It is well known that the use of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) drugs without a prescription is dangerous. For those with ADHD, focusing and finishing tasks can be difficult, and there are a number of drugs available on the market to help combat those symptoms, prominently among them Ritalin and Adderall. But recent years have shown that many college students, eager to work and study longer and harder than they could otherwise, are taking these drugs without prescriptions. A 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report notes that “Full-time college students aged 18 to 22 were twice as likely as their counterparts who were not full-time college students to have used Adderall nonmedically in the past year.” Yet aside from the fact that using these drugs often proves ineffective long-term, they also pose significant health risks, with side effects including restlessness, nausea, loss of appetite, and worse, not to mention the possibility of addiction.

Yet beyond the question of safety, we are met with a pressing ethical quandary. Is the use of performance-enhancing drugs in an academic setting unethical? It seems intuitive to many of us that performance enhancers used by athletes, such as steroids, are unethical. But would we similarly say that giving oneself the ability to study more efficiently is as unfair as steroid use before a sporting event? Do the standards of competition in athletics apply in the same way to academics? Should other universities follow the lead of Duke and Wesleyan in pegging “the unauthorized use of prescription medication to enhance academic performance” as a form of cheating?

To begin, we need to think about sports. In competitive sports, athletes or teams compete against one another, engaging in the same activities. As in any competition, having an unfair advantage is grounds for disqualification, as that would undermine the premise of the competition, namely, equal opportunity to win and an even playing field. If all players are expected to come to the game with normally acquired human capacities, then having abilities that surpass or circumvent the competition’s premises — including utilizing anything beyond one’s normally acquired human capacities — would be unfair. While some athletes will have greater skills than others, as long as they all (theoretically) have the same possibility of attaining the same skills, then even if one athlete is more skilled than another, the former’s advantage is a fair one. Hence, a batter who has practiced batting for many years has a fair advantage over a novice, while a batter who uses a metal bat when the rules require the use of wooden bats has an unfair advantage.

In theory, we should have the same standard for education. Our schooling systems, and especially our universities, are competitive arenas. Students compete with one another for the highest marks, the best recommendations, and various coveted awards and scholarships for academic achievement, not to mention seats in graduate programs or professional offices. The premise of the competition is that all students will use their human intellectual capacities to fulfill requirements and complete their studies and their work. Hence, all forms of cheating and plagiarism are deemed disqualifications within academic competition, and are thus prohibited, as they constitute an unfair advantage. On the other hand, if one student studies longer than another, he or she has a fair advantage in meriting the higher grade.

But what makes an advantage unfair? Perhaps we could say that for an advantage to be fair, all competitors must have equal access to the advantage. Hence, we might argue that just as any student could have studied longer, so could any student have acquired Ritalin (though this is often not the case). As Donald McCabe, Rutgers professor of management and global business, who has spent many years studying cheating, argues, “Study aids probably don’t qualify as cheating mechanisms because they are in fact easily accessible, creating a level playing field.” This definition, though, seems flawed, as an equally accessible advantage can still be unfair. Many would say that even if everyone in a class copied answers from one another or from a textbook without permission, the very act of cheating would still be deemed unfair, as it makes use of a competitive advantage not allowed by the rules. Alternatively, we might suggest that an unfair advantage is one that involves making use of an advantage beyond the bounds of the parameters of the competition, as doing so undermines the value of the competition. Hence, if within both academics and athletics, the purpose of the competition is to challenge normally acquired human capacities, then using any other means (such as enhanced equipment or the work of others) would be unfair. The unfairness stands not on a shared agreement between competitors about accessible advantages, but on the very nature of the competition; an unfair advantage circumvents testing the capability the competition is meant to test.

Performance enhancers, though, complicate this issue. While we have thus far used the term “normally acquired human capacities” quite comfortably, this term is somewhat vague. When taking a performance-enhancing drug, the actor is not using means other than human capacity; he or she is simply enhancing or improving an ability that was present before. Just as practicing, studying, eating, drinking, and sleeping can improve one’s performance in various fields, the same is true of performance-enhancing drugs, and perhaps there is no compelling ethical reason to differentiate between “normal” and “artificial” methods of performance enhancement. At most, performance-enhancing drugs would simply need to be popularized and incorporated into enough people’s normal routine to earn the status of “normal,” and thus “fair.” If, however, “normally acquired human capacities” refer specifically to those that are naturally acquired, then there may still be reason to differentiate between eating pasta and taking a dose of Ritalin. Then again, where to draw the border of natural acquisition, be it around or beyond Ritalin (or coffee!) is yet unclear. Further study is needed to consider the meanings of advantage and competitive fairness within the unique ethical framework of human competition.