Are ‘Smart Drugs’ Unethical?

August 12th, 2008 by Kathy McManus

Prescription drugs used as performance enhancers could be the new cheating.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

When an athlete uses performance enhancement drugs, he or she is likely to be called unethical and dishonest.

When a student or professor uses brain enhancement drugs, he or she is likely to be called smart and focused.

Is chemically boosting your brain for an unfair advantage over competitors the same as chemically boosting your body for an edge to beat others? That’s the question at the center of a new debate about drugs and cheating.

Originally prescribed for people with medical conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, brain enhancement drugs such as Ritalin and Provigil are increasingly being used by students preparing for a test and academics and other professionals gearing up for that big presentation.

Users of the drugs say they are able to focus more intensely, work faster, and be more creative.

So what’s the matter with grey matter boosting? Plenty, say critics of the practice. “The original purpose of medicine is to heal the sick, not turn healthy people into gods,” says biotech author Francis Fukuyama, cautioning that the increasing use of brain-boosting drugs could unfairly create a new category of haves and have-nots. He and other critics question whether the continued use of the drugs for the purpose of mental advantage will change the connection between human struggle and human character-building.

Others see less profound implications, as well as a distinction between brain doping and body doping. “I think the analogy with sports doping is really misleading,” says neuro-psychologist Martha Farah, “because in sports it’s all about competition…who’s the best runner or home run hitter.” For students or academics, Dr. Farah says, “there is an element of competition, but it’s secondary. The main purpose is to try to learn things, to get experience, to write papers, to do experiments. So in that case if you can do it better because you’ve got some drug on board, that would on the face of things seem like a plus.”

Doctors note that the drugs can be addictive and can produce side effects including restlessness and irritability.

But a participant in a radio talk show questioned all the hubbub: “Who hasn’t had coffee or cola before an exam or important meeting? The main issue should be whether the substance is safe. If people can do a better job by eating a good breakfast or taking a drug, who should complain?”

Tell us what you think: Should chemical brain doping be considered unethical, just as body doping is? Is it fair for some students to gain an advantage over others by taking brain-boosters before a test like the SAT?