Friday, 4 January 2013

Are Smart Drugs Unfair?

Next week I'm going to take part in a panel discussion in Bristol on whether "students should take smart drugs". A fairly common view on the subject seems to be that using cognitive enhancers such as Adderall, Dexedrine, or Ritalin in order to boost one's ability to concentrate and stay awake is somehow morally dubious, mainly because it is deemed "unfair". But why exactly should it be unfair? Well, smart drugs cost money, and perhaps not everyone is rich enough to afford them. However, a couple of pills currently don't cost more than a pint of beer, so should be affordable to pretty much every student. And even if they really were so expensive that some students simply can't afford them, then it wouldn't really be the act of taking those drugs that is unfair, but rather their costliness. Reduce the price and the unfairness disappears. And given that arguably the effect of a private school education, which is far more expensive, on a student's abilities and achievements is a lot greater than anything that a smart drug can get you, it is strange that we should make so much fuss about this when it comes to cognitive enhancement drugs.

But perhaps the alleged unfairness of using such drugs consists in the fact that they help us appear better, i.e. smarter, than we really are. Except that they don't. Smart drugs don't make us smarter. The best that they can do is allow people to perform at their best, unhampered by anxiety, tiredness or a lack of motivation. Is this unfair towards those who have to work really hard to achieve good results? No, because those drugs don't provide you with a convenient short-cut. You still have to work hard. It will just be easier for you to work hard. Is this unfair towards those who don't need any enhancers to perform well? No, why should it? It is not important, or at least shouldn't be, that some students perform better than others. If some students need a little extra help to perform well, and there is such help available, why should we prevent them from making use of it? Far from being unfair, it rather seems to (slightly) level the playing field. And in contrast to sport where it might be pretty boring if everyone performed equally well, I don't see why we should not wish for all students to perform equally well.

If coffee and cigarettes aren't unfair, then so-called smart drugs aren't either. If private schools are unfair, then smart drugs are a lot less unfair. And if it is unfair that some people find it easier to learn than others, then smart drugs can even increase fairness.

1 comment:

  1. Smart drugs are Performance enhancing drugs becoming increasingly popular among students who are looking for an extra edge when it comes to taking exams.