The ethics of using smart drugs to boost performance

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Using smart drugs to boost performance is not without its ethical issues. While some may claim that it’s cheating to take a substance to outcompete others, others will say that there’s actually a moral imperative to do so in some professions; say, in biomedical research or space exploration, where peak performance can benefit humanity in the long run. It’s a complex issue, no doubt. But it’s worth exploring different perspectives to see what arguments are the most persuasive.



People will use smart drugs anyway 

The first point that needs making is that people will use smart drugs to improve their performance, regardless of the ethical implications (i.e. whether it puts pressure on students to take a potentially harmful drug or if it’s considered cheating). The use of smart drugs is so popular among students that Oxford University’s Student Union has decided to introduce smart drug workshops (1).

Findings show that the narcolepsy drug modafinil has been taken by one in four students at Oxford University to enhance performance for revising and exams (2). It helps students to stay awake for longer and it has been found to improve thinking skills, particularly in complex tasks. Evidence also illustrates that it can help with planning, decision-making, flexibility, learning, memory and creativity.

So it’s no wonder that so many students are taking it, especially when there is the pressure to do the best you possibly can. Even if it means taking a drug for which you haven’t been prescribed.

According to the latest research on modafinil, it seems that the drug is safe in the short-term, with few side-effects and no addictive properties. However, there is also limited information about its long-term effects. Other studies have pointed to modafinil’s potential for abuse. Also, since many students take it in a way which disrupts their sleep, this can have some health implications.


smart drugs


Feeling pressured to take a drug

Some commentators argue that smart drugs are a symptom of our working culture, not a cure for it (3). Higher education and the workplace can be highly competitive environments. If students know that they can take this drug to perform better, and see many other students who are doing so and who praise its benefits, then the temptation may be too strong for them not to take it themselves.

The same argument applies to performance-enhancing drugs in sports. Even though certain drugs (i.e. anabolic steroids) may be banned, athletes continue to use them, because they know it will give them that edge which can separate the winners from the losers.

A piece in The Conversation suggests that smart drugs don’t just affect the lives of those who do take them, but also those who do not (4). If the cognitively enhanced state becomes the new ‘normal’ for employees, then ‘natural’ employees will struggle to keep up with their enhanced peers. But isn’t this already the case with coffee drinkers versus non-coffee drinkers? Or healthy people versus unhealthy people?



Is it cheating?

Then there’s the question of whether being under the influence of modafinil during an exam is cheating. But again, is this any different from drinking coffee before an exam? Or exercising and eating healthily? Neyer Guerrero, an amateur nootropic researcher, says:


“Nootropics are seen as academic steroids, which I think is total bullshit. These aren’t pills that will naturally make you smarter. Nootropics [can] help you to an extent, but you still have to do all the work.” (5)


From his point of view, smart drugs should be considered brain health supplements. Although not everyone agrees with him. Nita Farahany, a leading bioethicist, claims that it’s “almost impossible to draw the line that defines what is and isn’t cheating.” Duke University, where Faranahy teaches, lists the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs (CEDs) without a prescription as cheating (6). This was in response to the widespread use of Ritalin and Adderall among students.


Using smart drugs to save lives

There are some professions where taking a smart drug may actually benefit the lives of others. Barabara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, said:


“If long-term safety and efficacy are proven in healthy people, it may well be, at least for certain segments of the population, these drugs will prove life-savers.” (7)


For example, a study published in the journal Annals of Surgery demonstrated that doctors taking modafinil had cognitive improvements, including flexibility of thinking and reduced impulsivity. Given these findings, it is possible that doctors who take these drugs may be able to plan an intervention more effectively or show greater cognitive flexibility when approaching a challenging clinical problem.

If anything, the latest evidence about smart drugs, and the increased interest in using them to boost performance, raises more questions than it does provide answers to the debate surrounding their use. There are many pressing issues to be solved right now, such as creating sustainable agriculture and finding cures for tropical diseases. If drugs can be used to reliably help us find solutions quicker (and we do need solutions quickly, given the scale of these issues) then, at least in this respect, the use of smart drugs can be easily justified.


About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe


I’m currently a Writer at The Canary, covering issues relating to the food industry, drugs, health, well-being and nutrition. I’m also a Blogger for Inspiring Interns, where I offer careers advice for graduates. If you have a story you want me to cover, drop me a message on Twitter (@samwoolfe). You can also check out my travel blog ( and personal blog ( to read my articles on philosophy, psychology, and more opinion-related content.






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