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The Ethics of Getting as High as a Kite

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Jan 3, 2011 12:30 AMNov 5, 2019 12:17 AM


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Are drugs good or bad?

I mean, in the ethical sense. Medically, all drugs have potential harms variously associated with use, long-term use, overdose, etc. Politically, by buying illegal drugs, you're probably ultimately funding criminals and terrorists (although you might well blame prohibition, not drugs, for that). But setting that aside, assuming no-one gets harmed as a result: is it morally wrong to take recreational drugs per se?

It's an important question, because your opinion about this will influence your opinions about less abstract, more immediate issues: whether cannabis ought to be sold in coffee shops, how many years you should spend in jail for dealing coke.

However, no-one really asks this question, directly. The medical and the political aspects of drugs are endlessly debated, but after listening to these arguments for a while, you'll realize that while people on both sides talk about public health risks and harm reduction, most of the time they're really justdisagreeing about the abstract question of whether taking drugs for fun is acceptable.

Here's the two major schools of thought as I see them. There are those who see no problem with recreational drug use, assuming no-one gets hurts. If it feels good, it is good. If it makes people happy, what's not to like? If people want to enjoy themselves in that particular way, it's no-one else's business. Call this the 'hedonist' view.

On the other hand, there are those who see drug use as a shameful escape from reality. There's more to life than "having fun", life is serious. You ought to be out there doing something, not just sitting around with a silly grin on your face. That's cheating, getting enjoyment for nothing. Call this the 'puritan' school.

People differ on which one they favour, but most of us identify with both to some extent. Few people are puritan enough to forgo all of life's pleasures, not even a quiet drink or a hot bath. Few hedonists would be happy if their own kids announced that they had no ambition to succeed in any kind of career, they'd just live off their inheritance and buy heroin.

As a whole, society has a mixed view. We have a puritanical objection to people who just take drugs and do nothing else with their lives; "junkies", "crackheads", "alkies". But we have no problem with drug use by people who clearly have engaged with the world, and succeeded.

Musicians, actors, and other stars take industrial quantities of drugs. Everyone knows it. It's not even an open secret in most cases, it's just open. Even gossip columnists don't notice unless someone gets so far gone that they do something funny. We don't care, because, whether or not we actually like their work, they're not just drug users, they're also doing their jobs.

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