This trilogy of articles is not supposed to bring attention to anything new; in fact, most of the ‘news’ in these articles should be something that you are familiar with. What they should do, however, is first give you an overview of the subject matter, then educate on the work that has already been done in the philosophical world on this subject, and finally leave open ended questions in your mind that needs to be answered: what are the moral or ethical implications behind drug use and should those implications lead to regulated (or banned) consumption for people?
The war on drugs has failed, and has failed miserably. If you do not believe me, you have not been on a college campus, in a shady apartment complex, or at a local Walmart past 8 P.M. in the last five years. Television shows glorify the drug market, the cartel, and the life of an addict, but recently there has been little said about the moral or ethical issues at stake here: why does alcohol belong at any social gathering you can think of while marijuana use does not? In America we have been seeing a rising number of people begin to decide that Marijuana was no longer the gateway drug that it once was, and two of the fifty states here have decided to regulate the drug—making it almost as accessible as nicotine. Exploring the moral implications that drug use has and taking a political look at drug consumption in general, we find ourselves faced with one real question behind the issue: does the consumption of an illegal drug have negative moral or ethical implications, and do the negative ones outweigh the positive? In the first installment of this three part blog post, we will explore the philosophy behind Hedonism and Utilitarianism, which has been one of the most prevalent and heated sources for argument for and against this problem.
I was a D.A.R.E. kid like most 20-something year old people, and I remember signing my name on a large white sheet of paper that said something along the lines of “I, ______, promise to never do drugs.” It had all of my classmates names on the page in differing color inks, and even as a small child I can distinctly remember myself thinking “but what if I change my mind?” It felt like too much of a binding contract and at age eleven I found myself indoctrinated to the idea of abstinence. We now know that the D.A.R.E. program has proven to have no effect on those that underwent the program, and some studies have even found that those who took the same pledge that I had were more likely to use lesser drugs such as nicotine, marijuana, and alcohol.1
This should not be very new information to most people, though. People have been speaking out against D.A.R.E.’s effectiveness since the early 90’s. But the main point that was taken away from all of the abstinence only education is that abstinence has been the law for a long time. Abstain from nicotine until you’re 18, alcohol until you are 21, and abstain from any other recreational drug for your entire life… until recently. Marijuana is on its way to legalization in most of the United States, but again I want to reiterate, if you are an American and you were not already aware of this then I can not help you get out from under your rock. Let us start delving into this matter as a moral one.
The philosophy of Moral Hedonism is one that has a framework of ‘the good’ laid out as equating to personal pleasure. Ethical Hedonism (AKA Utilitarianism) is ‘the good’ of the people’s pleasure as a whole. To further research the philosophical implications of Hedonism and Utilitarianism proper, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on it here.2
Morally, it is easily said then, that I should be able to partake in any kind of drug I want, be it nicotine, alcohol, barbiturates, amphetamines… literally anything that I want to do, as long as it maximizes my own pleasure. If I were to have a ‘bad trip,’ it would be equally important for me to decide to not consume those drugs because it would then be more displeasure than pleasure. If the drug was easily overdosed, it may be safest to steer away from it, depending on the stance you take on death. In death you no longer have pleasure OR pain, so morally death is neither good nor bad—but that leads down another rabbit hole.
Ethically, though, is where we fall into a little bit more steam from the aspect of Utilitarianism. In a vacuum, hedonism would allow for you to destroy the world as long as you found the maximum pleasure in doing so (as long as afterwards you were still able to find pleasure in some way) but ethically it is easy for us to realize that one person’s pleasure is not worth the pain of one person, let alone a group or all people. Even the death of oneself is now pushed into the realm of ethically negative as the lifelong smoker taking his last breath will leave behind the wounds of those who loved them. Utilitarianism is the next step for Hedonism, and unless the belief in solipsism3 is correct, hedonism is tossed quickly out the window as ethically negative in the view of the world.
So from a Utilitarianism standpoint, let us take a look at the consumption of drugs. The NCADD recorded around 2.5 Million deaths related to Alcohol in 2013, and the CDC states that in the United States alone there are around 500,000 tobacco related deaths each year, which they estimate at 1 in every 5 deaths.4, 5 As for Marijuana, it is near impossible for a person to overdose—unless of course you could inhale as many pounds you weigh of the drug [o5] in about ten minutes (asphyxiation would be the more likely cause of death). Unfortunately, it is hard to come up with a solid number of marijuana related accidental deaths because until recently there has not been a need to check the blood for THC in related automobile accidents, and many times when tested the findings were that THC and alcohol were present, and which drug was more or less responsible was impossible to note. The correct and responsible response here would be to equate at least one THC related death in this equation.
As a thought experiment, think of a loved one. Then think of them being killed by one of these drugs, be it a drunk or high driver crashing into them, a smoker who smoked too close or delivered cancer in the form of secondhand, whatever it may be. Imagine you are the person that delivered the fatal blow. In a utilitarian world, the pain felt would probably outweigh any and all of the pleasure you have ever received from these drugs, and therefore would be considered ethically wrong.
There are many holes in this theory, though. Not everyone has a negative effect on their drug of choice. The pleasure that I have received while drinking alcohol has easily outweighed the negatives as I have never been in the position of a painful alcohol related incident.
Most people see the Utilitarian approach to drugs, as that is the easiest to see and to argue for. If a drunk driver kills someone, it was ethically wrong for him to be partaking in a mind altering drug that night; if a drunk person makes it home safe by walking, then there was ethically positive for him to increase his pleasure in doing so. The final blow to the utilitarian approach, though, comes from this problem: it is only known to the person whether or not the act was ethically positive after the act has been performed and is reflected upon. It is like collecting data for an advanced math problem: you perform an act; you calculate the entire happiness or pleasure that this act has made; you calculate the displeasure it has made; put them on a chart and whichever one wins is the truth. You cannot calculate efficiently enough before the act to know for sure whether or not the positive will outweigh the negative.
Hedonism and Utilitarianism cannot objectively view the value behind the ethics relating to drug consumption. This piece should give you a little to think about, then, when the only views that have come across the news feed in recent weeks have been for or against a utilitarian view of the facts. Please feel free to comment, argue, etc, and next month we will delve into another view of the ethics of drug consumption.
About the Author: James Bittner
Lover of wisdom and learning. Gamer, metalhead, and MTG enthusiast. Quiet and reserved until you get him on a topic that he is passionate about.