On nature and equality

Well, good. I was hoping for some back-and-forth on this. Thanks for the responses, Elizabeth and Joe. I have some thoughts.

First of all, let me clarify that I'm certainly not advocating an outright ban on "smart drugs." In a few circumstances (eg. pilots on long flights) they seem to hold clear benefits, and I'm generally pretty libertarian on drug laws in general. I have qualms about their use in academia in particular, but I don't think draconian measures should be taken to keep students or professors off of them.

Elizabeth, you mention your taking fish oil supplements to try to boost your child's cognitive abilities as an "unfair" advantage that he might later enjoy. You also discuss the various advantages that Lance Armstrong enjoyed on his way to becoming Lance Armstrong. Joe, you make similar points with your question about being raised in a family that puts a premium on education.

Obviously, human freedom, physiology, history and psychology all inform our achievements in unequal ways, and valuing freedom means that we have to accept this as a given. Efforts at enforced equality have turned out rather poorly from an historical perspective. We try to ameliorate some of the inequality by providing good public schools (so the story goes), and universal health care would help, too. True, the combination of my lack of talent, aversion to pain, and parents that failed to make a pommel horse readily available to me could be "blamed" for my lack of an Olympic gymnastics gold medal, but such vagaries are par for the course of being human.

Also, Elizabeth, your taking fish oil supplements could be viewed as (an admittedly artificial) maximization of the benefits of good nutrition, as are prenatal vitamins. You could just as easily have eaten a whole bunch of salmon and kale (with concerns, perhaps, about mercury with the former) and achieved similar results. There isn't a large difference between what you did and what would be generally recommended as conducive to a healthy pregnancy.

But in an academic setting, most of these preexisting advantages have already been taken into account. Presumably everyone in the classroom has gotten there by some "unfair" combination of talent, persistence and social advantages, at least by comparison to the general population. Them's the brakes. But once there, it is assumed that everyone has the same chance to get the A. Some are naturally smarter, perhaps, and some will work harder, but everybody is viewed as on roughly even ground. Smart drugs throw that off balance.

Further, it's not just that these drugs are unnatural. As the Nature commentary notes, we all do "unnatural" things and consider them perfectly normal. That I shave, set my alarm and take my eggs over easy instead of raw and boosted from a nearby tree makes me "unnatural" in ways nobody would question. But these drugs aren't just unnatural, they are counter-natural. They override the body's hunger and fatigue mechanisms, which serve physiologic purposes. I monitor patients I start on medications like Ritalin, because they can become sleep-deprived or undernourished. The effects of these medications may make one "smarter," but they may hold other, less salubrious effects. Again, as a pretty easy-going guy on these issues, if it's a risk one is willing to take, I think it should be your choice, but I suspect it's a questionable one.

From an empirical perspective (and I'm always really, really reluctant to use philosophical terms with you, Elizabeth, for fear of using them totally incorrectly), I see your point about advancing human knowledge or understanding. From a broad, "greater good" stance I see the benefit. But from an individual, moral perspective, my qualms remain. We find ourselves in a society where easiness is considered a plus, and even a right (witness what easy credit has wrought). But I think there's a value to be had in the hard work required to achieve a result. The view from Everest is doubtless something to beyond, but it means much, much more because of the trouble it takes to enjoy it.


  1. I still don't know where you'd draw the line between what should and shouldn't be treated.

    Situation a) A person of below-average "natural" intellectual ability does poorly in school, gets a low-income job, but lives to a ripe old age, with cognitive function pretty much intact to the very end.

    Situation b) A person of above-average ability gets a high-income job, but develops Alzheimers late in life, and dies with a lower cognitive fuction than the person in situation a.

    Aren't both of these situations natural? Wouldn't you be giving the person of situation b an unfair advantage over the person in situation a by medicating later on in life?

  2. Let me clarify. I am concerned only with the use of these drugs to boost academic performance. I have no qualms whatsoever with using them (often for their developed purpose) to slow or halt cognitive decline in people affected by Alzheimers.