Wednesday, March 12, 2008

NY Times: "Brain Enhacement is Wrong, Right?"

Is it right to take Adderall to write a term paper or do well on a test? How is it different from taking steroids to do better in sports? There is a discussion brewing in the news about the ethical implications of taking such drugs to improve cognitive performance both in high school and universities (by both students and professors) and in the workplace. The NY Times article is linked from the title of this post.

Have you ever taken such drugs? Do you know people who have? What do you think of the practice? In the interests of confidentiality, this time alone ANONYMOUS posts WILL be allowed.


Anonymous said...

If it is wrong to take Adderall to stay awake or focus better in school, we should all be a bit worried about the moral standing of our coffee drinking habits. Oh, and getting more sleep than other people is probably wrong too--that's an unfair advantage.

The fact is, we're a nation on drugs: Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, etc. More people are addicted to caffeine in the US, I expect, than any other drug. Just look at all the energy drinks that have been coming out over the last few years. It would be entirely hypocritical to demonize the practice of taking Adderall to increase focus or alertness in this country full of caffeine addicts, given that they’re both taken for the same reason. It would be absurd to think that drinking coffee is wrong or somehow cheating, and thus I would maintain the same for taking Adderall.

Mark Scala said...

if you are going to say something confessional, be aware that there is no such thing as an anonymous post. your post could be tracked to you despite your best efforts to remain unknown.

Jason Haeger said...

Isn't Adderall available by prescription only?

Under such a situation, any other use is illegal, and should be considered as no better than say, cheating, plagiarism, or other illegal "grade enhancing" strategies.

If it were available over the counter, I would consider it fair game. I keep red bull handy during finals times. Not to stay awake, but to focus during the exam.

ydfyce said...

The analogy between academics and athletes that gives rise to the complaint voiced in the NY Time article is flawed. Steroid use in sports, if they seem morally contemptible, are so as a result of two particular aspects of sports performance and evaluation that simply do not get traction in the academic case. First, success in sports is something of a zero-sum game. Only one team can win the championship in a specific season. Only one player can be the scoring leader in a given year. Being the best in a particular sport necessarily marks other as less than best. Secondly, steroid use impacts directly the aspects of an individual that enables them to excel in her given sport: strength, endurance, quickness etc. This obviates, in some way, the praise we want to give to those individuals given that the very components we evaluate them on have not developed in them naturally, and are unearned in some way (I take this to be the intuition anyway).
Taken these considerations in conjunction it becomes clear that the analogy between steroid use in sports and prescription use in academia breaks down I ways relevant to our moral attitudes. The criteria of evaluation for a scholar, or scholarly work is not directly affected or enhanced by the use of stimulants. That a scholar can stay alert for longer periods of time has no direct impact on whether they can write compelling, novel and impactful material. It merely ipacts how long they can write, or how much material they can draw on. Being well read might be helpful in bringing about insightful analysis, but it is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition in being successful in academia. Along this vein, an individual’s academic success does not (at least not obviously) preclude others, even in their field, from co-temporal success in the way success in sports does. In this way the two domains are disanalogous, and in ways that should impact our moral dispositions.
A final point… Sporting events, and the success they confer on athletes do not seem to promote social growth in the way academic endeavors do. Sports serve as entertainment through an appeal to our (or male) competitive natures. The rewards they bestow on athletes are understood in this light. Those who succeed in sports deserve the benefits they receive because their special abilities entertain us in unique ways. When those abilities are not (seen as) genuinely theirs we question whether they deserve such praise. Academic success is garnered, not as a result of the ability of the academic to entertain us, but in their ability to offer insight into the world, either by new discoveries in the sciences, fleshing out the relationships between people in the “soft-sciences” or by offering insightful accounts of the concepts we employ in everyday life, as philosophers are disposed to do. Academia promotes humanity in a significant way that sports do not and praise in the academic domain is seen (intuitively) in this light. That is, even if the drugs academics take directly and impactfully enhance the traits we evaluate them on, this seems to be less material if their research promotes the human condition. The physician that finds a cure for cancer should be garnered praise merely on the grounds that this dramatically improves the condition of cancer suffers world-wide, regardless of whether her insight that led to the discovery was naturally earned in the relevant sense.
-Chris Vogel

Jennifer said...

I've been struggling with ADD...well, for all of my life, but especially since starting graduate school. Although I cannot generalize to all people from my experiences, taking Adderall and Strattera has been nothing like performance enhancement because my academic performance really hasn't been enhanced. I'm still struggling to get the dissertation done; I'm still struggling to get the papers graded. For me, treating the ADD with drugs has been a matter of liberation rather than excelling. I'm better able to tune out the jumble that's always running through my head (but not turn it off), and I'm more likely to get done the things I already wanted to do. It's kind of like fixing biologically-based akrasia. I'm finally the clean, tidy person I've always wanted to be! Performance enhancing drugs like steroids try to add things to the user that weren't there to begin with, like muscle mass or endurance. In this sense, steroids for athletes are not analogous to medication for persons with a learning disability. However, for persons without learning disabilities, the analogy is much more apt because the drugs do appear to add something that wasn't there before. This is an important distinction that must be kept in mind. We don't equate treating the physically handicapped to abusing drugs like steroids, so we ought not to equate treating the learning disabled to abusing drugs like stimulants.

John Campbell said...

Many students take absurd amounts of caffeine to study and stay awake, as well as many students take Adderol. How legitimate a certain person's grade/GPA is doesn't necessarily reflect how he/she achieved and maintained that, but rather that the time was put in for that course.

And to the question is it wrong to take such drugs, it depends what you are basing the judgment on. It's legality is obvious but for some students who only are able to fit an adequate amount of time studying during very early hours in the morning without sleep, possibly due to working overtime, my personal opinion is let them use whatever substance available to allow for time studying/learning of the material.

Who am I/what do I possess that makes me able to decide what others can or can't do, or what makes them drinking a coffee different from another taking a caffeine pill?

It's all relative.

Anonymous said...


"Isn't Adderall available by prescription only?

"Under such a situation, any other use is illegal, and should be considered as no better than say, cheating, plagiarism, or other illegal 'grade enhancing' strategies."

This response may take us a bit too afield in the discussion (down the tangent of philosophy of law), but does it seem problematic to anyone else that an action can become wrong just because someone says so (in this case, the government)? The original question was a moral one, so I'm having difficulty seeing how the legality of the action is relevant, unless we were to rely on the (problematic) premise that whatever is illegal is immoral. Are things like plagiarism wrong merely because some entity has declared that there is a law or rules against it? I don't think so. There seems to be something wrong about those things per se and therefore we make a rule against them.

I would maintain that if using Adderol (is this the correct spelling?) is wrong, it has to be wrong for some other reason. Rules and laws can be (and often are!) arbitrary.

felix45 said...

I dont find adderall to improve your ability at school work. Just the amount of time you can do it for. Adderall doesn't let you learn more, it just helps you concentrate on a task for longer than you may normally have been able to. So long as all students have the same amount of time to do work, it shouldn't matter whether or not one student does the work over the course of the alloted time, or if another student does it all in the matter of one night with help of a drug.

Steroids directly affect your ability to play sports. In the case of baseball (easy example because of major issues w/ it going on now) steroids for some players seem to be the difference between hitting home runs vs not hitting home runs.

Christopher Hom said...

Isn't Adderall an amphetamine, with all of the addictive and long-term side effects of amphetamines? If that's the case, I would think that the primary moral argument against Adderall use by the general population would be from social utility. We don't want surgeons, soldiers, or fellow drivers on the freeway to be suffering the effects of Adderall withdrawal (e.g. psychosis, paranoia, brain damage, etc.). Clearly these do not develop as long-term side effects of coffee consumption, or sleep. Perhaps the more interesting question is whether there is a moral argument against the use of Adderall* which would have all of the benefits and none of the negative symptoms of Adderall (?).

Jason Haeger said...

Very much Like Mr. Hom to use an example of Adderall* as contrary to Adderall.

Delving into philosophy of law or not, it's a relevant factor. Accessibility is certainly to be taken into consideration.

Not to mention, the constraints of "Wrong or Right" were not clearly outlined, so I believe injecting the concept of law isn't out of bounds.

Anonymous said...

I know that in the dorms at my university there is a black market of sorts for drugs such as Adderall. The demand is especially great around midterms and finals.

Anonymous said...

I've taking dexedrine and ritalin primarily for the purpose of enhancing my performance in academics in no way did it ever help if anything it gave me distracting amounts of energy that could not be channeled to a purpose in no way did it help even though i've tried it on several occasions with differing doses/(ritalin or dex) it is merely a fantasy that these drugs will improve GPA at all as there is no evidence to report that they help in obtaining higher grades, the latter topic should be all of your focus first as their exist literature supporting the lack of enhancing, which some argue believing to exist some sort of benefit in the use as none is seen.

Dalila said...

Interesting to know.