Drugs and the struggle for success

A friend of mine who teaches in college says that students nowadays take memory-enhancing drugs so they’ll do better on exams. They don’t admit it themselves, but they all say they know others who do.

And what, those students may ask, is wrong with that?  How is it different from drinking coffee to stay alert?  If people can make themselves smarter, stronger, less depressed or more focused by taking a drug, isn’t this a good thing?

Well, it depends.  If everybody used these drugs, would it be of benefit to all? Would everybody be able to function on a higher level? Or are these drugs part of a zero-sum game, whose only purpose is to gain an advantage over those who don’t use drugs? No chemical substances that has any biological effect at all is entirely without risk. What do we know about the side effects?

It is like plastic surgery.  No reasonable person would object to plastic surgery for someone who was disfigured.  But what about a reasonably attractive person who wants to become even more attractive? Suppose everybody did this.  Would the percentage of people regarded as attractive increase? Or would there merely be a raising of the bar for the standard of beauty?

Competition is a means to an end, not a good in itself.  Competition is good when it encourages people to strive for excellence. It is not good when it encourages people to do things that are harmful to themselves or others just to win.

Whatever you or I answer, one segment of society will have no qualms about performance-enhancing drugs.  That is the military.  If you think it is all right to order people to do things that put them at high risk of being killed, you can’t reasonably object to giving them drugs to reduce that risk.  And where the military goes today, the rest of society goes tomorrow.

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