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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Savulescu and Foddy on the war against drugs

Over on the Practical Ethics site, Julian Savulescu and Bennett Foddy put an argument against the war on drugs, lamenting the process the scarcity of moral arguments against it in the public debate. They call for such arguments in the light of a simple fact about the case against drugs: it is driven primarily by supposed moral imperatives:
Although experts have told us time and time again that things would be better without the drug war, politicians have ignored the expert advice because voters do not want drugs laws to be loosened. And voters feel this way not because they think they know better than the experts, but because they have moral objections to drug use. There is a hidden moral debate driving the war on drugs that we never seem to bring out in the open.
They go on to suggest that the original moral concerns were based on racism and xenophobia - the belief that white people should not indulge in the pleasures of, say, Chinese opium dens. The current moral rationale seems to be that certain drugs, but not others such as alcohol and tobacco, are socially constructed as "addictive".

Savulescu and Bennett do not merely challenge these socially constructed facts, such as by arguing that alcohol is just as much a drug of addiction as opium or that tobacco is no less addicting than marijuana. They go further and challenge the whole notion of addiction (citing a body of publications that they've built up on the subject).
People become “addicted” to gambling, videogames, internet use, exercise, sex, carrots, sugar and water. These substances or activities do not “hijack” the brain — they provide pleasure utilising the same brain pathways as drugs.

Every pleasurable activity is ‘addictive’.

The public discourse on drugs includes liberty, health, and crime, but it so rarely includes the value of pleasure. We do not have to be hedonists to believe that pleasure is one of the important goods in a person’s life. A liberal society should be neutral with regard to which pleasures people may pursue; it should not force people to conform to a particular conception of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pleasures. But more importantly, if every pleasurable behaviour can be addictive, then there can be no reason to believe that the pleasures of drug use are less important than the pleasures of good food and wine, of rock-climbing and football, or of browsing the internet. Each of these things is pleasurable, and hence each is addictive, and each can be harmful if done to excess. But we all have a right to pursue the pleasures we find valuable, even though each of these pleasures puts us at risk of addictions or addiction-like problems: alcoholism, pathological internet use, sex addiction, binge eating disorder, and so on.
I don't think I'd be putting it in quite this way - in particular, I'm suspicious of this kind of rights talk. If they mean that we should have a negative right against the state not to be prevented from doing anything that gives us pleasure, then that is far too broad. If they mean something else with the talk about a right to pleasure ... well, I'm not sure what it is that they mean.

Still, it's refreshing to see someone pointing out this particular elephant in the room - that pleasure actually counts, that the pleasure from an activity is a very good prima facie reason to allow, and even approve of, the activity.


Timothy said...


Russell Blackford said...

Good point. Now provided.

Neil said...

They're wrong in claiming that every pleasure is addictive. They deal with the body of neuroscience that shows that addictive drugs - and pathological gambling - utilize specific pathways that explain the fact that they are compulsive by ignoring it.