Epilogue: What Good are Drugs Anyway?


Lester H. Hunt

University of Wisconsin-Madison

I have learned a great deal from this lively exchange of views. One thing I found oddly instructive was the extent to which the general outlines of the discussion conformed to my already existing expectations. Despite the fact that it showed substantial originality on the part of our four discussants, and a number of surprising turns of thought, the broad features of the arguments on both sides were in several respects what I thought they most likely would be. For instance, both the contributors who spoke against decriminalization - both George Sher and Peter de Marneffe - presented the issue as a question of the consequences of drug use. The issue, for both of them, is to a great extent a matter of weighing goods and bads. This is of course not very surprising. The case for making (or keeping) drugs illegal seems, at least on a first glance at the issue, to be best supported by weighing the well-publicized harm that they do. Further, neither Sher nor de Marneffe relied on deontic concepts such as individual rights as ideas that support their side of the issue. Although de Marneffe did discuss rights at some length, his point was to defend against rights-based objections to drug laws. This too is not at all surprising. Since drug laws are instances of state coercion against individuals, we would naturally expect the notion of individual rights to be most useful to those who oppose them. Further, both Sher and de Marneffe offer little or no support for the idea that drug use might yield significant benefits that should be weighed in the balance against the bad that it sometimes does. Professor de Marneffe characterizes drug use simply as an "enjoyable recreational activity." Professor Sher describes drugs as producing "pleasant sensations," and in the question and answer period when these papers were presented in Philadelphia, he acknowledged that their use could be "fun," but he made no other mention of beneficial results that they might produce. Again, this is not terribly surprising. If the case against drugs is to be based on the evils they bring with them, then the case against them is the strongest if whatever good they might do is, as these comments suggest, a mere matter of fun and recreation. After all, if there is something in the world that ruins human lives and promotes violence and has nothing to be said in its favor other than that it has value as a source of entertainment, then why should we miss it if it is banned?

Given this, it might seem a surprising at first that Professor Husak's case for decriminalizing use, as he has presented it here, does not involve resisting this way of characterizing the possible benefits of using psychotropic drugs. Rather, his approach is based on minimizing the bad they do. There are billions of uses of illicit drugs in this country every year. The number of harms they do - and consequently the probability that any one use will be harmful - is in comparison very small. In taking this approach, I think he leaves himself open to an objection that George Sher raises: even if billions of occasions on which drugs are used only harm people ten thousand times, why shouldn't we think of ten thousand in this context as a very large number - indeed, as too large? Clearly, there are some missing premises here, ones that Professor Sher probably omits to state because he thinks they are obvious: he is supposing that there is no need to weigh the ten thousand against the billions, to see which is more important. And the reason for that is, no doubt, that he supposes the good that characterizes the billions of uses is a very petty thing compared to the evil of the ten thousand harms. Once the missing premises are supplied, I think that this objection is potentially a powerful one. After all, who would say that thousands should die so that millions can have some fun? Clearly, the question of the value (or lack of value) that drugs might have is an essential component of the issue of drug legalization. And yet, the fact that Professor Husak is silent about it is perhaps not really so surprising. After all, what value could these drugs have, other than that of a source of fun? It is not easy to say.

Nonetheless, that is precisely what I will try to say here. That is, I will attempt to say what sort of value psychotropic drugs might have. I would like to suggest, believe it or not, that they do potentially have a role to play as an element of human flourishing. To describe them merely as recreational us to misleadingly trivialize them. My point will not be to defend illicit drugs or to present an argument for making them legal. The point will be that, if we gain some insight about how drugs might play a role in a conception of human flourishing, we will see that it makes a difference what one's conception of flourishing is - in fact, it might make a big difference.

First, I will need to define a term, or rather to exhibit the meaning of one that is already familiar. Everyone knows what moods are. They are relatively enduring emotions or emotion-like states. Like emotions, they include feelings that seem to be rather strongly influenced by states of the body. Many people find that they are most likely to be irritable (irritability being an obvious example of a mood) when they are hungry or tired, or more likely to be depressed (another obvious example) early in the morning, when they are still barely awake. Further, and this is another way in which they resemble emotions, they are characterized by the way things seem to us when we are under their influence. When we are feeling irritable, things are more likely to seem offensive or abhorrent. When we are in a depressed mood, nothing seems interesting or worthwhile. We may know, intellectually, that things are really not as they seem at the moment, but this knowledge is often maintained with an effort. The mood often has a considerable power to overwhelm and submerge the thoughts that compete with it.

Our moods tend to have a strong influence on our lives, and this influence is massive. They affect not only our thoughts and beliefs, but our deliberations and choices, our behavior, and of course our passing emotions. As the weather is to our physical environment, so our moods are to our inner lives: they are pervasive. They are also rather like the weather in another way, in that they tend to be out side our direct control. We can't change our moods simply by choosing to, nor do we ever seem to experience a mood (or snap out of one) simply because we believe we should. Though they have a considerable measure of control over us, we have rather poor control over them.

To experience a mood is to experience one's powerlessness. Human beings do not tolerate this sort of powerlessness very well, and they have managed to find many activities through which they can indirectly influence their moods. Our thoughts do have some effect on our moods, and consequently we can have some small measure of control over our moods by simply avoiding the thoughts that tend to enhance the moods that we wish to avoid. In addition, there are a number of remedies that operate on the body rather than on the mind, including, among many others, taking hot baths or steam baths, taking cold showers, eating, fasting, resting or sleeping, taking physical exercise, meditating, doing things that are monotonous or repetitive, and doing things that are new and interesting. Further, there are a number of helpful measures that do not seem to be either purely mental or purely physical, such as dancing, listening to music, and watching television. There are many different ways in which people are apt to find their moods deficient, and there seems to be little that they are unwilling to do in order to bring about improvements.

By now it is perhaps obvious what my main point is: taking psychotropic drugs is one of the activities through which people indirectly alter their moods. Such drugs constitute a sort of technology of mood adjustment. If this is true, then there are some rather obvious ways in which they might be thought to make a substantial contribution to human well-being. First, as is implied by what I have already said, drugs, like all technology, potentially expand human liberty. Admittedly, they do not expand what is traditionally called "negative liberty," the sort of freedom that consists of the absence of coercion by others. Rather, they extend "positive liberty," the sort of freedom that consists in our capacity or power to do what we wish and choose to do. This is important because positive liberty is unlike negative liberty in that it seems to bear an internal relation to happiness. The various powers that expand our positive liberty - wisdom, wealth, health, self-control and so forth - all seem to be constitutive elements of well-being. Further, the part of life within which this technology extends our liberty - namely, the realm of one's moods - seems on the face of it to be profoundly relevant to human well-being. Though the precise nature and extent of this relevance is of course disputable, I think most philosophical theories of human flourishing would imply that it does have a substantial sort of importance.(1) This obviously is the view of common sense as well. On the face of it, something that helps to free us from the tyranny of our moods thereby contributes to our well-being in a way that is much more pervasive than something that is merely fun. Fun is after all a mere episode, a sort of psychological holiday that transpires while the more serious business of life is on hold, while mood is something that is always with us, and affects the quality of our experience in every aspect and all the time.

Obviously, there is a great deal more to be said about this, but I think it is already obvious that a case can be made for the idea that drugs can make a significant contribution to human flourishing. This contribution has to do with two factors that would seem to be central to any reasonable conception of flourishing: the degree of the individual's freedom and the quality of the individual's feelings. At the same time, a number of obvious objections to this case come readily to mind.

First, it might be objected that the description I have given of the value that drugs is wildly overgeneralized, that it might be sensible enough if applied to drugs like nicotine and caffeine, since it is probably is true enough that these drugs tend to be used to make adjustments in our moods, while the sorts of drugs that we are illegal are not used that way at all. They are used to bring about inebriation or intoxication, and this seems to be very different from mood-adjustment. In response to this, I should perhaps clarify a bit what I have been trying to say. I do not mean to assert that mood adjustment is the only use to which these drugs can be put. Only that it is arguably a way in which they contribute to the human good. This would commit me to saying that they can be used for this end and further that they effectively accomplish it.

Nonetheless, despite this slight refinement in the point I am making, it might be said that it is still absurdly over-broad, since LSD and heroin are not means of mood adjustment at all. I would reply that, as a matter of fact, that is exactly what they are. The states of mind that are variously referred to as inebriation or intoxication are moods as I have defined them. They are of course extreme states of mind, rather remote from the ones we normally experience, and they make it difficult or impossible to carry on many normal activities and mental processes. Nonetheless, there are times when some people prefer them to the states of mind they would otherwise be in. When Arthur Rimbaud said that he took drugs to "systematically derange" his senses, he was saying that he found his normal mental state deficient (on occasion, at least) by virtue of its not being deranged, and that drugs provided the needed adjustment.

This of course suggests a further refinement in the my thesis: that the mood adjustments I spoke of admit of enormous differences of degree. They vary from subtle fine tuning at one end of the scale to blowing one's mind at the other. Drugs offer us the capacity to bring about a very great range of effects, depending on what the drug is and how it is taken.

Another objection to my account of the good of drugs that comes readily to mind is this. It is simply false to say that drugs enhance positive liberty. Addiction, after all, is a way of lacking positive liberty. It is a certain incapacity to do what one chooses or wishes to do. Addicts cannot quit the habit even if they want to: addiction constitutes a loss of will-power. Since will-power enhances (positive) freedom, drugs make us less free. I think this objection probably does represent one of the reasons why drug laws exist. Such laws represent a Rousseauian attempt to force people to be free: to take away some negative liberty (through government coercion) in order to enhance positive liberty, by increasing the extent to which people possess the control over their own lives which only an non-addicted person can have.

Nonetheless, even if everything in this objection is true as it stands, there would still be an important point to my account, which is to indicate that the idea of positive freedom does not weigh in only on the side of drug prohibition. The matter is more complex than that. If drugs tend to take away some of our capacity to control our behavior, they also give us a certain capacity to feel the way we wish we could feel, or at least to come closer to doing so. Further, the statements in this objection are not quite true: they are at any rate considerably overgeneralized. Not all illicit psychoactive drugs are strongly addictive. Further, there probably are addictive drugs that have non-addictive uses, and the degree of addictiveness of any one substance probably depends on how it is taken and on the individual who is taking it.

What is perhaps more important is the fact that the diminishment of freedom that addiction is said to bring with it is typically a foreseen effect of the behavior that triggers it. Even if the behavior of an addict is involuntary, once he or she is addicted, their becoming addicts is not. If it is true that such conduct on my part does destroy my liberty, it is at least arguable that, because it is a loss that I knowing bring upon myself, it the of freedom involved is less great that the one I suffer if someone else wrests a powerful technology out of my hands.

In the final analysis, it may well be that the objection to my account that will carry the greatest weight for many people will be one that, though I have not mentioned it yet, would probably seem obvious to many: namely, the claim that certain states of mind - namely intoxication or inebriation - have no value for human beings at all. To experience such states of mind is to diminish or obliterate certain qualities that are essential to human happiness and dignity, qualities like self-control and mental lucidity. The technology of producing such states of mind therefore makes no significant contribution to human well-being and its coercive suppression involves no significant loss and, in fact, constitutes a pure gain. So the argument might run.

Rather obviously, these claims are open to charges of over-breadth: some psychoactive drugs, both licit and illicit, can be taken in ways that seem to enhance mental functioning and are often used for precisely that reason.(2) This point, however, will have little effect on those who are impressed and upset by the fact that various other drugs are generally only used to induce extreme states of mind. This may be as much due to the subculture of the drug user as much as the physical properties of the drug itself: some of these substances are generally used in the context of a view of life in which intoxication and ecstasy are viewed as things that are valuable and worth pursuing. Of course, to those who wish these drugs to be suppressed, such view are simply wrong: what I have just described as states of ecstasy would better be characterized as episodes of slack-jawed stupidity or dangerous debauchery. In a way, however, this fact lends support to the simple point I wished to make here, which is that the debate about the permissibility of using drugs rest in part on precisely such differences in point of view as this one: it depends to a significant extent upon disagreements about what things are worth pursuing, about the content of the human good.

1. The only fairly clear exception I can think of is Stoicism, which maintains that virtue is the only thing that is needed for flourishing. I would expect my observations here to have little effect on people who hold Stoic opinions on this subject. Such people, however, seem to be extremely rare.

2. To this class belong all the drugs that are often classed as "stimulants," including illicit ones such as cocaine and amphetamines as well as licit ones such as nicotine and caffeine. See Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002), Ch. 4, "Induced Life: Stimulants and Literature."