Enhancing Responsibility

We normally think that people’s responsibility diminishes when mental capacities are lost and that responsibility is restored when those capacities are regained – i.e. that responsibility tracks mental capacity. This is, for instance, why children, the senile, and the mentally ill are thought to be less than fully responsible for what they do, why children can acquire more and/or greater responsibilities as they grow up, and how responsibility is reinstated on recovery from mental illness.

But how is responsibility affected when mental capacities are extended beyond their normal range through cognitive enhancement? For instance, might some people – e.g. surgeons working long shifts in hospital – have a responsibility to take cognitive enhancement drugs to boost their performance, and would they be negligent or even reckless if they failed or refused to do this? Alternatively, once enhanced, would people acquire new and possibly greater responsibilities in virtue of now being more capable? Could they be blamed for failing to discharge those greater responsibilities, and does this make them more vulnerable to liability if things go wrong?

The law currently has no concrete answers to these questions, and so it is initially the task of moral philosophy to provide conceptual clarity and moral guidance. For instance, conceptual clarity is needed to distinguish the effect of cognitive enhancement on people’s status as fully responsible moral agents, from its effect on their status as responsible or irresponsible people, on what responsibilities they might have, what outcomes they are viewed as responsible for in either a causal or a moral sense, and what they should take responsibility for as well as how society may hold them responsible. And to the extent that determinations of responsibility hinge on assumptions about what it is reasonable to expect of people in different circumstances, moral analysis is also needed.

But given the novelty of this topic, philosophical moral intuitions will need to be tutored by empirical data collected by psychologists and legal researchers. Psychologists will design, carry out and interpret studies intended to reveal different professional groups’ and lay people’s moral intuitions about such matters as under what circumstances professional groups think it is reasonable of others to ask them to take cognitive enhancement drugs, and whether lay people think it is reasonable to ask professionals to take such drugs. Legal researchers will investigate how the introduction of other capacity-enhancing technologies affected standards of care – for instance, how the emergence of novel medical diagnostic techniques affected medical practitioners’ responsibilities – what role professional associations and the general public played in molding new standards, and how these technologies subsequently came to be regulated.

At a conceptual level, this project will investigate the limits of the idea that responsibility tracks mental capacity. At a practical level, it will answer the following four policy questions:

  1. whether in virtue of their social roles and what is at stake, some people – in this case surgeons, aeroplane pilots and military personnel – have a moral and legal obligation to cognitively enhance themselves;
  2. whether it is negligent or reckless for such people to fail or refuse to do this under certain circumstances (and in this case, which?);
  3. what impact cognitive enhancement has on standards of care, and specifically, whether it raises them to a higher level or not; and
  4. whether we may sanction breaches of such higher standards of care by (e.g.) revocation of professional license, or civil and criminal liability.