Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Enhancements: Just Some Questions to Ponder

All the recent talk about Alex Rodriguez has led to a lot of ruminations during my morning commute. I've been thinking about enhancement, in all its different manifestations, great and small, and what circumstances make it acceptable.

Is it okay for athletes to use steroids to increase their prowess?  If so, why, or if not, why not?

Is it okay for ANY woman to seek assisted reproduction, or should some be declined the opportunity?  What if a woman is unable to support children financially?  What if she is unemployed, on food stamps, and already has six other children under the age of eight?  Who can judge when a person can claim rights without responsibility for the associated duties, and when an individual's rights / desires should be denied? Are people just entitled to do whatever they want, reproductively, regardless of the consequences?

Is it okay for performers / musicians / public speakers who suffer enormous, intractable stage fright to take beta blockers before appearing in public?  What if they don't ordinarily suffer from debilitating anxiety?

Is it okay for people to undergo plastic surgery to increase their breast size / lip size / buttock shapeliness or decrease their accumulated adipose tissue?

Is it okay for women to use make-up to make themselves look better than they would naturally?

When is it okay to bring out or augment the best in ourselves with external aids, and when is it not, and why?


The topic of the day today over at Mothers in Medicine is "mentors."  I contributed a post for the occasion, if anyone's interested.


Elaine Fine said...

Professional athletes compete for a living. They also compete for a lot of other people's livings (including people who like to bet). In order for competition to be fair, every athlete should be competing with what s/he has made of their body through training and (I suppose) nutrition. Anyone who steps over the line is, as far as I'm concerned, cheating.

A musician (or anyone else) who takes anti-anxiety drugs does not take them to perform better. S/he takes them to be able to perform at all. It is the same for people who need to take insulin, medication for depression, and blood pressure medication.

Beta blockers do not give musicians an "unfair advantage." As a matter of fact, beta blockers can induce a less-than-exciting performance because the musician can feel removed from the experience. At the suggestion of a friend I tried playing a concert after taking a beta blocker (not prescribed by a doctor), and I found the concert to be kind of dull. I imagine the audience did as well. Dull performances do not win auditions or music competitions.

Sometimes plastic surgery can help people to feel confident facing the world. Some people who get cosmetic plastic surgery feel that they are terribly ugly as they are. It is their own personal business. Same with make up. Some people feel better when they wear make up, and some (like me) feel better when they do not.

I think we're talking apples and oranges here. If someone claims to be the tallest man in the world, and it is revealed that he has had a surgical procedure to lengthen his legs just so that he can hold the world record, I believe that record is a lie. If a woman gets breast implants so that she can hold the world record for having the world's largest breasts, I believe that is a lie.

Is there any kind of medication that can really augment students' cognitive abilities? Ginko, as far as I know, is a kind of a placebo. Does a student who goes out of his or her way to learn the material s/he is responsible for by studying twice as long as other students have an unfair advantage. S/he has an advantage, but it is not unfair.

I have a huge amount of respect for athletes who do what they do from what they have built themselves. I have no respect for athletes (or anyone else) who cheats.

T. said...

I rest squarely on the pro-beta-blocker side of things, especially for people whose stage fright is almost incapacitating. Actually we seem to see things pretty similarly on most of these questions (which were admittedly a hodge-podge rather than a comparative list).

I wasn't thinking of gingko, but of the controversial Provigil et al. (I added a hyperlink). I actually think its IQ-enhancing potential is probably overrated; I suspect it helps with reaction times and alertness on certain measures which might then conceivably improve the overall score.

Anonymous said...

There's a cute sci-fi story called "I, Rowboat" by Cory Doctorow from a couple of years ago that addresses one aspect of this question. The story explores the idea of sentience and what the distant future might hold when human beings outgrow the computer processor limitations of our "meat" brains and transfer our sentience to silicon.

-Transor Z

Other futurists optimistically imagine the availability of genetic and transplantation self-modifications as another route to liberation from the limitations of the present human form and its institutions.

Underlying your question is a double-edged reality: the human organism is becoming increasingly malleable as we decode it and develop the biotech to modify it. And along with physical modifications, notions of "human-ness" are being challenged.

Let me flip the plastic surgery question. Plastic surgery (usually on females) targets hard-wired perceptions of males (skin tone, breast size, proportions, etc.) But no one seems to question whether the problem is with the male brain, which should be tweaked via the Male 1.26b wetware patch download to soften the over-emphasis on physical features. Perhaps this could be done in utero.

The athletics issue is easier for me to get my head around. Non-prescription PEDs are illegal because of the serious health risks. Setting aside A-Rod and his $250 mil contract, consider the pressures on marginal athletes to use where PEDs can make the difference between professional $$$ and coaching high school. I think pro sports have a moral obligation to punish offenders to protect the longterm health of young kids.

Plus it's cheating and violates the ethics of the sport.

Unknown said...

It seems like this will become more of an issue in the future. There might not be a drug to improve musicianship now, but what if there is in the future? Will we put astericks next to musicians names who use said compound? What about determining music scholarships for students? What about academic aids? If there were a legitimate smart-drug out there, would we start putting asterisks by students names? Everyone seems to want to paint it in terms of black and white, but the issue is entirely shades of grey, even depression and blood pressure.

T. said...

Aaron, I totally agree - it's so easy to pass judgment but there are so many variables that put a lot of these issues right in the middle of a vast grey zone. If (hypothetically) something can help me think better/ faster, why shouldn't I take it? Don't I want my brain to function as highly as it can? Am I then cheating if all of a sudden I am able to create some masterpiece on the drug - not knowing, of course, if it might have happened off it? Isn't asking people to just deal with the cards they're dealt and work with what nature "intended" for them just a little unreasonablem/ nonsensical /unfair when nature can give one person a Mozart brain and another -well, my poor, math-phobic brain, for example? Or is it? Are technological aids reserved for those with "special needs" or is EVERYONE entitled to avail themselves of them?

I have no answers. Only questions.