Should students be free to take mind-enhancing drugs?
Drugs that can help us stay awake
for longer, improve our concentration and boost our memory are hear and are
already being used by academics and students. The likes of Modafinil and
Ritalin are prescription only, but are being traded on university campuses and
bought over the internet.
We are the result of an
enhancement process - evolution - and are inveterate self-improvers. My
favourite example of an enhancement technology that’s played a significant part
in our history is ‘synthetic sunshine’ – first firelight, then
lamplight and finally electric light have transformed our world. And in many
ways, the issues raised by the introduction of synthetic sunshine aren’t very
different to those created by mind-improving drugs.
Before synthetic sunshine, people
slept when it was dark and worked in the light of day. With the advent of
technology like the candle or electric light, work and attempts to improve the
mind by, for instance, reading, could continue into and through the night This created new competitive pressures and incentives for
people to use the new technology to their advantage. There were also the
side-effects of use (such as smoke-clogged atmospheres and overuse. The solution, however, was not to outlaw synthetic sunshine but,
perhaps belatedly, regulate working hours and improve access. I believe
the same will be true of chemical cognitive enhances.
The prospect of mind-enhancing
probably makes us a little squeamish because they work by altering brain
function. But beneficial neural changes have been reported for reading,
education, physical exercise, and even our diet can have an influence. So how
are drugs ethically different?
In sports, performance enhancement
is cheating. It is, of course, considered cheating because it is against the
rules. But any good set of rules would need to find a clear distinction between
allowed cognitive enhancements, such as a double espresso, and the new
enhancement techniques – drugs – if the latter are to be banned. That may prove
As with all opportunities, we have
to weigh up the benefits of mind-enhancing drugs against the risks. Ritalin is
a drug prescribed to children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder
(ADHD) allowing them to focus on their work, and Modafinil helps people with
conditions like narcolepsy and shift-work sleep disorder to stay awake. These
drugs have been shown to confer significant advantages in cognitive performance
and be safe enough to treat conditions that are not life-threatening or
With that risk assessment in mind,
drugs are regulated on a scale that judges the potential harm from the very
dangerous, such as heroin, to the relatively harmless, such as caffeine. So the
fact that cognitive enhancers are drugs is no reason to outlaw them.
The question must now be addressed
as to whether cognitive-enhancing drugs should be made readily available to
healthy adults to help us work and play. The students taking the drugs now are
the early adopters, but the trend will grow.
Of course these drugs would give
those who use them an advantage over those who don’t, but would this be unfair?
Consider higher education (expensive and not available to all) and hard work
(rejected by many). These offer advantages, but are not rejected on the basis
So when it comes to cognitive enhancing
drugs, the arguments for monitored extended use – just as we have seen with the
likes of the morning-after contraceptive poll and Viagra – seems indisputable.
Professor John Harris
Lord Alliance Professor of Bioethics,
BBC Focus Magazine, October 2009