Ken writes: There have been a couple of stories in the news recently about what might be called mental performance enhancing drugs. For example in the Independent, and in the Times. Actually, I say ‘recently’, because of the Independent article, but if you go to the BBC webpage, or the Guardian and search through the archives, you’ll see articles on this from all through the noughties. The drug mentioned a lot is modafinil (a.ka. Provigil and other names). I understand it is prescribed as a means to combat certain sleep disorders but it has also been discovered to help increase memory and attention.
I must admit, when I read about it, I thought ‘Damn, I’ve got to get me some of that stuff!’ but Dot won’t let me. We had an animated discussion about it this morning over breakfast, but we didn’t reach much of an illuminating conclusion so I’m blogging about it as a means of thinking it through. It raises a quite a few interesting issues.
Some of the claims seem quite incredible, such as that people will be able to work 22 hour days will no ill effect. But suppose it is true, surely then once everyone was able to take these pills everyone would be expected to work 22 hour days. The precedent is there in what happened with two income families. It must have been terrific to have twice the income in a world where the price of everything was premised on single-income families. Now it is virtually impossible to survive on a single income. So, if one is going to go down the path of academic performance enhancing drugs, one should adopt them quickly, in private and do one’s level best to discourage their use in others.
Another issue that occurred to me was how one could come to be compelled to go on taking a drug, though not exactly because of an addiction. Suppose you took some of the drugs and wrote an article that was published in a major journal that earned you plaudits and promotion. Or suppose it was just very very good. You might doubt whether you could do work of that quality without the drug. If you easily and quickly produce stuff everyone can see is objectively better than the sort of thing you do, with difficulty, without the drug, then you would feel very substantial pressure to keep using it no matter how harmful it is.
OK, but now suppose the drug works. Should you take it? The drug is prescription-only and not prescribed for ‘improving the quality of one’s academic work’ so it would involve either lying to a doctor or ordering the drugs over the internet from someone who doesn’t ask too many awkward questions. But is that wrong? Presumably, it is only controlled to keep people from harming themselves, but that sort of law is paternalistic. Would it be wrong to break that, if one felt adult enough to make up one’s own mind?
In any case, one hopes that the drug does not have very damaging side-effects or that they are unlikely. We don’t know. But suppose the side-effects were quite damaging but that the academic results were truly impressive, would that make a difference? I think the case is interestingly different from performance enhancing drugs in sport. The benefits a drug offers in sport are ultimately pointless, just as sport is pointless. People may make a well-paid career out of it, but ultimately sport is pointless. Even lasting sporting records are trivial. Academic or artistic achievements, on the other hand are of lasting value. A good academic paper, in its own small way, extends the frontier of knowledge and pushes back ignorance and darkness. It is just as useful to people who come afterwards as to author; often more useful as the practical off-shoots of theoretical work is often only apparent many years later.