Contains discussions of drug use that some readers of a sensitive disposition may find offensive.
The ethics of drug use is a topic I often have cause to ponder. By ‘drugs’, I mean to include alcohol and tobacco, as well as painkillers, serotonin-inhibitors and all manner of other things that are permitted as ‘medicine’, a category about which I have severe doubts. It is far from clear to me, for instance, that someone in depression is helped by a doctor absolving them of any responsibilities and whacking them out on pills – they could achieve the same mindless state on their own, which makes this seem to be yet another example of doctors inheriting the social power once possessed by priests to make moral pronouncements with authority. Either it is acceptable to be out of your gourd or it isn’t – the doctor’s medical training should have no bearing on the moral dimensions therein and certainly can’t make the routine daily obliteration of personality acceptable, whether we’re talking about anti-depressants or merely mood-savaging ADHT ‘medication’. Next to what is thoughtlessly done to people under the guise of medicine, most drug use borders upon innocence.
Despite my general suspicion of the medical exculpation of mind-wrecking pharmaceuticals, I have certainly partaken of my share of drugs in my time, both legally (primarily, in this regard, vast quantities of alcoholic beverages) and illegally. During my wild years living in London there was basically nothing short of heroin I didn’t partake of on at least one occasion, and even this I was offered, admittedly by a man who strongly advised me to stay away from it at all costs and denounced the film Trainspotting for presenting heroin addiction as something hip. It would be wrong to think that I enjoyed everything I took, but I explored all these experiences because to me at that time, a person in his twenties enjoying the dangerous combination of personal freedom and disposable income, this was an aspect of life with inescapable appeal – especially since it was always done, without fail, in the company of friends and colleagues.
It did not trouble me that what I was doing was illegal, since law and morality had long since parted company for me at that time. I could see no reason the State should be the final arbiter of what I could do to my body, let alone why it should waste it’s precious finances applying force against those people whose drug use was not endorsed by medical orthodoxy. At a ‘Legalize Pot’ rally in London, I saw many people with multiple sclerosis being ported about in wheelchairs and offered marijuana to smoke to alleviate their discomfort. I find it offensive to suggest they should not be allowed to do so. But of course, these were far from the majority of attendees, many of whom took a certain joy at the fact that they could smoke their preferred drug openly in front of the many police officers on patrol without any fear of reprisal. One man, lit joint in hand, asked a passing policeman: “Aren’t you going to do anything?” The officer replied wryly: “Why, sir, do you know of anything illegal I should know about?”
The question I want to pursue here, however, is independent of questions of legality – it is a simple moral question. Is it permissible to get wasted? How wasted? So wasted you become a danger to yourself? To others? So wasted you lose your life? There is a classic sliding scale argument to be applied here, and it will not be easy to place a clear dividing line anywhere upon its slippery slopes. To proceed, we must immediately hurdle that kind of nihilistic scepticism that leaps wantonly from the lack of permanent foundations for ethics to the total absence of morality, and instead accept that at least three moral systems are available to us: virtue ethics, which considers morality from the perspective of the ideal traits of good people; duty ethics (deontology), which considers morality from the perspective of rules and rights; and outcome ethics (Consequentialism), which considers morality in terms of the best events that might follow.
The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, speaks most strongly in favour of getting wasted. He not only praises the merits of a good night’s drinking, he provides a morality for its undertaking:
I hate a drinking Companion, says the Greek Proverb, who never forgets. The Follies of the last Debauch should be buried in eternal Oblivion, in order to give full Scope to the Follies of the next.
(The Japanese drinking ethic, which asks that no-one repeat in the office what was said at the bar, is close to this). Hume advances a position broadly at the intersection of virtue and outcome ethics, one with great appeal to modern liberals and youth. A more conventional virtue ethics view, of the kind advanced by Aristotle (for instance), would argue for temperance, that is, for moderation. I feel there is much to be said for the idea of moderation when pursuing the question of the ethics of drugs, although part of the very problem is that once you become intoxicated, you cease to become a reliable judge of what is moderate.
Immanuel Kant raises objections of this very kind under his version of duty ethics. “A human being who is drunk”, he objects, “is like a mere animal, not to be treated as a human being”. He continues:
It is obvious that putting oneself in such a state violates a duty to oneself. The first of these debasements, below even the nature of an animal, is usually brought about by fermented drinks, but it can also result from other narcotics, such as opium and other vegetable products. They are seductive because, under their influence, people dream for a while that they are happy and free from care, and even imagine that they are strong; but dejection and weakness follow and, worst of all, they create a need to use the narcotics again and even to increase the amount.
Yet even stuffy Kant isn’t calling for total abstinence, since he immediately counters:
Can one at least justify, if not eulogize, a use of wine bordering on intoxication, since it enlivens the company’s conservation and in so doing makes them speak more freely? – Or can it even be granted the merit of promoting what Horace praises in Cato: virtus eius incaluit mero (his virtue was enkindled by unmixed wine)?
But he cautions:
The use of opium and spirits for enjoyment is closer to being a base act than the use of wine, since they make the user silent, reticent and withdrawn by the dream euphoria they induce. They are therefore permitted only as medicines. – But who can determine the measure for someone who is quite ready to pass into a state in which he no longer has clear eyes for measuring?
This indeed is the nature of the problem. If, as both Hume and Kant are willing to allow, a little drug use can serve the social good of a group of friends, how to address the problem that once intoxicated there is momentum already pushing towards greater and greater excess. Who among drinkers has never been out for ‘a quick drink’ that ended in a mighty bender, with only a catastrophic hangover as a memorial for whatever it was that took place the night before?
I don’t propose to provide answers here, merely to raise the question. If, as most liberals tend to believe, a little drug use is fair game, how can it be prevented from escalating? Can it? I have nothing more to say on this for now, beyond taking this opportunity to apologise to the people of the great city of Amsterdam for abusing your most excellent hospitality and vomiting on your trams. As ever, I went with friends and I do not regret our revels, only the deplorable consequences of my ultimate excess. Like Hume, I find a wondrous beauty in a good debauch – but like Kant, I still hold myself accountable for my shameful conduct therein. Today, my wild days are far behind me, and although I still enjoy a good night's drinking with friends, I do so only in moderation. I am at a loss to explain how this transformation happened if it was not that the impropriety of my youth earned me this later wisdom.