What if it weren't a technique, but a drug?
Of course the drug exists, it's called Ritalin, and it has become more popular than beer pong on college campuses--at least during exam week. Like stimulants such as Adderall, Ritalin is commonly prescribed to treat ADHD. But it is widely available--and widely used off-label-- because it is a proven cognitive performance enhancer.
Stanford law professor Henry Greely was among several authors of a 2009 article in the science journal "Nature" supporting the use of performance enhancing drugs to improve brain functions such as concentration and memory in healthy adults. In a later interview about the article, Greely was asked why people tend to belive such drug use would be "cheating."
Well, I think part of it is, drug is a dirty word. Somebody’s talked about our pharmacological Puritanism. It’s a very love-hate relationship, as all of us who enjoy a glass of wine know. I mean, our society is probably one of the biggest users of drugs that change mental states, and also one of the most negative toward them in this odd sort of way. Well, there’s some good reasons to be worried about drugs, and we’ve laid some of them out, particularly enhancing drugs: safeness, coercion and fairness. And those are appropriate concerns, but they’re not knee-jerk concerns. They’re not, “All enhancing drugs are bad in all circumstances at all times.” Right now, to the extent the public has thought about this issue at all, it’s kind of the knee-jerk “drugs are bad, enhancement is bad, let’s ignore it.” Not a good solution.
(Greely's point is a good one. Indeed if we were told that a common supplement such as Vitamin C was shown to dramatically enhance brain function, few people would consider it a moral issue. )
The arguments against encouraging students to stock up on Ritalin generally fall into four categories: the unsafe/illegal argument, the "it doesn't really help students learn" argument, the fairness argument and the slippery slope argument.
The first category is easiest to dispense with. With proper supervision, moderation and a careful risk/reward analysis--or even with shiny new side-effect-free drugs of the future--there is no reason society could not legalize such drug use. So that doesn't really get at our ethical qualms about enhancement versus amelioration.
The next objection is the "it doesn't really help students learn argument," which underpins Matt Lamkin's suggestion that colleges should rely on honor codes to police drug use. Lamkin, a lawyer and master's candidate in bioethics at the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics, says we should de-emphasize test scores and encourage students to learn for the sake of learning. He says universities should:
reshape the character of higher education over time—by, for example, de-emphasizing standardized-test scores in admissions decisions in favor of criteria that reflect deeper forms of student engagement, like essay writing and participation in internships, clinics, practicum courses, and extracurriculars. Adderall may raise test scores, but it is unlikely to help students develop interesting résumés.
Writing in a Wired Science Blog, Jonah Lerner has a more scientific take on the issue in a post about how enhancement could mess with the synapses. He suggests that enhanced memory could reduce creativity and cites some scary experiments in which cognitively-enhanced mice show decreased performance on "memory extinction" tasks, leading them to do well on complex tasks but poorly on simple tasks. "It’s as if they remember too much," writes Lerner.
After all, if we can’t even improve the intelligence of mice without causing worrisome side-effects, then what hope is there for the endlessly complex human cortex, full of feedback loops and interacting pathways? The brain is a precisely equilibrated machine, constructed over tens of millions of years by natural selection. Too many of our “improvements” come with a steep cost.
The fairness argument is one that really hits home for many people, but once you start to poke at it, it starts to crumble. Since it isn't fair for some students to excell because they are taking drugs and others aren't, shouldn't we then provide sharpened pencils and free pills for all students? And who, by the way, ever said life was fair? Is it fair that one child is born into privilege and another into poverty? Is is fair that one kid gets a tutor and another gets a teen mom who never graduated from high school herself? If fairness is the issue we have a long, long way to go.
Then there's the slipperly slope argument, and that's where a number of troubling "what ifs" appear. What if Ritalin helps med students learn? Shouldn't we let high school kids have it too? And how about middle-schoolers....and squirmy five-year olds? What if you could skip the drugs and just add a Watson-esque feed right to the brain, so that people didn't really have to learn at all, but could hae constant access to all the world's knowledge? Or what if there were drugs that could make people braver? More compassionate? Kinder? Less criminal? Or what if there were drugs that didn't really offer enhancement at all, but just made you happier, like Aldous Huxley's soma? (Or Prozac, for that matter.)
These notions of enhancement really aren't too far-fetched, and they force us to confront a number of thorny issues about free will and human nature. What does it do to our notions of free will or personal responsibility, for example, if criminality could be induced or expunged with a pill? What does it do to our conception of humanity if love is nothing more than a chemical response? As neuropharmacology and the potential for genetic engineering advances, we will need to keep circling back to these issues again and again.
But the reality is that the trans-humanist future is already here. Ready or not.