Equally Smart, part II: Egalitarian Approaches for Embracing Enhanced Intelligence

This is the second part of a two-part piece on Rawls, Cohen and enhanced intelligence. In the first post, I outlined how enhanced intelligence and socioeconomical stratification are linked, and applied Rawls’ difference principle, and Cohen’s critique of it, on the issue at hand. This post introduces five enhancement distribution schemes that are compatible with the difference principle. Some of these schemes are even acceptable by Cohen’s egalitarian standards.

Egalitarian Approaches for Embracing Enhanced Intelligence

In the previous post, I discussed the question of whether enhancements only available to the elite can constitute an improvement in light of the difference principle. Perhaps intelligence enhancements, even if restricted to the wealthy, would benefit the whole society, for example if the enhanced would find ways to act in order to remove world hunger. On the other hand, could intelligence further alienate the elite from the masses, diminishing the empathy they feel for the underprivileged? I find both equally unlikely: there is no reason to assume that increased intelligence would increase empathy or sense of social duty, but neither is there any reason to assume it would diminish them.

In this post, I will offer five sketches for strategies of accepting intelligence enhancements while staying mindful of social inequalities. Some of them are stronger or more feasible than others, some require very specific circumstances; all of them are compatible with Rawls’ difference principle, and some even respond to Cohen’s concerns. I will start with schemes of adopting enhancements for a limited group of people for a number of reasons: first, any medical enhancement technique should be initially applied only to a limited number of subjects for obvious safety reasons. Secondly, should the enhancement be too costly to reach the whole population, or should it, for example, require a difficult surgery, its availability thereby being limited by the number of competent surgeons, widespread adoption of the enhancement could be beyond our means.

Meanwhile, should the enhancement be easy to administer, eventual universal availability is only a question of distribution. I will discuss widespread enhancement towards the end of this post.

Models for Accepting Enhancements in a Minority

Regulation of enhancements based on the Rawlsian difference principle rely on making sure that the positional advantage granted to the enhanced will be balanced off by making their enhancement benefit the others, as well. With this notion as my starting point, I can find three models for accepting intelligence enhancement in a minority group, such as the financial elite. I call these the prerogative model, the incentive model and the obligation model.

The prerogative model relies on the fact that Rawls never intended his difference principle to be applied to the acts of individuals, but rather, to the basic structure of society. Rawls would argue is within the limits of personal liberty to decide how to use one’s resources: should a wealthy person choose to use their savings on enhancing their intelligence, this is not against the difference principle, not even if this would further increase their privileged position.

However, the prerogative does not mean that the basic structure couldn’t regulate the availability of enhancements. In fact, the difference principle insists on the making of regulatory decisions in accordance with it – although not regulating is a viable decision in itself. For this reason, the prerogative can only be invoked under very specific circumstances, such as when enhancements are new to the market and sufficient information for enlightened regulation is not yet available, or in a situation where regulation is for some reason impossible.

The incentive model for enhancing intelligence is a model where enhancement takes on the role of money as incentive, either fully or partially. While Rawls never directly argues for the necessity of incentives, the difference principle takes them into account: according to Rawls, class differences can be justified if they hasten innovation and economic development; elsewhere, Rawls argues that incentives are a good reason for supporting a flat taxation rate. Cohen has criticized incentives, deeming them unnecessary: if the gifted are capable of working at an efficient rate with incentives, they can be assumed to be capable of the same rate of efficiency without it.

Should we accept incentives for occupations that further the common good, intelligence enhancements could be used as incentives in gaining workforce for certain professions, such as healthcare. This wouldn’t just increase the number of people choosing the profession, but would also enhance their work performance. One can even imagine a scenario where differences in income would be replaced by enhancements entirely. Enhanced intelligence would increase their job efficiency, but it would also work as an incentive because, as I noted in the first part of this essay, it is a good that is desirable in itself: we do not only need it for professional pursuits but also appreciate it in our spare time.

Cognitive enhancements are already in place: at present, many students improve their performance with methylphenidate, bodybuilders with anabolic steroids, and night shift workers with caffeine. Using safe methods of enhancement for various professions is an attractive possibility; however, it is up to the sociologist to determine whether enhancement can replace income differences as an incentive. The incentive model can, however, be an ethically sustainable approach for embracing enhancements within the framework of Rawlsian theory.

My third approach for enhancing a small group of people is the obligation model. Intelligence enhancements can be made available for those desiring it in exchange for an obligation for the common good. The strenght of the obligation needs to be adjusted so that it not only compensates for the positional advantages the enhancement generates, but also works to increase the well-being of the worst-off. In this case, the enhancement’s advantages for the underprivileged would be greater than its advantages for the enhanced themselves. The enhancement would not constitute a reward or an incentive, since any benefit would be balanced off by the corresponding obligation. As such, the obligation model should satisfy even the Cohenian critic of the pareto argument: it does not advantage the enhanced, but rather, increases the common welfare the enhanced will generate.

For example, a lack of doctors in the public sector could be answered by offering intelligence enhancements to those who agree to work in the public sector for a certain time after graduating from medical school. Scientists could be offered enhancements on the grounds that they agree to work in an environmental project for a certain time. Additionally, enhancement would increase their efficiency.

Would a Cohenian egalitarist prefer obligation without enhancement? At the present, many will choose to work as a doctor in the public sector or as an environmental activist, even though no personal gain is present. These persons can be said to embody Cohen’s egalitarian ethos. However, enhancement would make these persons more effective in their pursuits. Despite the balancing obligations, intelligence enhancement could entice more people to take up professions that benefit the underprivileged. In a way, enhancement would work similarly to an incentive here, but it would not generate inequality, seeing that in order to gain one primary good – intelligence – the person would have to skimp on another: liberty.

Two Approaches for Enhancing the Majority

Above, I suggested that enhancement could generate more efficient professionals, whose work could benefit the society as a whole. Cohen’s suggestion that the gifted should work efficiently for the common good without incentives in order to create a better society leads one to think that it would be a further improvement to dramatically increase the number of the gifted. Should a cheap enough method for enhancement be available that it could be made universally available, or should an expensive method be deemed to be so beneficial for the society that the cost to the taxpayer will be compensated, an egalitarist could be expected to support enhancing the majority of population.

A voluntary approach for population-level enhancement would constitute a program of widespread enhancement, made universally available the way immunizations are, but that can be refused at will. Should the enhancement method in question require a limited resource, such as surgery, it could be offered for as many willing subjects as possible, regardless of social status.

An alternative for the voluntary approach for population-level enhancement is the civic duty approach. The civic duty approach is a riff on Cohen’s argument concerning the duty of the gifted to fulfill their potential for the common good. According to Cohen, should a gifted person fail to work according to their full potential (without incentive), that person will be one of those directly responsible for inequality in the society. The possibility of intelligence enhancement will give each citizen a higher putative work potential, therefore granting them a possibility for increasing common welfare more efficiently. A citizen refusing an available enhancement is acting consciously to limit their potential. Should an egalitarist like Cohen hold that accepting available enhancements is a civic duty? Accepting an enhancement would, undisputably, be in accordance with the difference principle and with Cohen’s egalitarianism. However, even Cohen allows for a limited prerogative. Which one will weigh more for the egalitarist: welfare or personal liberty?

Despite his strict approach concerning the social duties of the gifted, Cohen would hold that enhancement should be kept voluntary. This is because he argues that our valuation of a given object derives from our relationship with it, not with the objective value of said object. One would not be expected to switch their life partner for one with objectively better qualities, and the Louvre need not scrap the Mona Lisa in order to display an updated, enhanced version of it: the appreciative relationship is valuable in itself. Similarly, a person can value the way their brain functions despite its faults. Despite having a bad memory, Julie can think of herself as an absent-minded but very funny individual, and wish to retain her witty, albeit forgetful character simply because she has grown used to appreciating it as hers.

I would side with Cohen on this one and hold that although the prerogative must often give way for justice, in enhancement, a topic so closely tied with personal identity, voluntariness has more weight than efficiency in improving common welfare. The values of efficiency and performance that we associate with intelligence enhancement cannot bypass personal liberty. Should society undertake a program for population level distribution of enhancements, the program must include measures for ensuring equality for those who choose to refuse them.


Bognar, Greg (2012), “Enhancement and Equality”, Ethical Perspectives 19 (1): 11–32.
Cohen, G.A. (1995), “The Pareto Argument for Inequality”, Social Philosophy and Policy 12: 160–185.
Cohen, G.A. (2012), “Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing Value”, in Otsuka, Kazuhiro (ed.), Finding Oneself in the Other. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Levy, Neil (2007), Neuroethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pugh, Kahane & Savulescu (2013), “Cohen’s Conservatism and Human Enhancement”, Journal of Ethics 17 (4): 331–354.
Rawls, John (1991), A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rawls, John (1993), Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sandberg, Anders (2011), “Cognition Enhancement: Upgrading the Brain”, in Savulescu, ter Meulen & Kahane (eds.), Enhancing Human Capacities. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Sandberg, Anders & Savulescu, Julian (2011), “The Social and Economic Impacts of Cognitive Enhancement”, in Savulescu, ter Meulen & Kahane (eds.), Enhancing Human Capacities. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Williams, Andrew (1998), “Incentives, Inequality, and Publicity”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 27 (3): 225–247.


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Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

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