Times Mag College Issue Tackles The Ethics Of Adderall


The New York Times loves the sweet, sweet advertising money that only colleges and universities can offer… So let’s give a big capitalistic shout-out to the first ever college-themed issue of the New York Times Magazine. We’ve got articles on the travail of Princeton-applying teens in upper-middle class towns. We’ve got the olibgatory war-related article. A style spread with the students of Wesleyan. A video feature on suicide on campus. Even an academia-themed edition of The Ethicist that gives us this gem:

A friend and I will soon take the L.S.A.T. His father, a psychiatrist, gave him Adderall to help him take the test. I asked if he could share some with me, and he said that would be unethical. Is it? Isn’t his dad’s giving him the Adderall unethical? – Name Withheld, Austin, Tex.

The answer might surprise you.

Medical ethics forbids a psychiatrist from prescribing drugs to close family members. But no, there is no druggie’s code that bars his son from sharing ill-gotten pills.

For you to take what some call “study drugs” may violate the law, endanger your health and, if those pills are ineffectual, waste your money, but doing so does not offend ethics.

If there were a safe, legal and effective pill that let you learn French in a day, you’d be mad (fou!) to shun it. You do not forswear studying by electric light because Lincoln relied on his fireplace. You need not reject a learning aid merely because it comes in convenient chemical form. Many a student use coffee to gain extra study hours.

Performance-enhancing drugs might give their users an unfair advantage over their unpilled peers. But academe does not exist on a level playing field; deans, test givers and students themselves routinely accept greater inequities. Few who attend magnificent universities see this as an unethical edge over students at more modest colleges. Some children have parents who are lawyers, but nobody forbids these parents from helping their kids learn. And for good or ill, most students have easy, albeit illegal, access to Adderall.

Some foes of these drugs call them academic steroids, arguing that, as on the football field, those who do not take them and bear the attendant health risks cannot compete with those who do. But no individual’s renouncing Adderall can have any effect on his fellow students. It is only those who run a college or administer these tests (or run the N.F.L.) who can make meaningful reforms. Absent such an effort, popping brain pills may be unwise, unsafe and illegal, but it is not unethical.

Update: The letter writer acquired Adderall from someone other than her friend, but she didn’t like it — “it made me nervous” — and stopped taking it long before the L.S.A.T.