Paternalists Just Don't Understand

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November 20, 2007

In debating the morality of prohibiting drug use, one often happens upon the position that drugs should be banned because they're dangerous. For many opponents of prohibition, this is an infuriating argument. As Dr. Thomas Szasz writes, 'The demand for, and expectation of, government protection from . . . the temptation to take [dangerous] drugs is . . . emblematic of our collective belittling of ourselves as children unable to control themselves, and of our collective glorification of the state as our benevolent parent whose duty is to control its childlike subjects.'

But arguments from indignation rarely win debates. Therefore, we should calmly examine the position advanced by the paternalists, in order to see whether it has any merit. We'll hopefully show it is not completely defective, but that it can't lead us to any justification for prohibition.

In its most rudimentary form, the paternalistic argument is quite feeble. If the problem were simply that drugs are bad for people, then there would be no need to prohibit them. For example, we don't need laws against drinking poison or tying our own shoelaces together. Things are only complicated by the fact that people take drugs because they like them, or think that they will. And the argument that dangerous but pleasurable activities should be prohibited would apply just as well to driving, swimming, crossing the street, and countless other things which the paternalists would never consider prohibiting.

But a more thoughtful paternalist could point out that the decision to use drugs requires one to weigh the benefits of use against both the costs and a number of risks. And while the benefits of using drugs are typically vivid and obvious, the costs are often less so, and people are notoriously bad at assessing risks. Accordingly, the paternalist might argue that people who use drugs are making decisions that they wouldn't make if they considered things properly. And since as a society, we have a duty to watch out for each other, and to make sure that the same mistakes aren't endlessly perpetuated, we should stop people from using drugs.

In order to justify prohibition in this way, paternalists would need to show that the people who use drugs are simply unaware that the costs and risks associated with drug use are in fact more significant than the benefits, and that using drugs is therefore a bad idea. If this were the case, the miscalculation could be occurring for two reasons, both of which could result in a justification for prohibition. First, users could just be oblivious to the costs and risks of drug use. Alternatively, people could be improperly comparing these costs and risks with the benefits. We'll deal with each possibility in turn.

First, are drug users really ignorant of the costs and risks which come with their activities? The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce doesn't think so, claiming that 'Research increasingly suggests that clubbers do not take ecstasy . . . because they believe it is safe. On the contrary, they take it knowing that in some circumstances it can be harmful but believing that they can control those circumstances' (68). But even if people did use drugs without understanding the costs and risks, or how to minimize them properly, prohibition still wouldn't be the clear answer. We have driving schools and licensing to help people practice the dangerous activity of driving, and a strong argument could be made that drug use should not be treated any differently.

However, while driving is an activity important enough to justify the risks, prohibitionists might object that in licensing drug users, a great deal of fuss would be going into helping people do something more safely that no one in their right mind would ever choose to do in the first place. This brings up the second reason that drug users might be inadequately considering whether their consumption is worthwhile: that they are incapable of properly comparing the costs and risks to the benefits.

To justify prohibition this way, we would need to show that drugs are objectively not worth using. But this is an extremely difficult stance to justify, because it's rare that we can factually tell someone that they don't want to do something, or that they don't like something, or that we know how they should live, but they don't.

This is especially true in light of the fact that drug users often hail the substances they love as producing extremely valuable and enjoyable experiences, which often have no substitutes. Aldous Huxley, author of the classic book Brave New World, argued that drug use can facilitate the development of one's ability to think critically and to enjoy life as it ought to be enjoyed, in ways that traditional learning can not. Similarly, Richard Glen Biore wrote that drugs offer '. . . powerful modalities for thinking, perceiving, and experiencing,' and that the experiential nature of the benefits of drug use leaves the advocate of legalization with '. . . the impossible task of saying the unsayable, [and] of describing the indescribable . . . .'

If there is any truth to these claims, it would seem difficult to argue that choosing to incur the costs and risks of drug use is objectively irrational. The value of drug-induced experiences would still have to be weighed against these costs and risks, of course, but it seems like reasonable people could disagree about whether or not drug use would be worthwhile for them.

Accordingly, it would be unfair to say that drug prohibition would protect people from choosing the wrong thing, because in some cases, it would actually impose poor choices on them. People valuing the enlightening experiences that drugs can afford might be made much worse off by a policy which took those experiences away and imposed on them a bland safety.

So while the paternalists make a good point when they say that we have a responsibility to ensure that people are well informed about their decisions, this does not justify prohibition. If anything, we would likely be better protected from bad choices without it.

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Danny Shahar's picture
Columns on STR: 9

Danny Shahar is an intern at the Foundation for Economic Education.  He has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and plans to begin work on a PhD in philosophy in the Fall of 2009.  Danny's research generally falls within the fields of ethical, political, and economic philosophy.  He writes a blog called Back to the Drawing Board.