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Jane Sullivan

Unacceptable cheating versus a bit of cognitive enhancement

Authors: Jane Sullivan Jane Sullivan

21 June 2013

Fairness is the word of the moment. Bankers bonuses, corporation tax, benefits cuts, low pay, the evils of capitalism… Debates about what is fair - in society and in our organisations - are at the forefront of the national psyche. So, it was with great interest that last week I attended two events at The Work Foundation.

First up was the launch of a joint research programme with The Work Foundation, CIPD and Lancaster University to examine the contours of fairness in organisations. Their starting point was to explore the different ways in which we conceptualise fairness at work. So far, they have come up with 12 possible lenses, some based on philosophy, some based on economic principles and some based on organisational behaviour - recognising that there are even more lenses to explore. Some of these perspectives focus on luck - being in the right place at the right time; the balance between input and outcome; our ability to make use of the resources available to us and so on. In essence, there is no simple formula for determining what is fair.

The second event was The Work Foundation 2013 Annual Debate: Will robots and enhanced human beings steal our jobs? I was fascinated by the discussion about the already fairly widespread use of cognitive enhancing drugs (eg Modafinil) both in the workplace and in academic institutions. Modafinil is prescribed routinely to people with narcolepsy, and often to people with MS, to help manage fatigue; in this context, not entirely dissimilar to wearing glasses to remedy poor vision. Yet Modafinil is also being used by surgeons and members of the academic community to provide an extra ‘edge’.

That this practice is apparently so commonplace, and yet not raising too many eyebrows, intrigues me and brings me to the question of fairness. In our society, we condemn those in competitive sport who use physical enhancers as cheats. Only recently we have seen the impact of the admission of doping on a cycling hero and even on the integrity of the entire sport. Major sporting events undertake rigorous procedures to manage this. So how does this stack up against an emerging culture in which using a cognitive enhancer to get that little bit of extra edge is seen as acceptable, and which, based on the debate, might simply become the norm in the next 10 to 20 years?

So, my questions are: Why is it that to use steroids in sport is cheating but that we turn a blind eye to use of enhancing drugs in the academic and professional world? Do we think about ‘cognitive’ achievement differently to how we think about physical achievement? The jury was still out by the end of the debate as to whether people in the audience would be prepared to undertake some form of modification, or use cognitive enhancing drugs, in order to get ahead. But given that this is already happening in some circles, let’s not bury our heads in the sand. Instead, let’s have an open and honest discussion about the implications of this, for now and for the future.