Gaining an Edge: Enhancement Issues


Competition for scarce jobs is ratcheting up. Job hunters are getting creative in trying to gain an edge. I’m not talking about posting a video resume, but going under the knife to have a face-lift or a “smile makeover.” Many older men, in particular, are undergoing cosmetic procedures for fear they will lose out to their younger looking counterparts.[1]

Cosmetic surgery is one of the more common ways we use medicine to enhance or improve ourselves to stave off the results of aging, or because we don’t like what we were born with. Otherwise healthy people are populating doctor’s offices, pursuing ways to look better, feel better, and get ahead in school and the workplace. It’s not just surgery they’re after. Prescription drugs are now being used for non-medical purposes. There’s Prozac to brighten your mood, Viagra for your love life, and steroids to ramp up athletic ability.

Some drugs are also being used as cognitive enhancements, drugs that may increase alertness, memory, and concentration. A small, but significant number of college students illicitly use prescription stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin to help them write term papers or study for big exams.[2] Studies suggest that as many as nine out of ten prescriptions for Provigil, a narcolepsy drug, are written “off-label” to treat lack of energy, jet-lag, or even as an occasional sleep substitute.[3]

Why should we care? The most significant ethical problem is that surgical and medical enhancement threaten to change the very nature and purpose of medicine. Medicine exists to treat, care and comfort and when possible to promote health through prevention of disease, not to satisfy consumer desires and demands.

Another ethical concern is fairness. Gaining an advantage through popping a pill is different than the kind of advantage that comes from sacrifice and working harder than the competition. It’s easy to see why blood doping and steroid use by baseball players is unfair. It is also unfair to use brain boosters to hit a home run on the final exam.

Fairness plays out a different way with cosmetic surgery. This is a $13 billion per year industry, almost all of it paid for by patients. People are free to spend their money as they wish, but as Christians, we have a higher calling to care about access to basic healthcare, to care about those who can’t even afford antibiotics.

Enhancement is a race with no end. Each “improvement” paves the way for the next one, conforming to the current ideals of youth, beauty, productivity and success. We’ve become like our electronic gadgets, worried about obsolescence and needing an upgrade. But, unlike our devices, we have the freedom to be content with what we have received from God, to be creative with what life gives us, and to be generous with others whom God has called us to love.

[1] Jessica Dickler, “Plastic Surgery Resurges as Job Seekers Try to Look Younger,” CNNMoney, April 4, 2011, (accessed April 4, 2011).

[2] On some campuses, up to 25% of students used a prescription stimulant in the year 2007 (Henry Greely, Barbara Sahakian, John Harris, Ronald C Kessler, Michael Gazzaniga, Philip Campbell, and Martha J. Farah, “Towards Responsible Use of Cognitive-Enhancing Drugs by the Healthy,” Nature 456 (2008): 702).

[3] Anahad O’Conner, “Wakefulness Finds a Powerful Ally,” New York Times June 29, 2004, (accessed April 4, 2011).


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