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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Should Students Take Smart Drugs?

Darian Meacham
Originally posted December 8, 2017

If this were a straightforward question, you would not be reading about it in a philosophy magazine. But you are, so it makes sense that we try to clarify the terms of the discussion before wading in too far. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), when philosophers set out to de-obfuscate what look to be relatively forthright questions, things usually get more complicated rather than less: each of the operative terms at stake in the question, ‘should students take smart drugs?’ opens us up onto larger debates about the nature of medicine, health, education, learning, and creativity as well as economic, political and social structures and norms. So, in a sense, a seemingly rather narrow question about a relatively peripheral issue in the education sector morphs into a much larger question about how we think about and value learning; what constitutes psychiatric illness and in what ways should we deal with it; and what sort of productivity should educational institutions like universities, but also secondary and even primary schools value and be oriented towards?

The first question that needs to be addressed is what is a ‘smart drug’? I have in mind two things when I use the term here:

(1) On the one hand, existing psychostimulants normally prescribed for children and adults with a variety of conditions, most prominently ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), but also various others like narcolepsy, sleep-work disorder and schizophrenia. Commonly known by brand and generic names like Adderall, Ritalin, and Modafinil, these drugs are often sold off-label or on the grey market for what could be called non-medical or ‘enhancement’ purposes. The off-label use of psychostimulants for cognitive enhancement purposes is reported to be quite widespread in the USA. So the debate over the use of smart drugs is very much tied up with debates about how the behavioural and cognitive disorders for which these drugs are prescribed are diagnosed and what the causes of such conditions are.

(2) On the other hand, the philosophical-ethical debate around smart drugs need not be restricted to currently existing technologies. Broader issues at stake in the debate allow us to reflect on questions surrounding possible future cognitive enhancement technologies, and even much older ones. In this sense, the question about the use of smart drugs situates itself in a broader discussion about cognitive enhancement and enhancement in general.

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