The Commentary 'Professor's little helper' (Nature 450, 1157–1159; 2007) entreats us to consider how the non-medical use of cognitive-enhancing drugs such as modafinil and Ritalin might influence society as a whole. They note concerns that a 'better, faster, stronger' mentality might coerce individuals into taking these drugs so that they can give themselves an edge.
Science and technology will continue to generate all sorts of new enhancers, and the quest for enhancement is not necessarily unfair or unethical. We humans are inveterate enhancers, striving to increase our intelligence and to improve our memory and powers of perception.
Consider spectacles: before they became commonplace, those who had good eyesight enjoyed an advantage over those who did not. Later, those who could afford spectacles joined those with naturally good eyesight — increasing (or decreasing?) natural unfairness. Enhancing technologies that improve eyesight are now widely available; we do not conclude that they are unethical because they are not globally accessible.
Before the invention of lamps or candles, most people went to bed at dusk; these inventions, and then electricity, enabled social life and work to continue into the night. Night owls can steal a march on their lazier or saner competitors, raising the bar and creating pressure for longer working hours. But such enhancement technologies are not considered unethical.
The same is and will continue to be true of cognitive enhancers. We must press for wider and more equitable access, turning our backs neither on technology nor on improving the human condition.
All Correspondence this week responds to Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir's Commentary 'Professor's little helper' (Nature 450, 1157–1159; 2007) and the related discussion at http://network.nature.com/forums/naturenewsandopinion. This week, Nature launches an anonymous online survey to build on the informal questionnaire that the Commentary authors sent academics on the usage of brain-boosting drugs. In aggregate, the survey results will guide future editorial content on this topic. To take part, please visit: http://tinyurl.com/yq7nn3. Contributions to Correspondence may be submitted to email@example.com. Published contributions are edited. Readers are welcome to contribute to this discussion and many others at http://network.nature.com.
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Harris, J., Quigley, M. Humans have always tried to improve their condition. Nature 451, 521 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/451521b