In advance of one event I'm involved with at the Battle of Ideas this weekend, I've written a brief article for the Independent. The title is'People should be free to take smart drugs if they choose to'. Here's the link and the text below.
People should be free to take smart drugs if they choose to
If 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.