Universitas, Number 9, September 2001
Essentially, the abuse of drugs is not a sickness or physical thing but something as familiar as sin. This is not a matter of being censorious or moralistic. We are all sinners. "There but for the grace of God go I". It is salutary to believe genuinely that I have to be in my own judgement the greatest sinner of all. I am not in a position to judge others' state of mind. But that does not mean to say we must close our minds to sinful actions that ruin our own and other people's lives. In most cases drug abuse arises from a weakness in the constitution of the spirit, or in the will, not in a weakness in our bodily constitution.
It does involve our psychic (animal) appetites and redound upon our bodily dispositions. That is because we are not pure spirits but express ourselves in and through sense appetites and affections. It can develop to the stage of being completely compulsive, which means that the will has lost control of its own actions. But that is consequential. At that stage it becomes a psycho-physical illness. But to treat it from the start as something for which we are not responsible is not only insulting and patronising to the person involved, but also a recipe for getting the whole treatment wrong. For in regard to such matters of a failure of will- power the first and most important part of the "treatment" is to get the "patients" to admit their fault. That is to get them to see what is wrong; but more importantly, especially where young people are concerned, to see what is right. That is only the other side of them knowing that they can do something about it, and that ultimately only they can effect the "cure", whilst, that is, they still have some control over their own actions.
It is useless to collect statistics of how extensive the problem is, of how it develops in individuals and so on, if we do not first admit what it is. We would do well in this regard to take note of G.K. Chesterton's insights into our handling of social problems. He calls it the "medical mistake" in regard to personal and social problems. "The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case. We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health. On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health." (from "What is Wrong with the World")
It is the general failure of society to agree and insist upon what is the right thing to do about "mind-altering" drugs that is at the root of the problem. "We forget", Chesterton said almost 100 years ago, "that, while we agree about the abuses of things, we should differ very much about the uses of them." There are, unfortunately, those who would argue that one should have the right to stupefy oneself for the sake of temporary hilarity or oblivion. We must beg to differ. That is not a (moral) use of the substance. Why? It is painful to think that the reason needs to be articulated. Because "mind-altering" means "will-numbing", the removal of one's capacity to control one's actions, and therefore to be responsible for them. It is, by definition, irresponsible.
The primary battle, then, in the drug debate, is about this basic ethical issue. There is strong pressure, however, by people in "high" places, for us all to bypass this aspect of the problem. Why? Because, they blithely argue, society has moved on in regard to this kind of assessment of the drug question. We are now much more liberal-minded about these matters. So far as they are concerned, we need to get on with addressing the real (medical) issues. That is to say, those who, in the ethical argument, take the position that it is all right to forgo your capacity to control your desires and actions (only temporarily after all), want the rest of us to agree with them. In logical terms, they would like us to be more tolerant and beg the question with them. As people in society become more affected by the use of mind-altering drugs it becomes easier to fool others, and ourselves, in this way. Unfortunately, like the sophists of old, they appear to be getting the better of the debate. They are certainly getting the hog's share of media exposure.
So we are committed to collecting more and more data about the abuse of drugs, to endless research into "new" ways of dealing with the "victims" of this social "disease". We are prepared to say to young people that it is bad to get themselves into this predicament; but we are not prepared to say it is (morally) wrong. Meanwhile the problem compounds, as it must when we go wrong in principle. It cannot help but become an intractable social problem.
We search round for ways to address the matter. The latest, it seem, is to enlist the aid of parents and families, to get them to talk to their children. As if they were not doing all they could already! One does not have to convince those closest to the "victims" to try every avenue possible to rescue their loved ones, who have, in many cases, been deceived into thinking that it is all right to try out such drugs, to experiment with losing one's self control and moral dignity. After all, how can experiencing something new be harmful? One seems to come through it in good health, at least initially. There is the medical mistake again.
Socially speaking, it is not the parents or the children that are the cause of the problem as it now exists. Unfortunately, they have listened too much to the "experts", who are now referring the problem back to them. A huge amount of the responsibility for the deplorable state of our youth in this regard lies with the "intellectuals", in academia and the media, who are able to argue so plausibly for the "new liberal morality". The medical profession is, of course, happy to look at the problem from a purely medical point of view. It only remained to persuade the politicians and their most influential advisers (including even some of the new professional "ethicists") that that is basically how it should be regarded. We should not be too rigid in our morals. With such a powerful array of expert intelligence why is it that the problem only gets worse? Must be something we have missed. Was it that old pagan Aristotle who is supposed to have written something on Ethics who said "A small error in principle, means a big one [a mess in fact] in the end"?
The problem with the "drug culture", therefore, has more to do with the parlous state of our culture generally than with drugs. Unless we begin again to look at it in the simple terms of moral principle it can only get more complicated until it absorbs all our attention and resources, not to speak of the loss of life, liberty and happiness of those in our care. The advocates of the new social medicine want us to believe that the "old" morality is no longer suitable to modern conditions. But it has not been found wanting. It has been found difficult and hence shirked. It is in fact the primary way out of our present difficulties.
John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.
This article posted September 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 9 (2001).
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