Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Stop Cowing to Bullies and Define the Debate: On Enhancement Drugs

I am visiting my Dad right now, which is not a bad way to spend my Spring Break. After getting off the plane, eating some yummy fish, we sat in his backyard talking about school and studying. I was recounting to him the post I put up on how to stop whining and do something to help our students, and we turned to what the college culture was when he was in school. What blew me away was how incredibly similar his college experience was to what I see among my undergraduates. The study-aid drug of choice, however, was Dexedrine, rather than Ritalin and Adderall. He told me of some Mormom students he knew who would stay up all night playing cards on Dexedrine, since that was not prohibited by their religion.

When my dad got to Medical School, he said there were literally barrels of speed pills to help docs stay awake. He also made it clear that those who used speed to get ahead in their classes usually prevailed and their grades went up.

I meditated on this story last night as I was going to sleep. For whatever reason I have been obsessed with psychopharmacology and enhancement for the past 5 years. I just wrote a short comment for an organization I am member on about this issue, and the psychiatrists either ignored or rejected the reality of people seeking out drugs for enhancement purposes. In fact, some of the psychiatrists suggested I focus on something more productive like clinical ethics.

But, I am not interested in that. I am interested in a culture that has been seeking psychopharmacological tools to get ahead for 45+ years. Perhaps what the psychiatrists were rejecting in particular is the idea that people would seek out antidepressants for enhancement. Yet, they are generally arguing against a strawman. They think that to seek antidepressants for enhancement purposes is to seek "happy pills." I have never argued, nor believed, that people seeking antidepressants think they will be permanently happy all the time. I think they seek them out to blunt their more raw moods and thereby get more productive or at least be more socially tolerable. And, they are able to do so now because the cultural message is that socially intolerable traits can be medically excised.

The evidence of the "enhancement" lies in the goal for seeking antidepressants: to get along better with others and be more productive. I guess the hestiation to call this behavior enhancement comes from the anticipation that the psychopharmacological Calvinist critic will automatically call this "bad." But since when do such critics get to own the moral discourse? Why is it necessarily "bad" to seek technological solutions to personal problems?

What I am left wondering is why the pervasive denial that many people now seek out medication, where before they could buy it at the drug store OTC, because they simply want to get an edge? Let's admit this happens and then have a real discussion about whether or not it should happen. Denying the reality of enhancement drugs is simply a bad cover-up job. Eventually the truth will come out and we will have to do a lot apologizing to the psychopharmacological Calvinists. Why not start owning the debate and showing how ridiciulous and unsubtle it is to simply call enhancement "bad"?