Getting Wasted (A Moral Question)
May 01, 2012
Contains discussions of drug use that some readers of a sensitive disposition may find offensive.
A famous adage, often erroneously ascribed to the philosopher Bertrand Russell, states that ‘the time you enjoy wasting is not time wasted’. But what of the time you enjoy being wasted?
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.
You missed out Daily Mail Ethics and Guardian Ethics.
Posted by: Ttocb.blogspot.com | May 01, 2012 at 11:06 AM
*grins* Well both the Daily Mail and the Guardian actually espouse forms of deontology (duty ethics): it's just the sense of 'duty' implied by the Daily Mail is a lot more overtly judgemental than that on display in the Guardian! I actually find the two newspapers quite similar, though - the Mail with its smug, reactionary, traditional, conservative bigotry, and the Gruaniad with its smug, reactionary, contemporary, liberal bigotry. :)
Posted by: Chris | May 01, 2012 at 12:39 PM
True. How about the Murdoch Ethics?
By the way, did you get a copy of Haidt's new offering? I found it quite interesting - there's quite a dialogue going on on some of the Amazon reviews - questions as to whether Haidt is biased.
Posted by: Ttocb.blogspot.com | May 02, 2012 at 10:13 AM
I looked hard for the Murdoch Ethics, but I haven't found any yet. >:)
I have the Haidt book - it's next on my reading list after about half-a-dozen papers that I urgently need. I have read a lot of Haidt in the past, though, and he clearly *is* biased (aren't we all?), but I've always found his core theory to be valuable irrespective of this.
Posted by: Chris | May 03, 2012 at 12:12 PM
As a Dutchman and ex-daily frequenter of Amsterdam, I accept your apology on behalf of the city and its visitors.
I would be less likely to forgive you if I pictured you as the sort of loud Brit who is out with the lads to Amsterdam to abuse the local prostitutes as well as our hospitality. ;-)
But seriously, it's a difficult issue, and it reminds me of the following podcast in which the issue of drug use as part of spiritual practice came up. < http://www.occultofpersonality.net/membership/altar-of-burnt-offering >
Personally I see little moral problems with the use of drugs in itself, as long as you can honestly say to yourself that you believe it is very unlikely you will cause harm to yourself or other as a result. I guess this falls closely under the header of Consequentialism.
What you get out of using drugs and if it's worth it to yourself is another question. I guess I would agree with Hume and Kant that a bit of alcohol in whatever form can be conducive to pleasant company, though not essential, of course.
Posted by: Qwallath | May 11, 2012 at 11:08 AM
Qwallath: "As a Dutchman and ex-daily frequenter of Amsterdam, I accept your apology on behalf of the city and its visitors."
I can feel the absolution already. :) I get the impression that the people of Amsterdam are really quite used to drunken Brits on their streets, but that only goes so far! :)
Posted by: Chris | May 14, 2012 at 02:28 PM
Interesting post. Not least for a topic that both Kant and Russell have provided provoking views, naturally Russell's view differs from Kant, as it does in many things.
When I think of issues where your future mindset is affected, this for me goes into meta-ethical territory, or at least into the realm of moral psychology.
This is a territory where my life experience comes in more than my reading.
1. The mentality of drinking for me involves the responsible assumption that you know the consequences of what you will be like when inebriated (except perhaps if you are unwittingly intoxicated or its your first time drinking or imbibing your specific drug).
In other words, when you do get wasted, your sober self should know what s/he's getting into. Frame it into the terminology of Harry Frankfurt's second-order desire. To want to drink is to want to feel elated or whatever buzz you get from your specific drug. Even the aspect of sponteneity can be desired from one's drug.
2. Not all drugs are the same. I think there are medically speaking, all kinds of drugs. If we are talking about inebriants/intoxicants/things that release happy brain hormones, we can widen our conception of drugs to include something that gives a similar feeling to that high.
I think it's dire to know that cigarettes are legal for example, they contain things like cadmium (which are components of batteries) or tar (which are components of most roads). Some drugs have their own cultural issues associated with it, but also use 'culture' as a defense of its masqueraded legal status. There is an extent to which being evidenced based should inform our views. For example, following the research David Nutt: how many recorded deaths are there due to alcohol compared to marijuana?
I grew up in an environment where there was a lot of drinking but very little alcohol appreciation. I hardly drink much alcohol these days myself and the times that I choose to get drunk are few.
I choose not to drink too much these days, part of this is willpower, another part is health related (trying to work on looking like a 1980s action figure). I also feel that sobriety is very important. Sobriety is not just the absence of being drunk as many people seem to use the term, but facing clearly all the things in your life without overblowing how good it is, or underplaying how bad it is.
Sobriety is hard and even if there is a chance to let go of it for a little while from time to time, I quite enjoy carrying my burdens and troubles even in good sociable times so that I take them seriously. I am trying hard to purposely be boring :)
Always a pleasure to read something topical.
Posted by: Sinistredestre.wordpress.com | May 30, 2012 at 09:51 AM
Great to hear from you as always, and some interesting points of commentary here. I like the (implicit) idea that getting wasted involves a kind of contract with yourself, as sober-you takes responsibility for the plausible actions of wasted-you.
For me, when I think of people who exclude recreational drugs because of the consequences it makes me think: well working flat out and taking no time to relax raises your stress levels, makes you more likely to have an accident while driving, less likely to be happy, and thus less likely to positively contribute to your community. There is, I think, a (weak) argument against abstinence - although really, this is an argument for positive "mental health" however it is to be attained.
Best of luck becoming an 80s action figure! :)
Posted by: Chris | May 31, 2012 at 10:33 AM
Hi Chris! As I'm much better versed in getting wasted than philosophy I thought I'd chime in for the first time here.
To contextualise my thoughts, I'm a twenty-something who is just coming out of a period uncannily akin to your London years. I still occasionally use drugs, and like to see them as windows of altered perspective, or lenses - perhaps this mindset explains my proclivity for psychedelics in particular. Some of my most interesting experiences have come directly from drugs for better or worse, and I see very little problem with others taking them responsibly.
The key element of responsible drug-taking, to me, is research. Initially for safety and suitability through others (i.e can I handle the potential effects? How much should I take? etc.), then through a thorough examination of the self and the experience. The former should also be taken with a pinch of salt, and first times should be a toe dip for sure - there's way too many variables to blindly follow others' experiences! The latter is much harder to do, and perhaps why so many struggle with abuse (amongst countless other reasons that people abuse themselves).
The self-examination aspect is the meaning to the fable, and as humans we love to have a reason for everything (especially when we've done something perceived as wrong). I could wax lyrical about the questions I ask myself, but it would be superfluous - the key question is 'was it worth it?'. This is framed with a similar thought to your above observation of mental health, as often I'll find that breaking a monotonous perspective for a while re-invigorates me. Of course, in respect to addiction and other possible modifiers your answer may not be entirely truthful, but I'm a believer in default honesty in that I at least sense when I'm lying. This is where a second set of eyes are useful, and conversation without judgement is invaluable.
The issue with our current governmental attitudes to drugs is that they stifle honest conversation in the public sphere, leaving first time drug users in the dark, open to dishonest sellers, and inherently distrusting of public information (the cop convention from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas springs to mind).
Similarly, experienced drug users are left with mostly other drug users as guides, who surprise surprise have a bias towards those very same drugs (perhaps in order to defend their own usage). The internet may have eased this in terms of information, but I've seen many people in my life refuse help with drug problems under the impression that asking for it would be outing themselves. A shame spiral ensues, addiction spirals, leaving increasingly bleak choices.
My rambling point here is that openness on both sides is required for drugs to be safe. There will always be the mighty bender, and I believe that excess is not only acceptable but desirable in the sense that limits are mostly spotted from the wrong side. That is not to say that excess should be the norm, but a moment of 'whoops! you're not as smart as you thought you were' once in a while helps to reinforce those boundaries. I also think there will always be abuse, as I see addiction as a symptom of a misfiring mind - something that will also exist as long as there are minds. Portugal's decriminalisation of drugs saw their addiction/overdose rates plummet, and I believe that a similar approach is the best option we have in terms of opening up that dialogue between safe users, non users and addicts. To remove the stigma caused by decades of 'War on Drugs' propaganda is a huge ask, but one that would benefit society's downtrodden greatly.
In terms of responsibility I like the Japanese drinking etiquette, and would apply the same thinking to everything said whilst under the influence. I've spoken many truths whilst intoxicated (which is often just as bad as the alternative) but also spouted fantastical lies, thoughts and feelings that dissolve as soon as they leave my mouth. Actions are much harder to explain away, and I would place the blame for those actions purely on the actor. Legally there should be no meaningful distinction in the context of crime, but person to person I believe a little leniency should be applied - your quote from David Hume sums it up perfectly!
I'd be interested to hear how your thoughts have changed, if at all, over the 6 years this thread has been inactive (I'm a necromancer, sorry!).
Posted by: Gilbu | March 14, 2018 at 11:40 PM
Many thanks for commenting - and for signing the Player's Handbook (first new one in seven years). Very cool! Apologies for not responding sooner... my laptop has been in for repairs, and my blogging is a little thrown out because of it.
I don't have much to add to your comments, which strike me as eminently sensible. I do think one of the basic problems we're facing is that conversation is stifled (as you say) because of the tremendous stigma attached to it. And this is unfortunate - as we are now enmired in "habit forming" technology and should be in a good position to talk about "habit forming" chemicals as well.
The discussion above eventually made it into my book, Chaos Ethics, which is one of very few works of moral philosophy to take seriously questions about our relationship to drugs of various kinds. I personally think we have more to gain from bringing the discussion about legal and illegal drugs into the public than we have to lose - but it is still difficult to get traction on such a thorny political issue.
Many thanks for getting involved in the discussion! New comments are always welcome, and I don't mind how old a post is if someone takes an interest - this game is always open to new moves! :)
All the best,
Posted by: Chris | March 28, 2018 at 10:28 AM