16 May

Are ‘Smart Drugs’ Cheating?

Cheating in school or university takes many forms. You probably think of leaning over someone’s shoulder to see their answers to copy them onto your paper, or maybe you scribbled some formulas on your hand or under your sleeve for a math exam. Or maybe you just simply copied your friend’s homework first thing in the morning. Copy-pasting from the internet to finish an essay on time is another example.

64% of students have admitted to cheating on a test and a whopping 95% said they’d cheated at some time or another. As there is increased pressure on students to get good grades and an ever-increasing quantity of work to do, it’s no wonder why students feel the need to cheat.

I think all of those reading would agree that the methods I mentioned above qualify as cheating, although viewpoints vary on whether that’s morally acceptable or not. But are smart drugs cheating? Is taking a pill to boost your mental performance a violation of some sort of ethical code? This question is hard to answer because of its novelty. It’s practically the plot of a science-fiction story, yet here we are in 2016 talking about the ethics of nootropics.

The Steroid Argument

A very solid parallel can be made between the heyday of homeruns and broken records in 1990s baseball and the modafinil market today. As everyone suspected and later confirmed, many of the legends of baseball were using steroids to enhance their physical performance. Those balls didn’t crush themselves out of the park. Most sports ban a large number of substances, modafinil included. This is in an attempt to keep the sport “pure” and “honest”.

Modafinil then, it’s been argued, is steroids for your brain and thus is a form of cheating. Except this completely ignores the fact that education and athletics are two completely different arenas. I consider steroid use in sports an affront because in professional sports the physical differences between one athlete and another are rather slim. Tenths of a second make the difference between a first round draft pick and a 3rd rounder in the NFL or NBA. Steroids or performance enhancing drugs can more than make up for that slim difference and catapult a player beyond his capacity.

It doesn’t hold up for modafinil because in education there is little to no selection process. At the high school level it’s a complete free-for-all. Students aren’t separated into groups according to their mental athleticism, they’re grouped by age. Even in university where students must meet entry requirements, large groups of students are clumped together, both the adept and the struggling alike, and often students take courses outside their main interests that require skills which they haven’t developed.

The other huge disparity in this comparison is that in sports there can only be one winner, one champion, and the rest are ranked objectively lower. This doesn’t occur in academia. Two people can have perfect marks, and the grading is in many fields subjective. If your enhancement doesn’t detract from another person’s results, it doesn’t do any harm to anyone else.

The Ethical Argument

Is cheating wrong in the first place? Either 95% of people have no morals or the system is so powerful that it overwhelms their morals. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. However, cheating in education simply doesn’t cause harm to other people, and thus it’s ethically justifiable as something a person must do to keep up. Considering the abundant workloads of students today it’s understandable that they may need to take shortcuts to avoid falling off the map. We should be asking why there’s a system in place that overloads students to the point of causing ethically questionable situations.

So, are smart drugs cheating?

As far as using modafinil and other nootropics, it’s this author’s opinion that taking a smart drug is cheating, but that’s not a bad thing. You’re cheating your nature and harnessing the greatest advancements human society has put together. That, I feel, is why we’re all cheaters. You cheated when you took your car instead of walking to work. You cheat when you Google something instead of going to the library for a book. You cheat when you call someone instead of finding them in person for a conversation. We all cheat on the backs of the innovations made by people before us. Modafinil is no exception to that process.

So take your pill and leave your guilt behind.