Is it okay to use drugs?

It’s time for another Sunday secular morality post. Please feel free to share your opinions in the comments — tell me where I screwed up! — but remember to leave religion out of it. I’ve started a page for this feature; check there for easy reference to earlier discussions.

I personally eschew drugs of most forms, including alcohol. Even caffeine, schoolwork permitting, and even in extreme cases nothing stronger than Mountain Dew. (I had my share of energy drinks in college while pulling all-nighters, and it was gross.) I just really value being aware of my surroundings and my life experiences to the fullest. I want to be able to listen to what my body has to tell me, without some chemical interfering with my understanding of my own needs. I’d rather hang around with people I like than ingest some substance to make me feel more friendly. I’d rather find a way to calm down when I’m nervous, I’d rather sleep when I’m tired, rather than pump myself full of some chemical to suppress those feelings. And I see no reason to actively try to develop a taste for some drug so I can enjoy it socially in moderation; what’s the enjoyment I would supposedly get out of it?

But this all has to do with personal preference. All other things being equal, I don’t see a moral imperative not to take actions which harm only oneself. If you like attending loud rock concerts more than you like having a good sense of hearing, then go right ahead and blast out your eardrums. You might gain some sort of net personal utility out of any number of things I might consider stupid, but it’s your prerogative to assess your own costs and benefits.

That being said, in the case of illegal drugs I do think there is a moral obligation to follow the law. I don’t think there’s any deep, fundamental human right to, e.g., cocaine, so we ought to defer to the democratic will. Advocate for changes to the law if you want them, sure — but respect the law and the democratic process in the meantime.

Even if all drugs were legal, though, I think that most of the drug use that actually happens is immoral because it doesn’t meet the standard I mentioned before — taking actions which harm only oneself. Far too often, drug use puts other people into harm’s way, and “It’s fun for me!” just doesn’t excuse that. I’m not only talking about violent outbursts from drug-induced rages, or car accidents caused by someone driving while intoxicated. An important corollary to my belief that actions can be morally good (or even obligatory) or morally bad (or even impermissible) is that we each have a duty to evaluate our actions and choose the morally superior ones. Using drugs impairs your ability to make rational choices. In fact, while under the influence, your assessment of reality itself is likely to be flawed. Actively throwing away your ability to use moral reasoning practically guarantees that you will be behaving unethically and will hurt others in the process.

I can imagine limited circumstances under which using drugs might still be permissible. They would have to involve precautions against the sort of harms I just talked about: moderation of use; helpful, sober people to watch out for you in particularly dangerous circumstances (e.g. a designated driver), and so on. However, if you factor in the risks associated with addiction — through which your intoxication level itself would no longer be under your rational control, to say nothing of your decision-making abilities while under that intoxication — it seems to me that the use of these potentially addictive substances could not possibly be worth it. That’s why, speaking broadly, I would say that using drugs (including alcohol) is not okay.

Does that sound reasonable to you, or do you think I’m just a teetotaler who doesn’t get it? How have you handled this sort of dilemma in your own life? Let me know in the comments!

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14 Comments

  1. grizzlybaker

     /  May 16, 2011 at 6:35 am

    The implicit assumption you seem to be making is that we are rational when we aren’t using these substances. Neuroscience would beg to differ.

    Personally, I quite enjoy alcohol. With alcohol, I tend to philosophize and become more communicative. More thinking gets done as thoughts are more freely expressed. Introverted as I am, I can’t just find a way to “make me feel more friendly.” It works as a social lubricant.

    In fact, I would have agreed with you quite readily several years ago. I was against alcohol until I had good, controlled experiences with it. Once it was something I could understand, I enjoyed it a lot more.

    In addition, I’m a bit of beer connoisseur/snob, and simply love the taste and texture of a good dark beer. Trying a new stout is as enjoyable to me as diving into a good book. Against it? Most certainly not, for many, many reasons.

    Marijuana, on the other hand, tends to make my experiences so intense that there can be no rational element, no barrier between me and raw experience. This I don’t like. Against it? I’m not interested, but being less harmful than alcohol, I certainly can’t oppose it.

    I’ve taken up cigarette smoking and since quit. While nicotine is so deliciously enjoyable, the cost, the smell, and the long term damage weigh heavily against it. What did it in for me was actually a series of illnesses–I kicked the habit and they went away. Curiously, I found it easy to do so–not sure why. Against it? No.

    Would I try other substances? Certainly. What stops me is the unsafe nature: I don’t know where to get them, and I wouldn’t know exactly what it was that I were taking. Should what-are- now-illegal narcotics become available in a pharmacy tomorrow, I would be picking up some to try for my next day off. And I would certainly be for gradual drug legalization.

    I’m a hedonist at heart, and intensely curious to boot, and I can’t see life worth living unless you strive to live it.

  2. Aristarchus

     /  May 16, 2011 at 8:19 am

    I’m with you on 99% of this, NFQ. I think the amount of irrationality that comes from having a beer or two is no problem. Yes, it still creates some chance you’ll do something stupid that harms others, but any time you drive you create some danger to others and we’re generally ok with that. If this risk is small enough, it’s ok. But yeah, any serious reduction in rationality (or creation of an addiction that will have that effect in the future) seems like you’re placing others in substantial chance of harm and that’s not ok. (The bar is probably a lot lower for people who have families, jobs, or other things that make harm to others more likely… oh wait, that’s everyone.)

    @grizzlybaker:
    How can marijuana create an feeling that has “no rational element” and not be more dangerous than alcohol? I know that it’s medical consequences to the user and it’s addictive properties are in many ways less than alcohol, but it seems difficult to me to square “completely removing your capacity for rational decision making” with “not creating a risk to others”.

    As for alcohol, I think NFQ would be ok with using it as a social lubricant if you didn’t do so enough to create any addiction and you had some sort of protection (say, trustworthy sober friends) to make sure that you didn’t do anything harmful while less rational. Are you defending using it when those conditions aren’t met?

  3. “Does that sound reasonable to you, or do you think I’m just a teetotaler who doesn’t get it?”

    A little from column A, a little from column B?
    From column B, it’s not like alcohol is the only thing we eat that requires one to develop a taste for it. We’ve evolved to prefer certain sweet and salty tastes and avoid certain bitter or sour tastes in order to find the right things to eat back before we evolved the grocery store. Yet our culinary palette would be much poorer if we avoided bitter and sour.

    From column A, I feel like you are creating a moral obligation to remain sober at all times that is simply so broad as to be useless. I think you are taking a quite reasonable desire that we act responsibly, and then taking it to an unreasonable extreme.
    Full disclosure, I used to be quite the teetotaler. Until I was 24 or so. I actually smoked pot before I ever had a drink. And over the course of the years I’ve sampled pretty much most of the pharmacopia (I did my share… and probably your share as well). Now i’m older and wiser and I keep a better lid on things. I quit smoking (which was very hard) so I think I understand addiction. I think you are overreacting.

    Provocative question. By your standard I suppose I have acted quite immorally. I guess I’ll have to live with that. ;)

  4. Elisabeth

     /  May 16, 2011 at 11:50 am

    I disagree with the idea that it is not wrong to do things which only hurt yourself. By what principle is it wrong to do something that hurts another person? Is it to be simply assumed that it is wrong to hurt another person, or are you basing that on something more fundamental? If it is wrong to hurt another person, isn’t it by the same principle wrong to hurt yourself?

  5. I’m mostly in agreement NFQ, especially where the potential harm to others comes in. However, I’m also on board with grizzlybaker’s opening comments: there is no reason to suppose that our most rational state is necessarily the one in which no intoxicants are present. And it may even work the other way: perhaps we’ll discover a drug that makes us twice as rational as we are now, and we’ll look back on our current state as one of drunkenness :-)

    There is that cliche of intoxication, in which the drunk person becomes overly emotional and starts calling up old girl/boyfriends. Don’t drink and dial, we say! Yet I often wonder if that is really such a bad state to be in. Is it better to be too inhibited and staid, or to freely express one’s emotions? Of course, if it requires a lot of alcohol to get into such a state, the point is moot, since we are then putting others in danger. Also, it is obviously quite easy to step over the line and do some real emotional damage to others.

    Finally, a word about legalization: this is sometimes considered for its potentially wider improvements to well-being, even if consumption of the drug is unhealthy. For instance, Felipe Calderon is considering legalizing certain drugs in Mexico in the hopes that it will reduce the terrible drug-related violence there.

  6. Wow. Complicated issue. I think there are so many types/varieties of drug use it is probably difficult if not fool-hardy to make sweeping generalizations. But as one with libertarian tendencies when it comes to social issues, I tend to think “no harm (to others), no foul.” Like driving over the posted speed limit. Yes, it is illegal. But in one context — school zone in daylight — the “immorality” of it is at one level. High. Yet over completely deserted highway — another level. Low. Though-provoking post, for sure.

  7. ALL drugs should be legal and regulated as the ‘legal’ ones are. They are actually easier to control if legal. But drugs in use are not that big a hazard, it is abuse that is the problem.
    In England ‘Speed’ is legal and is used for its intended purpose of weight lose. And yes I’m sure others abuse it. I used Speed properly for months with NO side effects or problems. Here in USA it is illegal so the only really effective weight lose aid is not available.
    If legal then people can discuss and find information on uses and limits and make some decisions. I still cannot see a good reason to use cocaine. And if all drugs were legal tomorrow I would still not use 99% of them.
    I refer you’all to Achilles’ Choice by Larry Nevin.

  8. Thanks for the great comments, everybody!

    One thing I want to clarify (addressing several comments at once) is that I don’t think I’m presenting an argument against drug legalization. I think that’s a practical consideration, and the public safety, health regulation, and tax revenue that legalization would provide may very well outweigh the health and rationality risks that drugs pose. All sorts of stupid and even immoral things are legal to do. I mentioned legality because I think we do have a general moral obligation to obey existing laws. That doesn’t preclude advocating for changes in the law, of course.

    @Grizzlybaker and Aristarchus: Ari (can I call you Ari?) is right about the conditions I’d want on alcohol use. A glass of wine with dinner, or other drinking on that level, seems fine to me. I do have major reservations about sentiments like grizzlybaker’s “Marijuana, on the other hand, tends to make my experiences so intense that there can be no rational element, no barrier between me and raw experience.” Why are the admittedly irrational experiences brought on by marijuana in any relevant way “raw”? They’re not even necessarily (or likely) based on reality. You go on to say that life should be lived; I agree, and that’s why I don’t want to hallucinate my way through it.

    @Lou Doench: Aw, you make me sound so harsh! :) There are things that are morally good to do, which necessarily means that not doing them / doing the opposite is morally bad to do. I don’t think that’s an unreasonably extreme stance. Some level of ethical slip-ups are to be expected from human beings, and when I say “it’s not okay” I don’t mean “I would condemn as fundamentally bad anyone who makes a few mistakes.”

    @Elisabeth: Very good question. I plan to do a “first principles” type post at some point in the future, but I haven’t had time to put it together yet. Basically, what I’m trying to get at is that what I think is “too harmful to be worth it” might have benefits for another person that I don’t perceive. To return to the rock concert analogy I used in my post — if I don’t even enjoy the music, I certainly wouldn’t want to harm my sense of hearing to experience the concert. But if I derive a lot of personal utility from the music, I might experience a net positive result even if my hearing is a little worse afterward. When only the actor’s well-being is at stake, I’m okay with deferring to their evaluation of costs and benefits based on their own subjective weightings. When other people become involved, we have to start thinking in a more general, aggregate sense in order to take everyone’s well-being into account.

    More later!

  9. @Keith: Some of the effects that drugs can have include inattentiveness and slowed reaction time, heightened reaction and even panic with little to no stimulus, seeing/hearing/etc. things that are not present, being afraid of things that pose no actual danger, being unafraid of things that pose great danger … obviously not typically all from the same drug. :) I see plenty of reason to think that people make worse decisions while under the influence. Meanwhile, sober people seem able to make decisions based on evidence and logical inference, and cultivate circumstances for themselves that lead to maximized well-being to a degree that high/drunk people are less capable of. It seems like a reasonable judgment that we are more rational while sober. Why should I suppose it is the opposite?

    It’s possible that a “drug” might be discovered that would make us more rational actors. I actually think this would be analogous to something that in the status quo we would call “medicine.” (Treatment for schizophrenia, etc., would have this sort of effect.) I wouldn’t object to such a thing, and my arguments above would not apply.

    @Andrew: I’d point you to what I said to Lou above. I agree, much sort of low-key drug use probably falls under that “low immorality” category, or maybe “medium.” Things can be bad without being as bad as, I don’t know, murder. (And maybe I’m just a goody two-shoes. I actually wouldn’t run a stop sign on a rural road in the middle of the night.)

    @L.Long: You wrote, “If legal then people can discuss and find information on uses and limits and make some decisions.” I think legality is beside the point, as I said before, but I still think that we can discuss and find information, and make some decisions, in the status quo. That is what I am doing here! I think it is morally wrong to deliberately put yourself in a state where you cannot make reliably rational decisions. Do you disagree with that statement, or do you disagree with the idea that drugs make you less rational?

  10. NFQ…”drugs” is a too open word. They do not necessarily make you irrational. But most if abused will lead to irrationality. But I believe I know the point you are trying to make and for me I would not use a drug to alter my mental abilities. i.e. opium and heroine used beyond hospital pain control is beyond stupid. But at the same time if someone over 18 chose to take all they wanted even unto death, Well good luck to them! I would not stop them and they have the right to kill themselves however they wish.

  11. Ubi Dubium

     /  May 18, 2011 at 9:27 am

    ” I think it is morally wrong to deliberately put yourself in a state where you cannot make reliably rational decisions.”

    I’d agree with that to a point. I feel like it is morally wrong to put yourself in such a state, if the well-being of others is affected by your failure to make rational decisions. And it’s morally wrong to cause major harm to your own health if you have dependents relying on you for support. If no one outside the user is directly harmed, then I’m seeing it as pretty morally neutral.

    Of course, I’m also speaking as a near tee-totaller. My drugs of choice are theobromine, a moderate amount of caffeine and only the occasional sip of alcohol. I’ve only got the one brain, and I’m dealing with enough age-related glitches in it as it is, so I don’t care to damage it chemically.

  12. Aristarchus

     /  May 18, 2011 at 9:50 am

    I think most of the commenters on this post agree with the principle – you can take actions that reduce your future rationality only if you have taken precautions to prevent your irrational self from causing any harm to others.

    I think the disagreement is over what this standard covers. I (and I think NFQ) would say that almost all drug use that currently occurs is bad by this standard. Almost any use that results in addiction is bad, since you become much less functional as a person in general and die earlier, and presumably will at some point in your life have others relying on you for care. The sort of precautions you’d have to take to prevent short-term harm are pretty extreme. I know plenty of people who had the friend who was supposed to keep them from doing stupid things while drunk fail miserably – it is, after all, a pretty thankless task. It’s easy to plan to drink (or use) a little and then use more because intoxicated you no longer likes your planned moderation.

    Other than locking yourself in a rubber room with only the amount of drugs you want to use and setting a timer that won’t let you out until the effects are over, it seems very hard to me to really temporarily become irrational in a way that you’re very sure won’t cause anyone else any harm. (The one exception here is using the drugs in such small quantities – a glass of wine with dinner, for example – that you don’t become very irrational.)

  13. satanfornoreason

     /  June 20, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    “I just really value being aware of my surroundings and my life experiences to the fullest.” That is your primary reason for not doing drugs, and I must say, you’ve got it wrong.

    The primary reason people take drugs is to alter their mental state, and this can have unpleasant and undesired consequences. However, they can also change the way you process data from the world, and give you new perspective that you otherwise would not have.

    I smoke marijuana because I like the way I think when I am on it. I have ideas and thoughts that I would not have otherwise.

    Your main reason for not doing them is actually a reason to do them. This is a fact and there is no getting around it.

    You have soaked up exactly what others want you to believe. You drank the kool-aid and have accepted the message that those against drugs want you too, like a good little sheep. Drugs are not for everyone, and a minority give drugs a bad name, because of their experiences with them. Taking drugs requires someone who is responsible and who will not let it take over their life. This can be done. Some think they can do it, but cannot. But that is no reason to limit the people who think they can and who actually can. We have one life, and if a substance can improve it (I’m sure you’ve also taken the kool-aid when it comes to thinking that somehow drugs that are made by large pharmaceutical companies are okay, even if they do the same thing as illegal ones: see Desoxyn), then by all means, if it doesn’t harm anyone else, why not get the most out of life?

    #2: During times of slavery, you think there was a moral obligation to follow the law? Why now – out of all other times in the history of man – do you think we have it right when it comes to the laws on the books being right? You think it’s okay to lock a person in a cage because he had a substance – say marijuana or a bag of meth (i.e., the same thing as Desoxyn or any of the many ADHD medications we give to children; the demonization of meth is a shining example of the success of propaganda) – it’s okay to lock people in cages for having these things?

    We have a fifth of the worlds population but 25% of all prisoners in the world are Americans, primarily because we lock people in cages for drugs.

    A moral imperative to follow the law? What a terribly thoughtless thing to say.

  14. satanfornoreason

     /  June 20, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    Excellent post, grizzlybaker. Well said.

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