The Volokh Conspiracy

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Colleges should allow students to take smart drugs


Last night, I had the pleasure of debating my views on why college students should be allowed to take smart drugs. My partner, Anjan Chatterjee and I were in support of the resolution. Nicole Vincent and Eric Racine were opposed.

The debate, hosted by Intelligence Squared US (IQ2US) and FIRE, was an engaging conversation about the existing and potential role of these drugs in society, and in particular on college campuses.

As the affirmative team in the debate, we sought to make the positive case for allowing college students to take smart drugs, rather than rely on the softer but also compelling position that smart drugs are no different in kind from other cognitive enhancers like coffee, good nutrition, etc.

The entire debate will be up on the Intelligence Squared Web site soon at the following link. In the meantime, I thought I would share some excerpts from my opening argument on the two principled reasons that I believe that smart drugs should be allowed on college campuses:

  1. Colleges should educate and empower students to make informed choices about smart drugs.

There's a common saying in education that we should teach students how to think, not what to think. Teaching a student how to think encourages them to question their own beliefs, and to question claims they are presented with. Banning smart drugs disempowers students from making educated choices for themselves, tells them what to think, and denies them the ability to think smarter.

Being protective of students and telling them what to do to change their brains leaves students poorly prepared for life after college. A campus culture built on prohibitions and policing students is a campus that is at odds with encouraging freedom of thought and liberty. It fosters fear and ignorance instead of courageous deliberation.

A recent online poll found that one in five of the 1,400 respondents had used Ritalin, Provigil, or beta-blockers for non-medical purposes. Polls of incoming college freshman show that at least one in three has used smart drugs. We can pretend that this isn't a choice that large swaths of people are already making. Or we can embrace that "smart drugs" are just one of the many ways that people exercise free choice in life.

Colleges are incredibly well positioned to equip students with the information and skills necessary to balance the risks and benefits of taking or foregoing these drugs.

It's time we recognize that college students are moral agents, capable of acting freely and making judgments for which they can be praised, blamed or held responsible. We should respect their dignity and enable them to decide whether caffeine, college prep classes, neural stimulation, exercise or smart drugs are ways that they want to change their brains.

Look at what is happening in high schools around the country when bans on so-called "dangerous" substances are being made: One school administrator from Indiana testified before Congress that high school students in his district are trafficking banned foods on school property thanks to a federal law prohibiting what can be served in school lunchrooms.

Students have been caught bringing—even selling—salt, pepper and sugar in schools to add taste to bland and tasteless cafeteria food.

This is the sad reality of what bans do in educational settings—they spur underground markets where the very goods prohibited become more alluring and go unchecked. This puts students at greater dangers of taking tampered substances without the benefit of transparency. Instead of banning salt, pepper, sugar, soda or smart drugs, let's teach students how to weigh the risks and benefits of ingesting these substances themselves.

This says nothing, of course, about the frightening intrusion into private lives of college students to enforce a ban on smart drugs. Can you imagine regular screening and testing of students to try to "detect" taking drugs?.

2. Enhancing our brains is a social good that we should pursue

The gradual improvement in how our brains function is a social good worth pursuing. And a social good we pursue all the time. It is the essence of what makes us human.

We enhance our brains all the times and every day—from the coffee we drink first thing in the morning, the SAT prep classes we take to gain college admission, the music classes we enroll in, the basic nutrition we follow, the exercise we undertake and the classes we attend. All of these things change our brains. And that's a good thing.

To the extent that smart drugs work—to improve focus, motivation, attention, concentration and/or memory—we should celebrate them, not prohibit them.

What if a taking a smart drug gives us the capacity to study harder, longer and better such that we cure cancer? Or develop tools for staying in better touch, for solving social ills or for improving our overall happiness? Shouldn't we encourage, rather than ban such opportunities?

Improving our brain functioning can influence important outcomes for our individuals, like making them more successful at work, increasing their overall earning potential in life, giving them better social and economic opportunities in life that can also improve their health and flourishing. If improvements in cognitive function became widespread, as a society we could enjoy significant economic gains and improvements in collective flourishing. And why shouldn't we want our scientists, our factory workers, or our truck drivers to operate more effectively with better concentration and less drowsiness? Doesn't that benefit all of us?

We shouldn't think of "smart drugs" like taking steroids in sports. Life isn't a competitive game where there are winners and losers and spectators on the sidelines. Improving our brains is inherently valuable in and of itself, and not because it offers some kind of competitive advantage relative to others. Improving our memory, motivation, concentration and capacities improves our opportunities in life, which can mean better living conditions and greater flourishing for all of us.

Knowledge is a good in and of itself, and using smart drugs to give us access to even more knowledge is truly valuable. We should celebrate and not prohibit these opportunities.

The other side of the debate includes fear-mongering talk about coercion and the vulnerability of students. Or being on a slippery slope toward a dystopia and endless race of enhancement. These fear-tactics are just that—fear—not only are smart drugs not bad, they may offer significant good. Regardless, it should be up to college students as moral agents to decide for themselves.


There are good arguments on both sides of the debate. And there are important ethical issues to consider that may impact how, when, and to what extent college students should be allowed to take smart drugs. So take this for what it is—an opening argument to a more comprehensive debate about smart drugs on college campuses.

IQ2 polls the audience before the debate and after the debate to declare the "winner" of the debate.

Here is the data pre-debate:

27 percent for the motion

44 percent against the motion

29 percent undecided.

Want to know who won? Click here to find out. (As a teaser, the results apparently represent one of the largest swings in the history of the IQ2 debates).

And for some other coverage of the debate, see here, here, and here.