Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Peter's World

Peter gets tough
The tide is turning on the War On Drugs. Slowly but surely, more politicians and law enforcers are willing to admit that the war isn't working, that it is counterproductive, that the unregulated black market is making criminals hugely wealthy, pointlessly criminalising millions when drug use should be treated as a social and health problem, not a crime. For authoritarian conservatives such as Peter Hitchens, such arguments don't wash. If the war isn't working, it needs to be fought harder. For Hitchens drug use is immoral, and the law must enforce morality. This argument deserves to be taken seriously; the law does indeed have a moral backbone. We penalise murderers because murder is morally wrong, not because it is unhealthy.

Hitchens believes drug use is immoral because it allows one to experience an ecstacy and euphoria that has not been merited by effort or virtue. But this simplistic notion of morality quickly leads to absurdity. If the only legitimate pleasures were those merited by effort or virtue, what would such a world look like? Welcome to Peter's World – a world that Peter would clearly not want to live in. In this world of pure meritocracy, the first thing to go would be inherited wealth, and a state machine would redistribute wealth evenly to ensure all pleasures are earned by honest toil. Masturbation would be immoral, as there is nothing virtuous in the pleasures of the palm (though some effort is required -but no more than the effort to roll a joint). How would Hitchens qualify his argument to exclude such absurdities? Perhaps he would argue that it's ok to enjoy inherited wealth because wealthy people are job creators. But as many are not, the law would have to distinguish between those who create jobs and those who simply sit on their wealth, moving their money around to maximise its value. Perhaps masturbation would be allowed because it is natural. Alarm bells should ring whenever anyone plays the 'nature' card. Looking back over human history, war appears to be a natural state for humans to engage in, and every civilisation has found a way to alter their consciousness with substances and celebrate in a non-virtuous and ethically neutral way – (it's called fun, Peter, look it up). Human beings are part of nature, and regardless, whether something is natural or not tells us nothing about whether it is ethical. Hitchens often resorts to special pleading. In an interview a journalist pointed out that the coffee he was drinking was a drug. “But it's coffee!!” Hitchens shrieked; that appeal to common sense so often the haven of those who want to escape the hole their arguments have dug for them.

Hitchens set up a moral system based on meritocratic precepts of effort and virtue, and when this narrow ethical system has unintended consequences, he is forced to bolt on ad hoc justifications. Hitchens would not want state interference in inherited wealth (though as a strict moralist its possible he would be happy to police the bedroom, not the boardroom).

The second part of his argument is that the law must enforce morality. This is manifestly false. There are numerous things we regard as immoral that we would be loathed to criminalise, infidelity being the obvious example. One is free to be a bounder and a cad without legal ramifications, but using drugs, without harming anyone else will land you in trouble. Why is this? The fact is that our ethically based legal systems must allow room for individual liberty; people differ on where and how they play the liberty card, but they all play it. For conservatives this liberty keeps the state's hands off their inherited wealth; for liberals it keeps the state's hands off their drugs, for libertarians, it keeps the state's hands off their guns. Hitchens values individual liberty when it comes to his personal wealth, but discounts it when it comes to the drugs debate.

Hitchen's argument for the criminalisation of drug use is based on an absurdly one-dimensional view of both morality and legality. In reality, for something to be made illegal there needs to be not just widespread agreement that it is morally wrong, but also widespread agreement that such criminalisation is socially useful and practically enforceable. That is why adultery is wrong but legal. People broadly agree on the ethics but recognise that criminalising it would be ridiculous; people need freedom to lead personal lives outside of government interference. So Hitchens cannot hide in his thin moral world; he must engage in the arguments over whether the criminalisation of drug use is socially useful and practical, because the law is based not only on morality but on issues of social harmony and the practicalities of enforcement, and in the context of the war on drugs, those are the areas most in dispute. If he wants to engage in such arguments, he would do well to start here. But I doubt he will.


1 comment:

Tom Gooding said...

Wankings way more work - especially when ur drunk