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Cognitive enhancers: unfair at any dose?

How should universities tackle the use of cognitive enhancement drugs by students? Professor Barbara Sahakian raised the issue in a recent talk. While hard numbers are hard to come by, it is likely that at least a few percent of university students take drugs believed to improve cognitive ability. This may give them advantages that could be unfair (if some have access while others haven't) or would have coercive effects (if you don't take the drug but your classmates are, you will be at a disadvantage). Are enhancer use among students inherently unfair and coercive?

The unfairness issue might be fairly weak: cognition enhancers do not appear to be very expensive and could be made less expensive and more widely available by government subsidies if found useful. But there would likely be large differences in the willingness to take the drugs, given their individual effects and side-effects, as well as personal beliefs about their suitability. Am I subjected to unfairness if I do not wish to use a helpful tool in a competitive situation? It does not seem warranted, since I do have a choice. A religious person might not want to study on holy days, yet we do not think they are being subjected to unfair competition from their atheist fellows who can study on all days. Arguing that the atheists should be penalized (or forced to take holidays) to even things out does not seem reasonable.

People might have to abstain from enhancers due to a biochemical quirk giving them unacceptable side-effects, but this is not different from other bodily factors impairing study. The fact that some people are dyslectic should not prevent heavily text-based courses, rather it should stimulate other interventions to help the dyslectics. New technologies can make certain conditions such as dyslexia or ADHD more problematic, but they can also reduce unfairness: thanks to glasses people with poor eyesight can now study, ritalin can help ADHD and cognitive enhancers may well help groups of people who currently would not be able to study as effectively (note that enhancer drugs likely help low performers more than high performers).

The coercion issue may be misnamed. Professor Sahakian uses it in the broad sense of social pressure, but this is quite different from the more narrow sense it is used in ethics (a coercer makes others behave in ways the coercer desires against their wishes).There is nobody around that threatens or limits the activities of the students (rather, they got a new option to use the enhancer or not). There is not even somebody around to making an exploitative offer, and the case does not fit in with economic coercion (where someone uses their market power to force a desired outcome). Rather, the introduction of enhancers produces a situation where a desired behaviour for some (not taking the enhancer) becomes costly.

Is such a situation worth avoiding? That depends on what the aims of the participants are. Is the goal of studying learning more skills and knowledge, or is it to gain a competitive advantage in the form of high grades? If the aim is the former, then enhancers seem to be good even if some abstain from them – more is learned and understood. If the aim is the later, then we presumably want the competitive advantage to reflect something relevant (such as academic skill) rather than arbitrary (wealth, family, ideology). Enhancers would be problematic if they make irrelevant factors (such as money or willingness to use enhancers) more influential at the expense of relevant factors. However, it is not clear that enhancement willingness is irrelevant: academic skill in the future might actually include judicious use of enhancers to maximize intellectual performance. Still, it is possible that they bias the competition or the necessary shared trust that everybody is playing by the same rules too much to be allowed.

But do we want universities to be places of competition? I think most people would agree that it would be good if all students studied as hard as they could, and that we had accurate measurements of their skill. Competition is at most a tool for motivating some students and a convenient way of estimating skill: it is at best instrumental, and it does have many very negative effects on its own. It introduces zero-sum thinking between students, motivates breaches of ethical standards and over-motivates some students to harmful overexertion. If we assume the structure and routines of universities are given and unchangeable, then restricting enhancer use might be reasonable if they look likely to worsen the downsides of competition. But if we instead want to maximize the positive effects of academic study, then the competitive elements may well be changed to better fit the current possibilities. A more individualized education system that measured skill in a less competitive way (e.g. by putting emphasis on what rather how much has been learned) would have less problem with some using enhancers and other abstaining. Enhancers used under medical supervision (rather than being driven into illicit use by bans) would likely enable more overall learning and academic achievement.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. How long does the cognition enhancer work? If it works for only a short while, it’s main fault is that its use will mess up the information given by grades to graduate schools and employers. It also may fool those involved in winnowing academic chaff from the student body, although this latter objection is a very minor one.

    Is there something here that makes one think of the brouhaha in the US about steroid use by athletes?

    The fairness argument may seem important if the effect is very long-term, I suppose. But the distribution of talent is “unfair” even without enhancers. If your genes are “better” than mine with respect to intellectual potential and with respect to the ability to sit still and listen, are you unfairly benefited? I think the question is silly, but it is taken seriously by philosophers, so I should reconsider my judgment (and I will …. some day … I expect). The world is what it is, and people are made in a haphazard manner. If there are distributional problems that need solving, there’s always the use of taxation and subventions by government or special attention by NGOs.

  2. Modafinil and metylphenidate act for a few hours, but can be taken on a regular schedule. Some of the memory enhancers that have primarily been explored for elderly people are intended for chronic use. However, enhancers that help learning will help encoding – the learned memories are presumably good regardless of whether another dose is taken. It might hence be smart to take the enhancer while studying rather than at the exam.

    I guess one way of reducing biasing effects would be to make grades dependent on long-term performance rather than a few (or one) test. Might also improve their reliability.

    Note that with enhancers one could actually help people who through genetic luck have less pliable brains. This would make egalitarian philosophers happy. The worry is that since people who do not need this help will also use them, there might be just a positional struggle. However, I think the actual benefits of better cognition are absolute too (and low performers tend to be improved more).

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