This post is inspired in part by a recent online conversation about Hunter S. Thompson, the author who committed suicide this week.
I made a comment about recreational drugs and firearms having no place in civilized society, and was rebuffed for it, though in a fairly ambiguous way. I wasn't quite sure what the poster's point was, but it got me thinking about parallels between the various vices.
I definitely have a strong bias against recreational drug use. Maybe it was my high school conditioning, or the stereotypical media portrayal of drug addicts. Then again, maybe it stems from the thought that all my high school enemies were the type to indulge in drugs and alcohol. Given my predisposition, it's a little difficult to assess the true dangers assoiated with illicit drugs. Even if I determine that the risks posed by drug use are significant, how do those risks compare with vices that I might approve of?
There are several dimensions to this issue.
Physically, we know that there are many one-time drug users who have gone on to lead normal, productive lives. Smoking marijuana a few times in college seems to be mostly harmless. On the other hand, each use of a hard drug tends to damage brain chemistry in a more permanent way. This may result in addiction, or it may mean that the user needs a higher dose of a drug to get the same high. I will not entertain the suggestion that addiction or the long-term mind-dulling effect of drugs leave one physically or mentally enhanced. People get burned up on drugs, and no one thinks that's a good thing. The question is whether or not the consumption of a person by chemistry is a worthwhile enterprise.
The second dimension is political. As a liberal, I champion individual freedom and responsibility. We should be tolerant of people's desires to abuse themselves, especially when their abuse is truly deliberate, and not due to some disease like clinical depression. However, when responsible vice turns irresponsible, I favor state intervention. If drug use harms other people, the state has a right to intervene. Driving while intoxicated should not be tolerated at all. If anything, our DWI sentences are too lax. On the other hand, mandatory heavy sentences for possession of small amounts of soft drugs are insane. Such sentences destroy lives unnecessarily by taking productive members of society and sending them to crime school (my term for what passes as the penitentiary system in this country).
The intellectual dimension. Having never taken any drug more potent than Advil (excepting anesthesia administered by a physician), I can't speak to the intellectual value of hallucinogens, but I strongly suspect that this is a smoke screen put up by defenders of drug culture. Maybe some of the music I like would not have existed without cocaine or LSD, but I have my doubts. Rather, what I see is the same phenomenon I saw in college: friends recounting stories about getting drunk, and how their ensuing acts (often involving throwing up or pissing in their pants) were so amusing. Presumably, by telling these tales, the abuser hopes to absolve him- or herself from responsibility for his or her actions. If you want to hang out with people who do this to themselves, it probably helps to participate. It's too painful to watch your friends turn into monsters before your eyes without some sort of anesthesia. Bottom line, I don't buy the argument that drug use has an intellectual benefit manifest in the form of invention.
As a transhumanist, I'm favor the use of drugs and gene therapy to make us more than human. I suppose thats why, philosophically, I have a problem with the application of drugs to make us less than human. It's true that we weaken naturally with age. Physicists are said to give their best years before the age of 30. Our bodies might weaken due to a lifetime of undersea exploration. We can be consumed by the engine that creates our own works, but at least we produced works in exchange. To consume ourselves in exchange for the experience of consuming ourselves seems like such a waste.
Pragmatically, there are other dangers asociated with drug use including crime, disease and quality control. However, one can argue that these are not intrinsic to the issue. Legalization and government control of drugs could solve many of these problems.
Then there's the personal dimension. To me, drug abuse is a kind of cowardly escapism. We live at most one life. Drug abusers, less than one.
If drugs were safe and we had social contexts where they could be consumed without hurting other people, I would probably try them myself. The fact is that drugs are not safe, so there are no good contexts in which to enjoy them without hurting people. Hard drugs are in fact so dangerous that a single hit might kill you or render you permanently useless.
It is not lightly that I quote Adam Ant. Subtle innuendo follows.
Pleasure is important to humans, and none of us would want to outlaw all forms of pleasurable activity that might have health risks. We just don't enjoy computer chess that much.
So we need to compare the relative risks of our vices. If I'm sexually-liberated, is it fair to criticise the chemically-liberated? One could say that sex causes unwanted pregnancies, disease, and even addiction. Does sex cause as much harm as drug use? Gambling can be an addiction, too. How about food? That stuff'll kill ya every time!
After a while, everything starts to look toxic. However, we can begin to see a patterns emerging, ways to distinguish pleasure from abuse.
If your vice directly harms other people, it has been taken too far. If you steal from your mother's purse so you can bet on the horses, you have a problem. If you know you have HIV and still feel the need to have unprotected sex with an unwitting partner, you have a problem. If you have any chance of driving while intoxicated, don't do drugs. If your drug is hard enough to make you ignore this rule, don't own a car.
Hard chemical addiction is relatively easy to spot when you're suffering physical withdrawal symptoms. Addiction is harder to spot when you simply need harder and stronger doses of your vice in order to obtain pleasure. If you have to start breaking your own rules to find pleasure, you've gone too far. If you think you may be addicted in this way, you have to change your environment to protect yourself and those around you. Don't expose yourself to the stimuli that will get you into trouble. Take a different route home. Don't surf certain Web sites. Avert your eyes when you walk by that patisserie!
I don't know anyone who wants a world without vice. Our best bet is to use our inventiveness and ingenuity keep the softer vices both safe and fun.
Baseball-Dimestore Moriah: seven card stud, 3's and 9's are wild or 5's and 10's are wild depending on the last up card. If you get a 4 you can buy a down card, or pay double for an up card. Pay extra to have your last hole card dealt face up. Queen of spades redeals.