The problem of the inequality-exacerbating effect is connected with our recommendation for a strict exclusion of pure enhancement procedures from the publicly funded system of medicine. If the costs of enhancements are not taken over by other means of public funding, it then follows that only those who can afford to pay for such services will have a chance to benefit from their mind-enhancing effects. Most of these services are, and will continue to be, very costly. Thus only well-to-do people will be in a position to obtain such benefits for themselves or their families. This in turn could exacerbate existing social inequalities by granting those who are already privileged additional advantages in many areas of social competition.
If this prospect became reality, it would be bound to undermine distributive justice. Certain mental capacities, such as alertness or intelligence, are
"positional goods", i.e. they confer substantial advantages on their possessors in relation to others in terms of their ability to compete for scarce positions or goods. If such capacities cease to be mere natural assets and become instead the potential result of human intervention, access to these intervention procedures may become a legitimate object of distributive justice. If (1) means of mental enhancements are available only to the wealthy, and (2) making use of such means confers substantial competitive advantages for the acquisition of wealth, and (3) a grossly unequal distribution of wealth is a matter of concern for distributive justice, then the exacerbating effect of artificial mental enhancements on problematic patterns of social distribution is obvious.
As is well known, premise (3) has been subject to longstanding and hotly contested philosophical debate. We could not seriously attempt to engage in that discussion here. Suffice it to say the following. There is no doubt that legislatures, even in the most liberal states, are justified in attempting to counteract the development of increasing inequalities in wealth amongst their citizens. This is especially true when the reason for such increased inequality is not in proportion with how deserving the privileged are of their increased relative prosperity. Broadly speaking, this would be the case for any social or financial advantages arising as a direct result of artificial mental enhancements, if they were to have the social effects described above. This, we hold, is reason enough to raise a moral warning flag. Thus, we wish to emphasise that potential developments such as those described above should be monitored closely by competent institutions in the fields of politics, science, and society in general:
^ Clear indications that an increasing availability of purchasable mental enhancements fuels social inequality, in terms of the distribution of wealth and opportunities, should be counteracted.
The methods employed to counteract this must, of course, fulfil common criteria of proportionality. Hence, they fall across a wide spectrum of possible measures from tax policies, to restrictive licensing practices vis-à-vis medical enhancements, and even the ultima ratio of legal prohibition. We wish to underline that it would not be sufficient to counteract negative tendencies of the above kind by (partly) redistributing the unequally accumulated wealth via taxes. For a grossly unequal distribution of social opportunities, be they for professional positions or other goods relevant to the quality of individual life, also entails an unequal distribution of self-esteem, which may well constitute, as John Rawls has argued, the most important of all primary goods. That kind of inequality cannot sufficiently be compensated for by mere financial measures.
However, two caveats must be added at this juncture to ward against too readily adopting interventionist policies at the present time.
(1) Whether or not the sketched negative developments will become manifest is an empirical question. It cannot be answered by mere theoretical speculations, no matter how plausible they may appear, but must be proven by observable facts. Up to now, such facts have not been established. Even technologically advanced societies with strong inclinations towards science and technological innovation seem, as yet, to be far from experiencing any such detrimental effects on distributive justice. Of course, legitimate policies may, and should, aim at preventing potential undesired developments. However, that requires a complex process of weighing the duty to protect individuals and society in terms of freedom and civil liberties. This process, in turn, must be based on sufficient information about impending risks. Without such knowledge, rational and proportionate countermeasures are hardly conceivable. We hold that the information presently available for legislators and other political decision makers is clearly insufficient for a sensible assessment of the issue. Since political impediments, let alone legal prohibitions, always come at a price for individual and societal liberty, we propose that governments and legislatures currently confine their policies to the procedures of attentive observation we mentioned above.
(2) Our call for political restraint is further strengthened by the following considerations. As argued above, certain mental capacities are positional goods, i.e. they confer competitive advantages in numerous contexts of social life. However, these capacities also have what can be called independent value, i.e. a value for the individual who possesses them alone. Well-developed cognitive abilities may, for example, enable the person endowed with them to successfully participate in competitive enterprises. Yet they can also lay the foundations for the development and satisfaction of certain intellectual preferences which relate only to personal enjoyment and will have little or no economic background. The freedom of developing one's subjective capacities for a more fulfilling mental life should not be ignored or underestimated. These considerations corroborate the above proposal to refrain at the current time from any prohibitive interference with the development and applications of brain-invasive techniques of mental enhancement.
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