Nootropic Drugs in the Professions

Across at NewAPPS, Eric Schliesser wonders aloud about how common nootropic drug use is in professional philosophy.  (Nootropics are are “drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals, and functional foods that improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration” – Wikipedia.)  And, quite rightly, some of the commentators have pointed out that it’s fairly common.

Actually, it’s more than that: it’s pretty much ubiquitous.  The definition of a nootropic drug just offered is pretty wide; we can allow it to cover any substance that improves intellectual capabilities.  Once we take that on board, it’s clear that we’re talking about things like modafinil, beta-blockers… but also about things like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.  All these things have the capacity to improve our intellectual ability, at least temporarily.  And the last three are all over the place in academia – and probably professional most-other-things too.

(Granted, alcohol also has the ability to impair our intellectual ability after a fairly short while.  But (warning: anecdote posing as data ahead) it’s also the case that some of the best seminars have been those during which wine has flowed; and it’d be hard to imagine a conference that wasn’t at least paritially fuelled by booze.  And while philosophers do seem to have a reputation for drink, I don’t think that the picture is too different in other fields.  Plausibly, not the least of the reasons for this is that much intellectual labour is a shared enterprise – I’m not talking about co-authorship, as the knocking about of ideas – and something that makes you a bit more convivial makes that sharing more likely.)

So I’m going to take it as read that nootropics amplo sensu are common, and probably pervasive, throughout academia – and throughout all areas of life.  Whether nootropic drugs more narrowly defined are common is a slightly different matter: while there are comments to Eric’s post that tell of some use of things like modafinil and beta-blockers, these stories are – obviously – self-selecting.  (Incidentally: the question of nootropic use in academia was asked a few years ago in the THES.)  Nevertheless, I’d imagine that there is a non-negligible number of people working in academia that makes use of such supplements to enhance performance.

But I’m wondering if there might be a more radical question: might there be situations in which we have a responsibility to use them?

Here’s the gambit: there’re plenty of professions in which you’re expected to have a clear head.  Pilots, for example, have “bottle-to-throttle” intervals to ensure that alcohol has left their system.  The rationale is obvious: it’s about being as clear-headed as possible, and thereby minimising the risk to self and to others.  I’m not sure whether surgeons have similar rules, or how strictly they’re applied, but the moral argument that they have a responsibility to refrain from certain drugs when about to perform an operation, for the sake of ensuring a clear-headed and so maximal safety, would be the same.

So: the idea that at least certain people have a responsibility to ensure that their mental performance is unimpaired is straightforward.  Once we’ve accepted this, though, could we not rephrase it a little, and say that they have a responsibility to keep their intellectual abilities as sharp as possible?  And, that being the case, aren’t we presented by a reason to think that – since nootropics can make us more intellectually sharp – that amounts to a positive responsibility to make use of them?

That is to say: might surgeons (and possibly pilots, firemen, and those few philosophers on whom lives depend) have a responsibility to use cognitive and performance enhancers?

I can think of a number of people who are likely to be at least sympathetic to such claims, and I could fairly easily imagine – say – John Harris making it.  I think that I’d probably stop short of that – I think that there’s plausibly a reasonable minimum of cognitive functioning below which surgeons have a duty not to drop, but that this isn’t the same as saying that they have a duty to function as highly as possible.  But, nevertheless, I can’t see any particular problem with making use of such drugs, and it might even be admirable.  And, actually, I don’t think I’d go to the stake to defend my position here: while I’m sure that there isn’t a general duty to perform intellectually as highly as possible, when patient safety is in consideration, maybe there is more to be said.

So: maybe at least some medical staff might be obliged to use something like modafinil.

Any thoughts, chemically enhanced or otherwise?

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