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IEET Affiliate Scholar John Danaher Publishes New Paper in Journal: Bioethics
Jun 5, 2016   Bioethics  

IEET Affiliate Scholar John Danaher published a new paper coming out in the journal Bioethics. It’s about the philosophy of education and student use of cognitive enhancement drugs. It suggests that universities might be justified in regulating their students’ use of enhancement drugs, but only in a very mild, non-compulsory way. It suggests that a system of voluntary commitment contracts might be an interesting proposal. The details are below.

Title: Should we use commitment contracts to regulate student use of cognitive enhancement drugs?
Journal: Bioethics
Links: Philpapers; Academia; Official
Abstract: Are universities justified in trying to regulate student use of cognitive enhancing drugs? In this paper I argue that they can be, but that the most appropriate kind of regulatory intervention is likely to be voluntary in nature. To be precise, I argue that universities could justifiably adopt a commitment contract system of regulation wherein students are encouraged to voluntarily commit to not using cognitive enhancing drugs (or to using them in a specific way). If they are found to breach that commitment, they should be penalised by, for example, forfeiting a number of marks on their assessments. To defend this model of regulation, I adopt a recently-proposed evaluative framework for determining the appropriateness of enhancement in specific domains of activity, and I focus on particular existing types of cognitive enhancement drugs, not hypothetical or potential forms. In this way, my argument is tailored to the specific features of university education, and common patterns of usage among students. It is not concerned with the general ethical propriety of using cognitive enhancing drugs


I wonder if a mild, voluntary policy discouraging the use of cognitive enhancing drugs might be worse than either a strict policy or no policy at all.

Who’d keep that contract? Primarily those with higher ethical standards. Who’d cheat on that contract and benefit from better grades both in absolute and relative terms? Those with lower standards. That doesn’t seem to be a good idea.

A strict standard with regular testing, either random or universal, would discourage even those with lower standards to keep to the school’s no-use rule. That would level the playing field.

At the other extreme, setting no standards would leave students free to decide for themselves whether such drugs should be used. And yes, in practice, that latter is likely to mean that some choose not to use those drugs and suffer academically. But at least that’s their choice based on what they believe and not a policy imposed by the school.

There’s a third option, one that imposes no standards but reporting. Those who report use would have their grades note the use of those drugs. Of course, to ensure honesty, use or non-use would have to be tested, again making the situation messy.
If you’ve seen the movie “Chariots of Fire,” it presents a similar dilemma in the context of the British team going to the 1924 Olympics in Paris. The traditional British approach valued the “way of the amateur” and looked down on those who hired professional trainers, which can be seen as a form of performance enhancement. Deviance from that by a Jewish runner provoked outrage in the British establishment.

Although I don’t seem to recall the movie laying any stress on the fact, in Paris the movie shows the American team aggressively training, led by a host of professional trainers. For good and ill, the future had arrived.

—Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia

Sorry, the point of going to a university is to get an education.  I see no issue whatsoever in enhancing my own ability to learn.  It is only when you see an education as a competitive endeavor that these issues emerge.  Sounds like the solution is to get rid of the competition rather than the cognitive enhancements.  So. Stop grading on a curve and providing levels of honors for graduating within a certain quartile.  Make me the education you receive it’s own reward.

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