Why the cheating objection to smart drugs doesn’t work

The BBC reports today
that increasing numbers of people are using prescription drugs like Ritalin—intended
as a treatment for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD)—to boost alertness and brain power.  Reports of the increasing popularity of ‘smart
drugs’ are synonymous with concerns about cheating (see here,  here, and here):
surely, the worry runs, taking drugs that help you do well at college is
equivalent to bribing your examiners into awarding you high marks? Those who take cognitive enhancement drugs,
just like those who bribe their examiners, are better placed to beat their
peers in the competition for the best educational qualifications and jobs, and
so cognitive enhancement is unfair. In
this case, shouldn’t cognitive enhancement be banned in schools and colleges?

There are at least two good reasons to answer
‘no’ to this question. First, even if
competition for qualifications and jobs is a valuable aspect of education, it
is not the only valuable aspect. Studying
also helps students to understand more about the world and the people in it,
and to enrich themselves intellectually and culturally. If—as seems likely—cognitive enhancement could
help students get more out of these non-competitive aspects of education, then
banning it in the interest of ensuring a ‘level playing field’ would be too hasty. In
order to decide whether or not to ban it, we would first need to decide whether
the advantages of doing so would outweigh the advantages of allowing students
to enjoy the non-competitive aspects of education more intensely with the aid
of cognitive enhancement.

However, even banning cognitive enhancement would
not ensure a level playing field for students. This is the second reason to answer ‘no’ to the question above. Consider that, even without access to drugs
like Ritalin, most students have to compete with other students who are
naturally more intelligent, disciplined, alert, and focused. As such, most students are already at a
disadvantage. It may be objected that,
in aiming at a level playing field, we should ignore such ‘natural’ advantages,
and concentrate only on ensuring that students have equal opportunities to
achieve the best grades given their existing abilities. However, even this does not leave us with a
level playing field. Some students are able
and willing to employ personal tutors, others are not. Some students spend most of their time out of
school studying, others spend their time relaxing or working to earn
money. Some students use caffeine or
computer software to aid their studying—both of which are types of cognitive
enhancement—others do not. Such
practices ensure that, even without prescription drugs like Ritalin, students
do not compete on a level playing field. And, that schools and universities do not currently outlaw the use of
personal tutors, caffeine, and studying outside of school suggests that creating
a level playing field is not as important as some opponents of enhancement
suggest. An uneven playing field may
even be seen as beneficial, since it can drive students to work harder as
they attempt to beat their peers. At the
very least, then, opponents of enhancement need to demonstrate exactly why
using drugs like Ritalin is relevantly different to employing a personal tutor
or drinking coffee to remain alert.

There is something important to learn from the
worry about unfair competition, however. As far as possible, it is desirable that society should discourage people from pursuing what the economist Fred Hirsch has called ‘positional goods’: those
goods whose value to those who have them depends on others not having
them. This is because the collective
pursuit of positional goods is a waste of time and resources: as Hirsch
remarked, ‘if everyone stands on tiptoe, no one sees better’ [1]. If the only advantage of cognitive
enhancement is its ability to help its users get one step ahead in the
competition for educational qualifications, then, its use should be
discouraged. However, this is not the only advantage of cognitive enhancement: we have seen
that it is likely to help students get the best out of the non-competitive
aspects of education. Perhaps some
opponents of cognitive enhancement may wish to play down these non-competitive
aspects, and argue that the only really important aspect of
education is the competition for qualifications. Adopting such a position would enable them to
make a strong case for banning cognitive enhancement in education, since it entails that students who use cogntive enhancement drugs do so for the sole reason of beating their peers to the top grades: in other words, it entails that cognitive enhancement in education is a purely positional good.  However, in denying the non-competitive advantages of education, opponents of enhancement throw the baby out
with the bath water.  If the only really important aspect of education is the
competition for qualifications, then these qualifications are themselves purely positional goods, and so the argument to ban cognitive
enhancement also works to ban educational qualifications.

The worry about cheating is not, as
a result, sufficient justification for banning the use of cognitive enhancement
drugs. Arguably, the worry about
enhancement and cheating is usually overblown. The most important concerns about such enhancement are probably the
most mundane: safety, addictiveness, and accessibility. Given that these concerns are not terribly
interesting, it should not be surprising that media debate about enhancement
gravitates instead towards issues like cheating. As in many debates in the media, however, we
must take care not to allow what is most interesting to distract us from what
is most important.


[1] Hirsch, F. (1977) Social Limits to Growth (London:
Routledge & Kegal Paul).

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10 Responses to Why the cheating objection to smart drugs doesn’t work

  • Utilitarian says:


    Many people use these drugs *only* for examinations, because of cost, side effects, developing resistance, etc. Thus, they are using the drugs to lie about the actual level of day-to-day performance they will bring to jobs. This not only has positional effects, but also worsens the allocation of human capital to jobs, and thus the productivity of society, while redistributing resources from the innocent.

  • True, but the same can be said for familiar approaches to studying, too. For example, most students cram *only* for examinations, and so they could also be said to be using studying ‘to lie about their actual level of day-to-day performance they will bring to jobs’: we can expect a medical student who sits an exam on the effects of a particular disease to know more about the subject on the day of the exam than on their first day of work as a junior doctor.

  • steven says:

    That seems like an argument against familiar approaches to studying rather than an argument for smart drugs.

  • Steven, it is neither. The point is that smart drugs and traditional methods of studying are too similar in the relevant respects for us plausibly to consider one cheating and the other legitimate. Whether we should be ‘for’ or ‘against’ either, based on this, is a separate matter, and one that I’ve avoided addressing here.

    As for the point about using drugs or cramming to ‘lie’ about one’s level of day-to-day performance, I don’t think that this is a cause for concern in either case. Attempting to perform as well as possible in exams – far above one’s day-to-day capabilities, if one can manage it – seems to be so central to the practice of sitting exams, and so widely recognised as such, that few are likely to be deceived by such a ‘lie’. Whether, given this, exams are the best way of measuring people’s capabilities, however, is another matter, and has little to do with the particular methods that students employ in their approach to exams. I guess that this latter concern lies behind the increasing popularity of methods of continuous assessment.

  • One problem with learning under the influence of a drug might be state-dependent learning: you will recall the material well only in the same state. But this is not just a problem for enhancers but for school itself: cramming is not a natural learning situation, and most real-life use of knowledge is utterly unlike any school situations. It seems that the ease of organisation of standardized testing is promoting bad forms of examination, that in turn stimulate bad forms of learning.

  • These comments are beginning to suggest to me that, even if nobody were actually to use cognitive enhancement drugs, discussion about them could itself be a type of educational enhancement, since it seems to lead us on to a discussion about in what respects current educational practices might fail to promote effective learning that can be applied in ‘real world’ contexts, which in turn could help us improve the way we educate people 🙂

  • steven says:

    “The point is that smart drugs and traditional methods of studying are too similar in the relevant respects for us plausibly to consider one cheating and the other legitimate.”

    If so then apparently we should consider both cheating. Just because one way of cheating is too ingrained in the system to remove, doesn’t mean we should be allowing other ways of cheating just to be consistent.

    “Attempting to perform as well as possible in exams – far above one’s day-to-day capabilities, if one can manage it – seems to be so central to the practice of sitting exams, and so widely recognised as such, that few are likely to be deceived by such a ‘lie’.”

    The more exam performance depends on factors not correlated with long-term competence, the less useful information can be extracted from it. Adding another irrelevant factor (use of smart drugs in examinations) degrades the signal further, and also costs the students whatever trouble and money they expended to get smart drugs.

  • Steven,

    Re your first point: I agree with you that permitting an unacceptable activity merely to ensure consistency with previous practice is not the best way of ensuring consistency, and that sometimes it is appropriate to rule out both established and novel activities if it turns out that both are unacceptable. But, in this case, I think you are in the minority in considering cramming for exams to be a form of cheating! Your real concern here seems to be the correlation (or lack of it) between exam performance and everyday performance, which brings us to …

    Re your second point: I agree. But the problem here is with exams as a form of assessment, not with smart drugs as a way of doing well in exams. Your point that smart drugs ‘degrade the signal further’ makes just this point: you think that they are a problem because they exacerbate a problem inherent in assessment by exam. The sensible way to address this problem would be to change the way we assess students, not to ban smart drugs.

  • Brandon says:


    I agree with your argument about the noncompetitive aspects of education. But I’m having difficulty seeing how your other argument (the ‘second reason’) wouldn’t also be an argument for allowing steroids in athletics competitions, since the analogy (at this particular point) seems to be exact: Athletic organizations don’t rule out natural superiorities, nor do they ban athletes from extra practice or from more disciplined exercise and diet regimens than their peers, nor do they eliminate the use of exercise machines, etc. So one might argue that this shows that they aren’t really interested in a level playing field, and that even banning steroids doesn’t result in a level playing field. But this argument seems merely to involve a confusion about what people mean when they talk about a ‘level playing field’; that is, it makes it sound as if (under normal conditions) a ‘level playing field’ is simply impossible.

  • Brandon,

    Exactly right, but sport and education differ in some important respects. One of those respects is that in sport (or at least, in professional sport), there are clear rules about what participants can and cannot do. If the rules state that doping is not allowed, then doping in sport is cheating. On the other hand, there is not a clear set of rules in education, and so the debate about whether or not enhancement in educational contexts constitutes cheating is not as clear cut. On this level, enhancement can constitute cheating in sport but not in education – and not for any philosophically interesting reasons, but simply because of the way the rules are written.

    Another respect in which sport and education differ is that part of the value of sport for many of those who value it consists in the fact that the achievements made by athletes are made ‘naturally’. In this case, drugs in sport undermine the value of sport. Of course, many people who value sport do not value ‘naturalness’ in this way, and as a result there are many who argue that drugs in sport should be permitted. (Scare quotes used here because it’s not clear that ‘natural’ picks out a neat category, or that people use the term in a consistent way.) On the other hand, it’s not clear that ‘naturalness’ is tightly bound up with the value of education in the way that it is bound up with the value of sport. Some believe that it is (although, even then, it seems to be valued because it is thought to correlate with fairness, rather than for its own sake), and some don’t. Discussions about issues like this relate to the reasons why different activities are valued, rather than to the acceptability of enhancement.

    In effect, my response to you is this: I realise that the points I make about enhancement in education apply to enhancement in sport, and am happy for them to do so. However, even if enhancement is morally unobjectionable in contexts like education, there may nevertheless be reasons to ban it in sport. In the same way, even though riding a bicycle is morally unobjectionable in ordinary life, there are nevertheless reasons to ban, say, marathon runners from using bicycles. Just as allowing marathon runners to use bicycles would undermine the point of marathons, allowing athletes generally to use drugs might undermine the point of sport. Personally, I have no strong opinions about whether drugs should be allowed in sport, but then I don’t greatly enjoy watching or participating in competitive sport. If most of those who do enjoy these things would cease to enjoy them if drugs were permitted in sport, then they probably ought not to be permitted.

    As for the issue about whether a ‘level playing field’ is ever possible, I don’t think that it is possible in practice if it must involve all participants competing from exactly the same starting point and background conditions. But when people talk about creating a ‘level playing field’, they seem to mean something different to this – namely, a situation in which all participants are equally well equipped to compete, once we have ignored a whole range of ways in which they differ (e.g. natural abilities, motivation, training, etc). The debate about enhancement, in this context, is about whether enhancement ought to be included in the group of factors that are ignored. My view is that there are no good reasons to exclude enhancement from this group given the other things we generally want to include in it. A ‘level playing field’, in this sense, is possible providing that we can be consistent about what factors we ignore in the ‘levelling’ process, and which we include.


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