On Drugs

Around many American colleges and universities, there is a rapidly increasing prevalence of performance enhancing drug use. By performance enhancing drugs, I am specifically referring to amphetamines and amphetamine derivatives such as Ritalin, Adderall, Vyvanse, Concerta, Didrex and many other medications. Initially, these drugs were prescribed and consumed by patients who carried the diagnoses of ADD and ADHD. The drugs worked to calm the afflicted and allow them to focus on the task at hand. Saying this another way, the drugs are forced upon the poor children of lazy parents under the direction of terrified doctors to sanitize the youthful minds of any creativity and innovation. The western world seemed to be content with the opinion that children were supposed to be “Normal” at any and all costs. Now, the drugs are taken illegally by a massive population of undergraduate students seeking to gain the mental clarity they could not develop through classical avenues such as discipline and dedication.

This is a major ethical dilemma for many reasons. First, we must define the nuances of the ethical dilemma at hand. Firstly, there are those who take the drugs illegally, in violation of the laws of the United States and the laws of universities at which the drugs are distributed and consumed. Secondly, there are those who take the drugs legally with a prescription from a physician for a “mental illness” the user fabricated in order to obtain the drugs. Finally, there are those who take the drugs legally with a prescription for a “mental illness” which a physician diagnosed without being prompted by the drug seeking patient. In other words, these drugs are needed in order to make this last user “Normal.”

There are three positions to consider when debating this ethical dilemma. They are as follows:  first, the use of performance enhancing drugs should be legal in higher education for those diagnosed with a condition which has been called a “mental illness.” Second, the use of performance enhancing drugs should be legal for all students. Third, the use of performance enhancing drugs should be illegal for all students of higher education. For the purposes of this discussion, only two of these positions will be discussed: The use of drugs only for those with a “mental illness” and the use of drugs by no one at all.

The first position contends that students who are diagnosed with a true “mental illness” should be allowed to take the drugs while studying within institutions of higher education. This position holds that every man and woman in the United States has the right to a college education and no barrier should stand in the way of this for reasons of color, creed or handicap. By analogy, a student with a heart disorder is certainly allowed to use drugs which will give him the opportunity to study without fear of ischemic episode, why shouldn’t a student with a “mental illness” be allowed to take drugs to overcome a disease of the same order?

The second position demands that drugs of the type being discussed should be completely banned in the realm of higher education. This position is analogous to the use of steroids in baseball:  baseball is a game that can be played by anyone, of any skill, nearly anywhere at any time. Professional baseball, however, is a highly competitive market of only the most talented men in the world. Higher education in the United States, by analogy, is like professional baseball:  a highly competitive market of only the most competitive men and women in the world.  All of these men and women are competing for the highest paying and most prestigious jobs in the world. For this reason, according to this position, the use of performance enhancing drugs should be completely outlawed for all participants of the competition. Perhaps a very talented college baseball player wishes to play professionally, but he just can’t hit enough home runs; he pops out too frequently. In the same way, a student who’s mother thinks he is “very smart,” just can’t seem to get enough A’s to get into medical school. Both are attempting to enter high stakes, highly competitive areas. Both do not have what it takes naturally. Why should one of these (the student) have the right to claim a “mental illness” just to get where he wants to go in life while the baseball player does not have the opportunity to claim a mental disorder such as low testosterone in order to get what he wants?

In order to argue against the first position, we must first agree upon John Locke’s ethical theory from which I will argue that it is unethical for only some students to legally take drugs based on the diagnoses of “mental illness.” Locke’s ethical theory is grounded in natural law. Essentially, Locke said that anything moral or ethical can be assessed as such through the reason of man, and reason allows man to define laws which dictate how men should act toward one another and toward nature. He says that the laws that govern man came about naturally, as though set forth by a greater authority figure (aka God). Laws that govern man are universal and would become laws in any society that values reason, because it is part of man’s nature to, for instance, be averse to murder. It is in man’s nature not to steal. It is in man’s nature not to lie. For Locke, these laws of society are rooted in the greater Law of human nature.

The nature of man is a nature of progress, competition and dissatisfaction. Man is born unsatisfied:  always on the hunt, always looking for better shelter, better berries, and better ways to cook. Man is evolutionarily discontent, it aids in his survival. When a man, through nature and nurture, develops a skill and passion for hunting he delves even further into the expertise, attempting to become the best. He fills a niche in order to survive.

When we evaluate these tendencies of human nature in a higher education classroom, we find students switching majors, dropping out, changing schools, starting clubs and debating each other hotly. This tendency of human nature, like Locke says, is the key to the development of students, especially at a liberal arts institution. Any shortcut to this pathway weakens the experience. A cheater will never develop the skills he needs in a class to move forward. A woman who starts a club only for her resume will never develop the passion for community that will take her far. There are plenty of shortcuts in higher education and excellent universities attempt to eliminate them wherever they are found.

Amphetamine drugs are a shortcut for focus, dedication, time management, anxiety management and countless other skills which are important for man to fill his niche. Perhaps a hunter could not stay still long enough to be successful because his mind wandered, so he took a drug that allowed him to do so and it worked. That man is teaching his prehistoric body that skills such as patience, stillness and silence do not have to be learned, they can be ingested. In the same way, the skills learned by studying are far, far greater than the material actually being studied, and amphetamines take the shortcut around these skills.

If he can never develop those skills than he can never be a hunter, and natural selection demands that he seek other skills to become passionate about and learn in order to survive. In the same way, students who need drugs because they are lazy or because they have a “mental illness” should simply not be studying those subjects according to Locke’s natural law ethics. They should pursue other areas of study in order to study something they can actually handle. Someone with a “mental illness” might not be able to become a doctor. According to Locke, this is the natural law under which man lives and abides.

One objection to this argument is this: “Hey, you bigot! Who are you to say that someone with a mental illness can’t do whatever he or she sets his or her mind to!?!?” My very simple response is that I, like John Locke, believe that those with “mental illnesses” are full functioning humans. In fact, I don’t even believe in “mental illness.” I believe that our repulsive society has put human personalities on a bell curve and labeled anyone not in the meaty part of the curve with a “mental illness” such as autism, ADD, ADHD, depression, anxiety or any other number of make believe disorders we call people who aren’t exactly like us (then, where the real problem actually begins, we shove pills down their throats until they act how we expect and send them off to higher education on government loans). These fully functioning humans may never become doctors, and that is totally fine, totally ethical, totally moral. If someone has a “mental illness” that prevents them from graduating high school, then so be it. May he or she become the greatest concrete mixer, fingerpaint teacher or hockey player to ever live.

Another objection may bring into question why I have assumed the student cannot take the amphetamine for the duration of his life. After all, if he is diagnosed with a “mental disorder,” what’s the problem with a medicated astrophysicist? The problem, under the banner of Locke’s natural law, is that the astrophysicist, if he forgets to take his drug, is no longer an astrophysicist. The astrophysicist is only as good as his last dose of drugs. It would be like building a house of cards on top of a single card:  if anything hinders that card at all for any reason, the entire house comes crashing down. It is replacing human nature with a chemical, very bad for Mr. Locke.

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