Individual Rights versus a Communitarian Ethic
There are many arguments that have been raised for and against legalizing marijuana as I addressed in my last blog. In this blog, I focus on the morality of marijuana use, rather than the law.
Most of the arguments against marijuana are centered on the use of the drug for escapism and pleasure. Is it morally right or wrong to be high? Providing a solution to this dilemma is not as easy as pointing out the wrongness of crimes such as murder or rape. Therefore, the marijuana debate cannot be held on similar platforms as these crimes and needs a philosophical analysis to identify the moral rightness, wrongness or neutrality of the practice.
With that in mind, consider one reason for thinking that it's not a good idea to habitually smoke marijuana, related to Aristotle's views about human nature, ethics, and proper function. He argues that our proper function as human beings involves the use of reason. If we want to flourish as human beings, we must use reason to help us decide how we ought to live so that we cultivate virtue.
For Aristotle, there is a form of reason that is practical, which we ought to use to make choices that foster our individual well-being and contribute to the common good. This leads to true happiness, which he takes to be "activity of soul in accordance with virtue." If any activity undermines or degrades our rational capacities, then we have a moral reason to avoid that activity. [This also may be a good reason to avoid nicotine, addictive drugs (i.e., opioids) and alcohol, but that is an argument for another time.]
This doesn't show that one should never smoke pot, nor does it entail anything about the legalization of marijuana. But it does show that there is a moral reason to avoid smoking pot that gets lost in the debates about marijuana use. If marijuana use does undermine our rational capacities, then for Aristotle it would also undercut our ability to instantiate moral virtues, such as honesty, trustworthiness and responsibility, which depend on the proper use of those capacities. At some level of use, Aristotle would advise us to not smoke marijuana, for the sake of our character and happiness.
Related to virtue ethics is the notion of what’s good for the community. In his discussion of Communitarianism, Johnson refers to it as a theoretical perspective that seeks to lessen the focus on individual rights and increase the focus on communal responsibilities. In this approach, ethical thought is grounded in communal value, established social standards and traditions, and considerations of the larger society.
A communitarian ethic downplays the values of individuality, autonomy, and personal rights, so prevalent in ethical theories such as Kantian rights, in favor of a focus on the virtues and actions that support the interests of society as a whole. Strengths of the communitarian perspective include the emphasis on strong convictions between people, encouragement of collaboration, diminished emphasis on self-serving individualism, and sacrifice for the greater good as a measure of character. On the negative side, many would question how realistic it is to achieve a common set of global, or even local, values. We might also be concerned with the potential for erosion of individual rights and no systematic method for resolving ethical conflicts.
From a communitarian perspective, it could be said that one has a duty to conform to community values, regardless of one’s rights. For example, each individual has a right to smoke pot, but what if it harms the overall community? Perhaps it could lead to violence or addiction that creates costs to the community to “clean up” after the individual’s harmful actions.
In an article in The Atlantic, Ben Casnocha points out that Kant’s Categorical Imperative includes the moral maxim of universality: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” In other words, if your action were to be the action everyone was taking, would you still do it? Kantian ethics is an aspirational approach to individual choice, autonomy, and what are one’s individual rights and duties to others.
However, a more realistic approach would be to weigh the probability of universal adoption of the action. Marijuana use, in moderation, doesn’t violate Kant’s moral maxim: a world where everyone smokes once in a while wouldn’t be much different that the world we live in. However, if it could be shown that excessive use does lead to addiction and other forms of self-destructive behavior, then society as a whole could be negatively affected by legalizing pot. Kant would object to the push for legalization of marijuana arguing that just like other drugs, marijuana violates an individual’s duty to respect their rational nature.
The notion of duties to oneself is grounded on Kant's categorical imperative: “One should act so as to treat humanity, whether in their own being or in the being of another, as an absolute end, and not as a means to achieve that end.” If regulated, proponents of the legalization may argue that marijuana use does not violate other people's freedom.
However, Kant is clear about the autonomy of the user. Regulating the drug can be hardly achieved. Marijuana is usually abused leading to addiction, cognitive damage or even short-term memory loss. In this case, marijuana infringes on the user's freedom. When a user becomes addicted, his or her deeds will be determined by whether or not they have taken the drug. The decisions that such a person makes are not devoid of the consequences of his or her state. Therefore, a marijuana addict cannot act or reason in autonomy.
The use of marijuana in dealing with emotional issues whether through medical prescription or for recreation contradicts Kant’s formula on morality. It states that one’s dignity ought not to be compromised even in the face of overall utility. Through the subtext of the categorical imperative, Kant continues to state that if a person destroys his body in an effort to escape from a difficult life situation, the person is merely using his "person" as a means. The emotional escapism that is offered by marijuana and the severe side effects that a user is exposed to prove this. A person using marijuana utterly destroys his life in a desperate move to achieve (perceived) peace of mind instead of taking advantage of the challenge to acquire adaptive energy.
Kant's position may seem extreme in today’s world. We need more data to definitively determine whether occasional use, consistent use, or excessive use is harmful to oneself and society
When you’re thinking about the ethics of marijuana use, you have to think about not only the obligation someone has to themselves, but the obligations they have to other people. Overuse can lead to abuse and addiction, which can hurt a person’s relationships, their work and their health. It could also impinge on their ability to realize their goals or develop themselves fully.
Still, if someone’s not prone to addiction or can use it without causing any great impact on their life, it seems like an allowable indulgence. Used in moderation, there doesn’t seem to be anything inherently wrong with it, but what counts as moderation is, in part, the catch. It depends so much on the person and whether they’re prone to be addictive to this sort of thing. One of the problems is that you can’t really know in advance. There’s no way to know for sure if anyone will become addicted to marijuana. That risk is a place where the waters get muddy.
Blog posted on May 18, 2017 by Steve Mintz, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Steve blogs under the pseudonym, Ethics Sage.
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