People should be free to take smart drugs if they choose to

Andy Miah

3336666 300x282 People should be free to take smart drugs if they choose toIf you could take a pill that would instantly improve your memory or increase your ability to make sense of complex ideas, perhaps even make discoveries worthy of a Nobel prize, would you? What if you could enhance your capacity to assimilate new languages in a fraction of the time than would otherwise be necessary to become fluent? Answers to these questions may now become more urgent as a range of cognitive enhancements are quickly becoming available via pharmaceutical research.

Many of the early signs of these prospects arise from drugs that are presently used primarily to treat medical problems, one of the most famous of which is Ritalin. However, the candidate drugs that could enhance our cognitive abilities is endless and all we are asked to do is decide on whether or not we think their use for general enhancement rather than just therapy is a good idea.

It seems beyond question that many of the benefits of smart drugs would be valued my most people. Who wouldn’t want to make ground breaking discoveries or be able to perform better in exams? Just this week, the journal Annals of Surgery reported improved performance of doctors who use the cognitive alertness drug modafinil.

However, there are also practical reasons for why we would want to improve our cognitive ability on a day to day basis. Being able to remember where we left our keys or what we had to buy at the supermarket spring to mind. Of course, it’s unlikely that people would risk any serious long term health problems that may arise from using smart drugs, so a major obstacle to their use is being able to reduce these concerns.

After that, we may then need to consider what counts as being smarter, so as to have a better idea about what we need to enhance. Answers to this question have eluded artificial intelligence researchers for years, though we do know that there are different kinds of intelligence – logical or emotional, for example – and the improvement of each may require quite different techniques and imply quite distinct consequences. Equally, we would want to know if there were any trade offs in cognitive improvement. For instance, is advanced logical functioning detrimental to the more empathetic dimensions of our humanity?

As well, one of the big questions that follows from a society of brain enhancements is whether their use may be justified for state intervention, perhaps in trying to improve the memory of witnesses in courts of law where evidence depends on it. Alternatively, might society seek to improve the empathetic capacities of criminals so as to more effectively facilitation their rehabilitation?

There can be no doubt that all of these alterations will dramatically change who we are, the conditions of our existence and the order of things within society. No longer would a great school or good parents be such a great influence on whether or not one is able to excel in life. No longer would people who have been unable to excel as youngsters for whatever reason be restricted by this past.

Some would argue that these magic bullets to self-improvement are in fact ways of cheating ourselves, as they would rob us of the journey or process that is required to achieve great things. However, there are many things we do presently that require little effort, but which can have similar enhancing effects – such as sleeping well, drinking coffee every morning, or eating oily fish.

We don’t worry about whether these tactics compromise some sense of our own authenticity, so why should drugs be any different? Neither do we worry that they undermine some other route towards self-improvement, such as studying very hard or paying attention to what’s happening around us.

It seems to me that life is hard enough as it is and the prospect of smart drugs could improve the overall circumstances of many people. If more people have improved levels of all forms of intelligence, then we would find ourselves in a much richer society. This is also why we value education, because we believe that an enlightened mind can make a greater contribution to society and may even lead to a more enriched life. This does not mean that only formal education is valuable, but that the merit of learning is universally shared.

Smart drugs may be no different from a range of techniques that we currently employ to educate people more effectively. Of course, there is always some doubt about whether these are actually improvements. For instance, as many people like the idea of learning via an iPad as learning through a blackboard and chalk, but the really smart people realize that each has its use and that new technology does not negate the value of other methods of self-improvement.

This is why individuals should be left to make their own choice and take their best guess at trying to improve their lives. It is also why the state would be obliged to make smart drugs – which are sufficiently safe – available to all. Indeed, it could not afford to do otherwise.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Professor Andy Miah is Director of the Creative Futures Research Centre at the University of the West of Scotland. He is speaking at the debate Smart drugs: magic bullet or cheating ourselves? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October, supported by the Wellcome Trust.

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  • Nox81

    Translation: “It can’t be what shouldn’t be.”

    Freedom, in my opinion, is the ability to understand the consequences of one’s decisions, and then act on this knowledge. Why would I want to define freedom in a way that clashes with neuroscience?

    Indeterminacy implies nonexistence rather than freedom. If consciousness were indeterminate, it would be random. What is dominated by randomness cannot produce coherent thoughts and perceptions. Thus my consciousness must be a deterministic process by principle of exclusion, regardless of whether it be natural or supernatural. That much is clear even before examining the overwhelming evidence that this process is, in fact, a neural interaction pattern.

    Getting things “right” on this planet requires the same mental improvements that could also one day unlock our way to the stars. But be that as it may, what happens on our tiny speck of space dust has negligible consequences for the fate of the cosmos. We are not that important, and won’t be even if we colonize the entire Milky Way.

  • Edi Schwager

    The same substance can bring benefit for a person and desaster to another. So each regulation by law is in fact stupid and in a way unfair. People have to find for themselves their right handling of drugs (which also can mean not taking any drugs!). And every user has to accept that he is responsible (!) for what he’s consuming. It’s a fact that a great part can’t handle drugs, but it’s also a fact that there’s also people who learned a lot about themselves by taking drugs and that some of the greatest cultural works were done in one way or another with the help of some substances and that drugs always played an important role in the evolution of us human beings.

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  • Firozali A.Mulla

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    When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly, — as that a sentence must never end with a particle, — and perceive how implicitly even the learned obey it, I think: Any fool can make a rule. And every fool will mind it. -Henry David Thoreau, naturalist and author (1817-1862) Shakespeare’s works is another example of this week’s theme. Two controversial films have explored theories that Edward de Vere or Christopher Marlowe was the real author of the superb plays and poems that most of us attribute to William Shakespeare. For more, see Nimble Nonagenarians. The best example I know of a fool’s errand is: searching for Adam’s navel. More than thirty years ago, when I was a student at Berkeley, I bought a deed to one sixteenth of an acre of the moon sold on the street corner by a huckster dressed entirely in what looked like an aluminum foil space suit, with a nice-looking helmet to lend him that added air of authority. Seemed like a bargain at $5.00; I’m afraid, however, that I have since lost the deed. Sadly both nationalism and religions are apt to claim what is not theirs. Mussolini called the Mediterranean “Mare Nostrum” (our sea), Japan championed “Dai Toa Kyoekan” (The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, i.e. Asia under Japanese rule) and there was an American song entitled “To Be Specific It’s Our Pacific.” Religions and political candidates often claim absolute ownership of morality. A “gentlemen’s (or gentleman’s) agreement” is based only on the honor of the participants, but the definition is incomplete without adding that it is usually an agreement to do something quite dishonorable. I have most often seen the phrase applied to the outcome of the 1876 Presidential election, in which Tilden did more than just win the popular vote. In four states of the former Confederacy, still under military occupation, there were governmentally established polling places that admitted (as required by the Constitution) voters of all races, and the Ku Klux Klan polling places, which only admitted whites. The “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of 1877 was to throw out all the legal votes and count only the Klan votes, in return for letting the whites of the South trample the rights of the blacks. The fraud was especially egregious in Florida, where most citizens (for that matter, a majority of white voters) voted in the legal voting places, and Florida was necessary to electorally steal the election. Considerable bribes flowed as well. I do not know how early the term was applied to the event, but I have seen it ascribed to the 1877 conversations of the participants. Many gentlemen’s agreements are to illegally fix prices. The gentlemen’s agreement of 1907 was a racist American immigration policy against Japan. And at the top of the google list for this phrase is the 1947 Academy Awards Best Picture (link) of the same name, about anti-Semitism. Sadly both nationalism and religions are apt to claim what is not theirs. Mussolini called the Mediterranean “Mare Nostrum” (our sea), Japan championed “Dai Toa Kyoekan” (The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, i.e. Asia under Japanese rule) and there was an American song entitled “To Be Specific It’s Our Pacific.” Religions and political candidates often claim absolute ownership of morality.

  • Carlos Castro Neves

    Nice article. So nice that someone in Brazil copied it word-by-word:

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