The text below is from a paper I wrote for a Philosphy class, Contemporary Moral Issues. We were asked to consider that given the moral impermissibility of hitting a random stranger over the head on the street, and thereby rendering him "clumsy and befuddled", would it not be as morally impermissible to render oneself "clumsy and befuddled" by using narcotic drugs?

I must note two things, for the record:

  1. I don't use illegal drugs.

  2. I love the phrase, "clumsy and befuddled." (Hmmm . . . sounds like an awesome name for a drink! Maybe it should be abbreviated, though . . . "I'll have a CnB, please. Yes, on the rocks.")


In an essay titled, “The Ethics of Addiction,” Thomas Szasz argues that drug addiction is not a medical problem, but rather a matter in the domain of ethical theory alone. To make this case, Szasz critically analyzes the following World Health Organization (W.H.O.) definition of drug addiction, which portrays it as a medical disease:

Drug addiction is a state of periodic or chronic intoxication detrimental to the individual and society, produced by the repeated consumption of a drug (natural or synthetic). Its characteristics include: (1) an overpowering desire to need (compulsion) to continue taking the drug and to obtain it by any means, (2) a tendency to increase the dosage, and (3) a psychic (psychological) and sometimes physical dependence on the effects of the drug (qtd. in Szasz, 386).

Szasz’s asserts that because the W.H.O. definition’s focus is on drug use which is considered “detrimental to . . . society,” the matter of drug addiction is one for ethicists, not physicians. He points out further that any definition of drug addiction must necessarily designate the “proper” and “improper” uses of addictive drugs, distinguishing the medical use of narcotics from recreational ‘abuse’. This distinction involves the consideration and application of moral principles, further supporting Szasz’s claim that drug addiction is an ethical matter.

The ethical issues involved in drug use and addiction fall into two main categories: the effects of drugs on oneself, and the effects of an individual’s drug use for the rest of society. It would, obviously, be morally impermissible for someone to inflict an intoxicated, “clumsy and befuddled” state upon another person without that person’s consent, but nobody has seriously proposed mandating intoxication. So, in attempting to address whether it would also, therefore, be morally impermissible to affect one’s own self this way, a few clarifications must be made to ensure an accurate comparison.

First, consider that it may not be so morally impermissible for someone to inflict an intoxicated, clumsy and befuddled state upon another person with that person’s permission. It is the very key to a bartender’s job success, for example, to render his customers clumsy and befuddled -- and to those customers’ great delight, I might add. It is more correct to compare self-administered intoxication to a situation in which a bartender bestows an intoxicated state upon a willing subject.

Let’s consider bartenders, then. Bartenders have certain moral responsibilities to their customers and also to society in general. A bartender has an ethical obligation to ensure that a person is not served an amount of alcohol which will make that person physically ill, because in the state of impaired judgment which attends intoxication, a consumer of alcohol may be unaware of his own limits. Bartenders must also prevent customers who have consumed too much alcohol from endangering themselves or others by driving motor vehicles, and refuse or discontinue service to customers who are visibly angry, violent, or otherwise disruptive to the public peace. In these last few ways, bartenders actually have ethical responsibilities to society at large, not just to their customers. Even those members of society who never set foot in a bar have certain ethical expectations of bartenders: that they aid in the prevention of drunken driving; that they discourage violent behavior by their customers; and that they only administer alcohol to adult persons, (under the sometimes false assumption that adults over 21 years of age are mature enough to make responsible decisions about intoxication); that they use their own good judgment to set consumption limits for their customers (and therefore prevent the unsightly aspects of public intoxication, like vomiting, belligerence, etc.), when those customers have impaired their own judgment through alcohol use.

The ethical responsibilities that bartenders have to their customers and to society are analogous to the ethical responsibilities that a drug (or alcohol) user has to himself and society. Whereas a bartender must protect society from potentially infringing behavior from his customers, drug and alcohol users have a responsibility to anticipate and prevent the negative effects that their drug use could have on others. For example, a person who chooses to get drunk on alcohol has an ethical responsibility to society to ensure that his drunk behavior does not violate the boundaries of other people, through excessive noise, violence, drunk driving, and so on.

The comparison becomes a bit more complicated when we compare the bartender’s ethical responsibilities to his customer with the individual’s responsibilities to himself in drug/alcohol consumption. For one thing, the bartender’s role is very temporary; bartenders have no responsibility for the long-term health effects of alcohol consumption. But an individual does have a responsibility to care for and maintain his own physical health in the long-term. Many drugs (including alcohol) have disastrous consequences for the physical health of the individual, and these effects can be burdensome for the healthcare system, especially if healthcare is subsidized by society. But health problems are not necessarily the outcome of all recreational drug use, and it seems that it would be possible for someone to use addictive drugs in such a way that they would not endanger his physical health. Assuming that a person used recreational drugs with careful regard to his health, and without infringing on the rights of other members of society, I contend that it is ethically permissible for a person to use intoxicating drugs (and alcohol) recreationally and routinely.

However, when the recreational, routine use of intoxicating drugs becomes impossible for the individual to control -— that is, when the recreational drug user morphs into a true addict -- new moral problems arise. In the situation of a true drug addict, the individual sees no choice but to keep using drugs. For this reason, the analogy of the bartender is no longer appropriate, because no longer is the subject becoming clumsy and befuddled by choice. In the case of a drug addict, an intoxicated state is being forced upon an unwilling subject; the addict is inflicting intoxication upon himself unwillingly. It is only at the final stage of true physical addiction that recreational drug use becomes a medical problem.

While a drug addict does exhibit a sort of medical problem, this problem is a moral failure to care for himself by choosing to use addictive drugs in the first place. The drug addict cannot reasonably be said to have breeched any ethical expectations of society merely for becoming addicted. The legitimate ethical complaints that society would have about a drug addict would center on behaviors that society associates with drug addiction and drug use. But the drug use per se violates only the moral responsibility the addict has to himself, not the responsibilities he has to society.

This last distinction is crucial to make because when it comes to making public policy, there really is no case for prohibiting recreational drug use. Avoiding addiction is the moral responsibility of the individual, not the society. As I have stated, it is quite possible for a responsible person to use recreational drugs in such a way that he does not become addicted. Moreover, even if it were not possible for anyone to avoid addiction while using intoxicating drugs, the decision to use drugs or not is one that Szasz correctly identifies as part of an individual’s right to the free pursuit of happiness. Society has no business or interest in such a personal decision as this.

In conclusion, we do have obligations to ourselves, and if we are prone to addiction, we have a moral obligation to avoid recreational drug use. But we also have a moral obligation to leave our fellow members of society to their own explorative paths -- to their own pursuit of happiness. Intoxicating drugs are, arguably, one tool to pursuing happiness, and it is only in drug addiction —- not drug use —- that we fail ourselves morally. And in no case does drug use in itself cause harm to society; it is only the behavior of some drug users that is morally objectionable. It is those objectionable behaviors which should be morally and legally prohibited, not their ostensible precursor, drug use. Most importantly, I contend that there is nothing morally wrong with being temporarily (or even permanently) clumsy and befuddled, in itself. The right to be clumsy and befuddled is the very birthright of every American, in fact.


Work Cited:

Szasz, Thomas. "The Ethics of Addiction." Contemporary Moral Problems. Seventh Edition. Ed. James E. White. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co. ~pp.385-390

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