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Ambivalence in the Cognitive Enhancement Debate

By Neil Levy, PhD

Neil Levy is the Deputy Director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, Head of Neuroethics at Florey Neuroscience Institutes, University of Melbourne, and a member of the AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board. His research examines moral responsibility and free will.

The most hotly debated topic in neuroethics surely concerns the ethics of cognitive enhancement. Is it permissible, or advisable, for human beings already functioning within the normal range to further enhance their capacities? Some people see in the prospect of enhancing ourselves the exciting prospect of becoming more than human; others see it as threatening our humanity so that we become something less than we were.

In an insightful article, Erik Parens (2005) has argued that truthfully we are all on both sides of this debate. We are at once attracted and repulsed by the prospect that we might become something more than we already are. Parens thinks both frameworks are deeply rooted in Western culture and history; perhaps they are universal themes. We are deeply attached to a gratitude framework and to a more Promeathean framework. Hence we find ourselves torn with regard to self-transformation.

When someone feels torn in this kind of way about how they should think about or respond to something, they are ambivalent. Parens thinks that ambivalence is in fact the right response to cognitive enhancement: we ought to recognize that we are torn in both directions and acknowledge and respect this fact. We should not seek to resolve the ambivalence; we ought to embrace it. While I think that Parens highlights something of great importance when he argues that we are torn, I think he is wrong that we ought to attempt to respect both frameworks.

The mere fact that we are torn is no reason to think we ought to give equal – or indeed, any – weight to both directions in which we are torn. There is plentiful evidence that many people are conflicted in their attitudes toward members of other races, for instance (Payne & Gawronski 2010). They have egalitarian beliefs but inegalitarian implicit attitudes. But they should not ‘respect’ those implicit attitudes; they should attempt to eliminate them.

If there is good reason to reject one (or both) the attitudes that we feel in response to cognitive enhancement, we ought to do so. I will not argue, here, that we ought to reject one or other attitude. Here I want to highlight the costs of ambivalence.

Image from Nature

There is a very large body of evidence that when people are strongly conflicted, they – unconsciously – seek to resolve the conflict, and they will do so even at the cost of confabulation. Consider the extensive data on cognitive dissonance (Cooper 2007). Cognitive dissonance paradigms induce people to be disposed to attribute contrary attitudes to themselves. For instance, college students may be led into a state of cognitive dissonance by gentle situational pressure to write an essay defending tuition fee rises. If they regard themselves as having willingly written the essays, and are unable to explain why they did so by reference to payment or reward, they are in a state of cognitive dissonance: they were antecedently disposed to judge that their fees shouldn’t rise, but they now have evidence that they have a different belief. In this kind of paradigm, they self-attribute the belief that fees should rise, even though matched controls (who, for instance, write an essay defending the same claim in exchange for payment) are very unlikely to agree that their tuition fees should rise.

When it would resolve cognitive dissonance to do so, people’s standards for accepting a claim are much lower than otherwise. It causes us to engage in highly motivated reasoning: for instance, accepting a weak argument just because committing to it resolves the ambivalence. Allan Buchanan (2011) is apparently puzzled that in the debate over human enhancement, incredibly intelligent and sophisticated thinkers often “substitute high-sounding rhetoric for reasoning” (Buchanan has the bio-conservatives in mind; I think the charge can be extended to some of those in the pro-enhancement camp as well). I think this is just what we ought to expect, if Parens is right. If cognitive enhancement causes ambivalence in us, then we should not be surprised to see bad arguments advanced and accepted by good thinkers.

The way forward is not to embrace ambivalence but to avoid triggering it in the first place. Just how to do that is not at all easy. One recommendation that seems to follow is that we ought to embrace a practice that we have independent reasons to adopt, in any case: avoid hype. Too often we greatly exaggerate the potential that existing drugs and other techniques of intervening in the mind have for enhancing ourselves. In fact, all the available methods seem to promise very little improvement for those who are already functioning well and what improvement they promise seems to come at a cost in other domains. Perhaps bearing these facts in mind will enable us to come to a more realistic and a more sober assessment of cognitive enhancement.


Buchanan, A. E. 2011. Beyond Humanity: The Ethics of Biomedical Enhancement. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cooper, J. 2007. Cognitive Dissonance: Fifty Years of a Classic Theory. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Parens, E. 2005. Authenticity and Ambivalence: Toward Understanding the Enhancement Debate. Hastings Center Report 35: 34-41.

Payne, B. K., & Gawronski, B. 2010. A history of implicit social cognition: Where is it coming from? Where is it now? Where is it going? In B. Gawronski, & B. K. Payne (Eds.), Handbook of implicit social cognition: Measurement, theory, and applications, New York, NY: Guilford Press, pp. 1-17.

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Levy, N. (2014). Ambivalence in the Cognitive Enhancement Debate. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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