Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: Smart drugs, Smart choice

Written by Benjamin Pojer and Daniel D’Hotman

Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Science, Monash University

 Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford


A recent review published in the European Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology (1) on the efficacy and safety of modafinil in a population of healthy people has found that the drug “appears to consistently engender enhancement of attention, executive functions, and learning” without “preponderances for side effects or mood changes”. Modafinil, a medication prescribed in the treatment of narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, has gained popularity in recent years as a means of increasing alertness and focus. Informal surveys suggest that up to one in five undergraduate university students in the UK admit to using the drug as a study aid (2). Previously, the unknown safety profile of modafinil has been an obstacle to its more widespread use as a cognitive enhancer. Admittedly, the long-term consequences of modafinil use remain unclear, however, given its growing popularity, this gap in the literature should not preclude a discussion of the ethics of the drug’s use for cognitive enhancement.

We argue that objections to the recreational use of modafinil do not stand up to ethical analysis. The use of cognitive enhancers, commonly known as ‘smart drugs’, is broadly opposed on two counts: (a) that the use of cognitive enhancers raises issues of fairness and inequity, where some individuals may have access to the drug when others may not, and (b) that the greater uptake of cognitive enhancers will introduce social pressures to medicate oneself to keep up with the increasing pace of an enhanced world.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.