In drugs, pragmatism is the only moral approach
The battle about how we control recreational drugs is supposedly fought between visionary idealists and value-free pragmatists. One side claims to have right on their side, the other has cold facts. But the closer you look, the more it becomes clear that the pragmatists should never have allowed themselves to be painted as knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
When morality is applied to drugs, it is usually in condemnation. Drug use is wrong in all circumstances because it offends certain codes of behaviour, or perhaps because it is against the law.
Leave aside the question of where such rules are conjured from and what we do about values that change over time and space. The real trouble with this is its utter inability to deal with grey areas. Using ecstasy for a night out seems clearly different from injecting insulin for diabetes, but it is not so obvious that taking heroin to deal with memories of childhood abuse is unlike using prescribed anti-depressants for the same problem. An absolutist system that tells us to abhor all recreational use of mind-altering substances is no help here.
The fall-back defence is that drug use is immoral because the apparent benefits it brings are somehow inauthentic. The drug user may feel happy, but their pleasure is insubstantial and transitory in a way that other experiences are not. It also distorts reality so that sensible behaviour is edged out.
No doubt this is often true. But it is tilting at a straw man. Many other recreational activities similarly provide a short-term buzz and there is no logical reason why someone cannot take drugs and also pursue other activities that provide lasting happiness. Few would suggest that someone who has the occasional alcoholic drink cannot achieve fulfilment in life, or that it is immoral to get passing excitement from a roller coaster or scary film.
Abstract rules fail because they can never achieve moral consistency. Instead, we need to look at the practical impact of drug use on users and the people around them.
Some drug use certainly has a destructive effect on society, particularly for the families of people with drug problems. Drug use could also be seen as self-focused, diminishing citizens’ ability both to devote time and energy to caring for others and to being fully productive. Even if we could live with the short-term costs of drug use, it may be that in the long term the drawbacks are unaffordable.
But for each of these costs there is a parallel with other activities that we accept. Plenty of activities impinge on other people without directly benefitting them, like driving fuel-inefficient cars or playing high-risk sports. Other unproductive and self-indulgent activities, like playing video games, are seen as basically fine. Clearly what matters is the extent of the harms caused, compared with any benefits gained.
The damage that drugs can cause to some users is also clear. But set against this, there should be no doubt that drug use does bring benefits to many people. Why else would two million people a year use cannabis? Most users are not addicted yet the drugs market remains strong: there is clearly an attraction to rational people, as anyone who enjoys a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine knows.
The question is how to respond to this desire in a way that increases the sum of everyone’s happiness and keeps to a minimum the collateral harms.
The starting point is agnosticism, and the aspiration is the best results possible. By being guided by evidence, not ideology, and continually striving to improve our responses, the pragmatic approach allows us to be flexible and recognise that drug use cannot be seen in isolation from its context or its impacts.
Although prosaic, the pragmatic calculations that form evidence-based drug policies are in fact the ones infused with morality: about protecting life, and improving physical, mental and social wellbeing. Compared with those bound by iron rules, these are the calculations that allow us to save the most lives and disrupt the fewest others.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Roger Howard is chief executive of the UK Drug Policy Commission and Leo Barasi is Communications Manager at the UK Drug Policy Commission. Roger Howard is speaking at the Battle of Ideas session Your mind, your high: is recreational drug use morally wrong? in association with UKDPC, which takes place on Saturday 29 October.Tagged in: drugs, opinion
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