On Drugs II


The problem of performance enhancing drugs in higher education is extremely serious and often misunderstood by modern ethicists, professors, researchers and prescribers.  The contemporary model for the use and abuse of psychostimulant amphetamines such as Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin and Focalin mistakenly identifies a fractional “party hard, study hard” population as the primary illegal users.  This view parallels the drugs to cocaine at worst and caffeine at best.  The argument misidentifies who is taking the drug and for what reason.  Even in 2008, a research team identified 34% of students at an American university taking psychostimulants illicitly (at least once), nearly always for study purposes.  Most of theses students reported that the drugs increased interest, cognitive function, memory and reading comprehension (DeSantis).  It is widely held as fact among college students that the use of amphetamines for study purposes is indisputably grade enhancing.  Thus, the notion that psychostimulants produces better grades is assumed in the following ethical analysis.  The analysis will present the topic of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) from four viewpoints (prescribed users, illegal users, non-users and anti-drug advocates), define utilitarianism as an ethical theory, integrate the two by applying utilitarianism to the PEDs dilemma and evaluate the outcome of the ethical theory.

A prescribed user of PEDs is one who has been diagnosed with a disease, usually ADD or ADHD, and requires the medication to function in an academic setting.  This user’s argument is that without these drugs, one would not be afforded the same opportunity as one’s peers.  An illegal user of a psychostimulant is one who obtains the drugs from a prescribed user and ingests them in order to improve academic performance for the duration of the drug’s effect.  From his or her point of view, if a prescribed user is allowed to alter function with drugs to improve a grade (for example) from a C to a B, one should also be able to use the drugs to embetter a B to an A.  The non-user of the PEDs respects the right of the prescribed user to conquer a mental disorder with medication and also respects the law preventing those unprescribed from using the drugs.  From his or her point of view, the drugs can be used to level the playing field in the case of a disease but should not be used by a “healthy” person in order to gain an advantage.  Finally, there is the anti-drug advocate.  This person’s viewpoint is that no PEDs should be allowed in the academic community at all.




Utilitarianism dictates that man is most morally right when he maximizes utility, the ability to satisfy a want or need (JSM).  Thus, one is morally sound when he or she maximizes total pleasure or goodness and minimizes total suffering or pain.  Calculating an action’s utility can be very complex.  The “hedonistic calculus,” a technique created by Jeremy Benthem asks 7 basic questions to evaluate an action:  How intense is the pleasure or pain?  What is the duration of the pleasure or pain?  How certain is it that the pleasure or pain will occur?  What is the propinquity, or nearness in the future?  What is the fecundity of the action, meaning, how likely is it that the pleasure will lead to other pleasures?  What is the purity, or probability that pain will lead to other pains?  Finally, to what extent are others affected, or how many people are affected (Lander)?  John Stuart Mill expanded on this very narrow viewpoint to include more than just simple actions analyzed in a vacuum, but included entire moral theory on a societal and cultural level.  He reformed utilitarianism to become the moral system on which all other moral systems rely, demanding so much more meaning from the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” (JSM).




In order to apply utilitarianism to the problem of PEDs in higher education, one must first consider the pains or pleasures of the user in the aforementioned Benthem vacuum.  The pains of psychostimulants are mostly physical including dry mouth, facial tics and irritability with no known long term effects.  The United States classifies these drugs as Schedule II, meaning that they are medically prescribable with a high propensity for abuse and physical or psychological dependency (Public Law 91-513).  These risks must be factored into the pains as well. The pleasures of using the drug include the satisfaction of completing tasks, the ability to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of one’s own brain and achieving better grades.  In this limited analysis, it is clear the long term pleasures of good grades outweigh the brief physical pains experienced while taking the drug.  Even the long term potential for abuse and dependency which may bring solely to the user are far outweighed by, for instance, the student becoming a doctor.  Many millions of people could eventually be helped and taught by the student who relied on his grades to get into medical school, and relied on PEDs to make those grades.  The potential benefits at first seem astounding impactful and far reaching.

Only when one understands John Stuart Mill’s encompassing view of utilitarianism can an opinion be made; one must step out of the vacuum.  Mill is decidedly anti-hedonistic.  The full picture of utilitarianism and psychostimulants must take into account the development of intellectual ability through discipline and focus and how he practice of these improves and defines the academic institution.  By taking PEDs, one is allowing his discipline and self control to be artificially manufactured by the drug.  These behaviors are not easy to come by.  They are learned, practiced, shaped and redefined with every class or study session.  By supplementing these hard won attributes with a medication, the academic community loses its ability to produce and generate leaders respected for their self control and steadfast intellectual progress.  Once this occurs and the self serving, true hedonists, climb to the top of the ladder aided by a drug, the entire institution will crumble.  It will crumble because the value, respect and trust of the intellectual community must be won by the skill of man and not by the synthesis of a chemical.  The precedent and rigorous standard of academia will be lost in the very attempt to improve it.  The potential negative utility or pain is nearly infinite.  Once the culture of academic drugs is established it can never be undone.  This may aid society for a generation or two, but, like a house built upon sand, the ultimate value and utility is essentially infinitely negative.


Based on the utilitarian ethics system, the use of performance enhancing psychostimulant amphetamines or any other performance enhancing drugs can absolutely not be tolerated in the American university.  As detailed above in the integration of utilitarianism with the PEDs problem, the precedent of drugs in such a stringent culture will destroy the culture for the rest of its existence.  The very institution of learning will be eradicated following the widespread acceptance of PEDs in education.

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