searched for and interpreted according to the existing literature [3]. The result will be a description of the users and their life situation, their sense making of the PCE and other related concepts (work, intelligence) and their understanding of the ethics related to the use of PCE. This empirical data could potentially inform future philosophical debates about enhancing humanity and help to make informed decisions about practical areas of PCE. Expected findings on the question: "Do ethics play a role in the experiences of people who use PCE and what is this role?" is ambivalence and the experienced role of ethics being highly dependent on the social context and personal motivations at a given time.


[1] K. J. Schelle, N. Faulmüller, L. Caviola, and M. Hewstone, „Attitudes toward pharmacological cognitive enhancement-a review“, Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, vol. 8, Apr. 2014. doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00053

[2] F. Schifano et al., “Benefits and harms of ‘smart drugs’ (NOOTROPICS) in healthy individuals,” Drugs, vol. 82, no. 6, pp. 633–647, Apr. 2022. doi:10.1007/s40265-022-01701-7

[3] J. A. Smith, P. Flowers, and M. Larkin, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2009.