"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Drug Arguments

One of my students has written for help in improving his arguments against illicit use of drugs and alcohol. With the student’s permission, I’ve edited our exchange for posting here.

Student: Substance-abuse is one manifestation of a much more pervasive “I am above the rules” mindset that penetrates most of the kids in my grade (and probably the school for that matter).

Dr. Rap: I think students often perceive that there is more substance abuse than there is. On the other hand, they see more of it than we teachers do. “Most” may be an overstatement, but there are certainly more than a few, and even a few are too many.

Student: This “I am above the rules” mindset is seen when my peers drive 85 miles per hour on the freeway, let their pants sag after being told not to, read summaries on Sparknotes instead of reading full books, and engage in substance abuse. I’ve thought that people with this mindset think it is “cool” or “anti-authority” to drink, smoke, or do drugs, and this adds some mystique to substance abuse. I think this mindset is stupid; rules and laws exist for the good of the people they apply to.

Dr. Rap: Ideally, yes. I would qualify by saying “rules and laws for the most part . . .” But there is a comical (tragical) irony here too. The peers you speak of do not realize that they are rebelling against one sort of authority in complete obedience to another, the authority of fashion, peer pressure, and sensual pleasure. How often do they rebel against, or even question, those authorities?

Student: Drinking, smoking, and doing drugs are all against the law (at least for people my age), and I am confident that there is good reason in this. I would take no pleasure in thinking that I am “fighting authority” by drinking, smoking, or doing drugs. I do not subscribe to the “I am above the rules” philosophy; I buy pants that actually fit, drive the speed limit on freeways, read books that are assigned, and do not engage in substance-abuse.

Dr. Rap: Good for you! I think this is quite the right attitude, barring rules and
laws that are themselves immoral or vicious in some way, which these are
not. You are fortunate that your emotional maturity allows you to value rules on their merits instead of merely rebelling for the sake of rebellion.

Student: I think that engaging in substance abuse compromises one’s ability to take full advantage of the amazing opportunity and benefits that attending our school provides. Having spent time abroad, I have seen some terrible things. I have seen young children walking around with parasites on their faces. There are no doctors to remove the parasites, and there are no band-aids to cover the wound that would result if the child were to simply rip the parasite off. I have seen slums where the water is so dirty that if I were to drink it, I would possibly have to be hospitalized. I have seen places where hard work doesn’t pay off, where the children know that no matter what they do, they aren’t going to break out of the situation they are in. These people are stuck; there is no hope.

And when I see these things, I think about how much they would cherish an opportunity like [that offered by our school]. They would have all the resources waiting for them; all they would need to do would be to apply themselves. These children I have seen are only a few of millions across the world; even in America there are places with people like this.

I’ve grown to appreciate the opportunities I have, and I’ve resolved that I should always try to take full advantage of them. Kids who spend their weekends getting high or drunk compromise their ability to perform in the classroom, on the stage, and on the field. I find this sickening. These kids have been given something that so many others would love to have, and they mock it by not using it to their full ability.

Dr. Rap: This is a profound statement, perhaps more than you realize. You have been given the precious gift, though a painful one at your age, to see that there is real suffering, real poverty, real debility, both individual and social, in the world, and this gives you appreciation for what you have. Most of your peers, along with many adults in our society, lack this experience. As a result, though of course they have their own forms of suffering, they too often take for granted their health, wealth, freedom, and intellectual abilities and the many natural, social, and intellectual resources available to them.

This is a common human characteristic. As the song says, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” You are therefore doubly fortunate: to have had the experience, and to have learned from it what to value.

But it is not only the threat to one’s opportunities at school that drugs pose. It is the threat to one’s mind, character, and physiology too. Although most groups recognize that human beings bear full moral responsibility from earlier ages (seven, twelve, thirteen, or eighteen, depending on the tradition), I have been told by those who study such things that physiologically the human brain is not completely formed until one is in one’s early twenties.

As is well known, hormones at least, and perhaps also the incomplete formation of the brain, make judgment-making in the teenage years more highly susceptible to the influence of feelings and impulses than in the years of maturity, including the impulse to indulge in abuse of illicit drugs.

It stands to reason that drugs used precisely because they alter the chemistry of the brain, and hence the experiences of the mind, cannot help affecting the remaining years of formation of the brain and the mind. Bathing the brain in such drugs must inevitably have both physiological and psychological effects, altering both brain and thinking for the future in ways the mind itself cannot control. Indulgence then is risking a possible, probably likely, future impairment for the sake of a present pleasure.

But the essential point is that drugs affect the very instrument that is used to judge the effects of the drug, namely the brain/mind complex. If you reduce the capacity of the instrument of judgment with the use of drugs, how can you expect that instrument of judgment to judge properly the physiological, psychological, and moral effects of drug use? This is my greatest fear for young people who get hooked on pot, or worse, on cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, heroin, etc., a fear based on the painful experience of friends, acquaintances, and students.

Recumbency and paranoia are the two effects of pot in particular that the mind cannot see in itself. Pot smokers begin to think that nothing is worth doing, to blame other people, parents, the government, the world, God, for their limitations, frustrations, boredom, and depression, and they become recumbent. The poisonous mental and physical effects of the more obviously addictive drugs, like cocaine, are well known.

Student: One of my friends, playing the devil’s advocate, tried to rebut my arguments. The response to the first argument was that it does not apply to all substance abusers. Some people don’t think they’re “fighting authority” when they drink or get high. They do it for other reasons like blowing off stress or making new friends.

Dr. Rap: Whether they “think” they are doing so or not, they are doing so. Even a murderer may not think he’s doing wrong because he feels so strongly the impulse or justification for his action, but that doesn’t mean his picture of himself is the true one. Have you and your friend never rationalized a behavior, pretending to do it for one reason when the real reason is something else?

Student: The response to the second argument was the same: The argument does not apply to all substance-abusers. He pointed out that substance abuse need not compromise the ability to perform in school and gave me this explanation to prove it: Imagine that Jane Doe is a member of the Class of 2007. Jane worked hard her whole junior year and finished the year with strong test scores and a high GPA. She attended parties on New Year’s Eve, during spring break, and at the end of the school year and got drunk with her friends. However, because of the timing of her substance-abuse, the effects never actually harmed her ability to perform in school, and thus she was successful nevertheless. Is Jane really compromising her ability to perform in the classroom? And is she really a “substance-abuser” if she does it so infrequently?

Dr. Rap: Well, Jane Doe may not be compromising her ability in the classroom in the weeks prior to her abuse. But what about in the weeks following? Is she never to use her brain again after that semester in school so that she can feel free to kill its cells and reduce its capacity and possibly risk addiction, which could ruin her whole life? It is true that some very high achieving people can go a long way and a long time with drugs and alcohol and not seem to impair their lives.

But apart from the danger of unseen effects, or effects unobserved because the observing mind is the thing affected, what is the real value of risking not being among the small number of high achieving addicts? Not to mention the injury to one’s character, which I’ll discuss below.

The question is, what could such people be doing in life, in school, in relationships, if they were NOT also doing drugs or getting drunk? Might it not make the difference between getting along fine and becoming truly excellent at something, or possibly great? How will they ever know that the abuse did NOT impair them in ways they could not possibly have imagined?

Student: My friend then added some additional arguments: 1) Engaging in substance-abuse is a way to make new friends.

My initial rebuttal to this was that such relationships (based purely on substance abuse) were somewhat meaningless and superficial, but my friend was quick to point out that true friendships can grow out of this that are not limited to sharing substance-abuse. A more meaningful relationship that transcends substance abuse can result. This is true about many activities; people who play on the same sports team or take a class together may at first have a relationship limited to the field or the classroom, but the friendship can later transcend that and grow into something greater.

Dr. Rap: It is true that friendships can grow out of any kind of shared experience. But that includes armed robbery, gang warfare, and starving in the desert. That there is the possibility of friendship growing out of an activity does not make the activity good. And by far the majority of such “friendships” are NOT deep or sincere or lasting. The odds are decidedly against it, as I can testify from the experience of many students who have come to me realizing that the friends they made sharing drugs and alcohol could not stand the test of even a little bit of truth or a relatively short period of time.

Nor does your friend include in his calculation the possibility of also making enemies from such activities. Think of all the possibilities for envy, theft, jealousy, cheating, and violence that sharing illicit substances opens up. Does the likelihood of forming good friendships really outweigh that of making enemies from such behavior?

Student: My friend continued: 2) Substance abuse is the only good way to blow off stress. School is very stressful, and at the end of a week of hard work, the already enjoyable feelings of getting high or drunk are further amplified.

My rebuttal to this was to suggest various alternative activities. When I try to blow off stress, I listen to or play music, watch a game on television, or do further research on classroom topics that have interested me. My friend explained that I was probably somehow “a little more intellectual”—since when did watching football become intellectual?!—than most people, and we agreed that maybe popular culture conditions kids to believe that the only way to relieve stress is to get drunk or high.

Dr. Rap: You are quite right. The notions of the popular culture are very handy for use as rationalizations. But does doing drugs really reduce stress? Consider the stress of constantly lying to oneself. Consider the stress of worrying about getting caught, losing one’s reputation, getting kicked out of school, harming one’s brain cells, and making the kinds of friends for whom the only way to blow off steam is drugs.

Besides, what I call the “hydraulic theory of human psychology” is highly suspect. Are we merely steam boilers that get too hot and need an escape valve? The stress of school, which I agree is far too high, needs to be addressed, but not with behaviors promising to reduce stress at the expense of one’s mind, character, and possibly future.

Every human being in the world needs to lose himself, needs to escape. But there is escape from which you return refreshed and deepened and wiser, and escape from which you return guilty, depressed, miserable, ill, and even more stressed out, or from which you never return at all. The good ways mankind has found to escape and return better off include meaningful work, art, play, love, and worship. To any rational mind and intact character, the escape promised by substance abuse is simply not worth the cost—physically, emotionally, intellectually, morally, or spiritually.

Student: My arguments clearly have their weaknesses, but I still feel that there is something fundamentally wrong and immoral about substance abuse, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Dr. Rap: Once again, you are quite right. The immorality lies not only in the breaking of rules and the self-harming involved, though that is a large part of it. One is not allowed to hurt oneself any more than one is allowed to hurt another person. We did not create or invent ourselves, and therefore we do not entirely belong to ourselves. And even if you think we do own ourselves, the harming and destruction of our possessions is not a good sign. Plus, in harming ourselves we inevitably harm those we love, those who have sacrificed in order to make our lives better, not to see us to throw ourselves and our gifts away.

But beyond that, in choosing to make our impulses into our gods, to succumb to the temptation to take rationalizations for reason, we weaken our character for the times when we will perhaps need to face real and painful trials, when strong character and the ability to resist temptation may determine life or death matters, for ourselves and for others. For every choice to indulge in dangerous illegal substances is a choice for self-indulgence and against virtue, which includes patience, courage, honesty, kindness, and justice.

Now I do not say that there will never be a time to enjoy alcohol, which is illegal for you at this time. (Except in the most extreme medical conditions, I can think of no good uses for the other illicit substances). However, wine with dinner among friends, the occasional cold beer watching a game, the shared pleasure of a glass of champagne to celebrate a joyful occasion—these, as adult pleasures, enjoyed in measure, are not immoral. In fact, they are great and precious gifts to man. But they are so because they serve higher purposes than mere sensual pleasure or self-medication or social pretense.

Combined with true conversation, celebration, and worship, alcohol, in right measure at proper times, may enhance our relationship with friends, with the world, and with God. But we restrict the freedom to use it in such ways to those who have attained the age of responsibility for discerning right measures and proper times for alcohol so that we reduce the risk of their succumbing to indulgence in mere sensual gratification for its own sake.

But how can even adults distinguish between the proper and improper use of alcohol? (As you know, there are many who fail to do so.) The answer is that such discernment requires all the virtues I listed above: honesty, courage, patience, justice, kindness, and the maturity to know the difference between them and self-indulgence. (“What is virtue?” is the explicit subject of my Humanities course at school.)

Student: Thinking about this question some more, I realized something that I hadn’t previously noted but that you mentioned; I realized that if I were to start indulging in drugs or alcohol, I’d lose character. I’d lose the ability to put my foot down and do the right thing in the face of temptation. However, I didn’t go on to realize that this could harm me in other ways. There are clearly other situations that are not drug or alcohol related in which one needs to make a tough decision and steer away from temptation. Saying no to drugs and alcohol is probably great practice for such situations. I feel bad realizing that people my age are losing the ability to put their foot down before they’d ever need to in a life-changing situation.

Dr. Rap: That’s a crucial realization. All such issues are not merely practical ones but also moral ones. Every decision we make, however small, however temporary it seems, is both a revelation of our character and an influence on it. This does not mean that we should live in fear of ruining ourselves forever by every little choice we must make. Up to a point, nature, time, and God are forgiving. However, to fall through rationalization into the habit of taking that forgiveness for granted, imagining we are invulnerable, floating above the law, untouchable by consequences—this is a form of pride that inevitably goeth before destruction, moral and spiritual at least, and in this case often physical as well.

But resistance is difficult when we are sorely tempted, and so to prepare our virtue to resist temptation when it comes, we must support it with the best resources of mind (right reasoning) in advance. That’s why it is so important for you and your friend to continue thinking carefully about the subject and why you deserve credit for addressing these questions.

Student: One of my friends argues that the only reason people think that marijuana is bad is because of culture and how the press portrays it. (He even said that the reason it isn’t called “cannabis” and is instead called by the Mexican Spanish word “marijuana” is so that people associate it with Mexicans and other ethnic groups that were seen as inferior in the early to mid 20th century.) He explained that alcohol abuse is probably more harmful than marijuana abuse and that therefore it makes little sense to say that “it’s ok to drink alcohol if you’re over 21, but it’s not ok to smoke weed.” He claims that if one were to smoke marijuana moderately (just as you suggested moderate consumption of alcohol by adults), the negative psychological and physiological effects would be rather limited. As I lack experience, I couldn’t really refute this but am still unsure of whether or not it is true.

Dr. Rap: What a tissue of irrational argument! Yes the culture rejects the use of marijuana. But your friend offers no reason why. What sort of explanation is “culture”? Or is marijuana supposed to be bad because its name is a Mexican word? But saying that people use the Mexican Spanish word for it in order to demean it does not explain why they want to demean it. Or if they became prejudiced against it because it is associated with Mexico, how then does your friend account for the acceptance and popularity of Mexican beers, tequilas, etc.? I think this is a pure fantasy.

Your friend seems to be saying that the prejudice against marijuana is arbitrary because alcohol is worse, but his argument for that position is nothing but that it is “probably more harmful,” offering no evidence, at least in your retelling. His assertion is perhaps correct in the immediately visible effects. But he does not take into consideration the long term effects of marijuana, the insidious quality of it I talked about above, or the association of it with other so-called hard drugs.

Finally, his argument smacks of precisely the paranoia I was talking about before: “The press,” “the culture”—in short “they” don’t want us to have it. What “they” have to gain by forbidding a benign drug and allowing a dangerous one your friend probably has never seriously asked himself.

Student: But I still do think that one should still follow the law, though the law outlawing marijuana might seem inappropriate given that there is no law outlawing alcohol.

Dr. Rap: Of course there ARE laws regarding alcohol consumption by minors.

Student: That it is against the law if anything should lead one to choose to consume neither of the two. I think that what my friend has explained is a legitimate reason to outlaw alcohol rather than an argument to legitimize marijuana use.

Dr. Rap: The U.S. tried outlawing alcohol in the last century. It didn’t work because alcohol is too integral a part of the culture and the history not only of America but of every country from which Americans have come. But we do outlaw the bad behavior that is associated with drunkenness, and those laws too ought to be respected.

Student: A problem that I’ve had in these conversations with friends is that very few people seem to respect the law. When I say “But it’s against the law…,” people generally look at me and respond with something like “Who cares?” As I explained, I think that it’s a real privilege to live in America and enjoy the standard of living that we Americans do, and that the one way we can repay the country is to make an effort to follow the law at all times. However, your response made me realize that most of my peers haven’t had experiences like those I have had and have never really been exposed to what it is like to live in a third-world country; the reason they don’t want to show as much appreciation for living in America is that they haven’t had the opportunity to see something that would make them more appreciative.

Dr. Rap: True.

Student: My friend has tried to moralize his marijuana use. He’s actually done research about marijuana’s history and has decided that it is moral and OK to use marijuana. He gives many more reasons why marijuana is illegal and shouldn’t be. For example, he claims that the tobacco industry would lose much of its market share if marijuana were legal, and the tobacco industry has close ties to the government. I can’t argue with this.

Dr. Rap: Ah! Now comes the most common reason given to defend the forbidden and forbid the allowed: The familiar old Marxist reading of history, society, and culture. This doctrine, and its attendant critique of American life, is based on the notions that man is perfectible by man, that socialism or communism is the method of achieving that goal, and that capitalism, and America its bastion, is the most serious obstruction in the world to that perfection. Once again, as you say, believers in such hokum have very little idea of how rare are the peace, freedom, wealth, and justice that Americans enjoy. Instead they measure American life by a fantastic ideal and hold the nation and its government accountable for our not having achieved it, forgetting that most of the countries of the world, including those that have tried to impose a Marxist system, are far further from that ideal than we.

I am the last one to defend the depravities of the tobacco companies. But two wrongs never have and never will make a right. That tobacco companies may have selfish and greedy reasons for keeping marijuana illegal does not make legalizing it good.

Student: My friend is a very smart kid and I just wish that he would put his mind to researching something different! At the end of the day, though, I believe that he and most other substance abusers choose to abuse for a few simple reasons:

1) They want attention and want to look cool, rough, and tough in the eyes of their peers.

Dr. Rap: Yes.

2) They succumb to peer pressure and in general are too unassertive to hold strong moral values of their own (the moral values of the group dominate individual morality).

Dr. Rap: Yes. But be careful of asking them to hold to “values of their own” or “individual morality.” That is another will-o-the-wisp of moral reasoning. If all morality were merely a matter of individual values or opinions, there would be no possible argument for recommending one standard instead of another, say peer pressure instead of the law. Peer pressure is good if it pressures people to do what is good, and bad if it pressures them to do what is bad. It is not peer pressure itself that is bad.

Good and bad can only be known in relation to absolutes, and those absolutes, though they are universal, cannot be proven. They can only be taken on faith. (This is the subject of the first book we read in Humanities: C.S. Lewis’s important The Abolition of Man).

Your friend would claim that it is unjust for marijuana to be illegal. I might claim that it is just for it to be illegal. But there would be no conversation possible between us if we did not agree that justice itself was good. Justice is an absolute; how we achieve it is infinitely discussible. Moral reasoning cannot prove that justice is good. It can only attempt to reconcile the opinions of people who agree that it is and want to find the best way of achieving it.

Having said all this, however, I want to add that your friend and you have overlooked the single most powerful argument for the use of drugs and alcohol, the one that no “just say no” program ever admits: it’s fun. Kids do it because, for all the reasons you’ve given, and for the reason of sensual pleasure, it is fun. So what argument stands up against the desire to have such fun?

When parents and schools and police and the law and social pressure are not there, one argument remains: Human beings, like it or not, are reasoning beings. They therefore cannot escape the question “is it good?” Nor can they escape the realization that the “fun” is not always the “good.” For all their rationalizations, drug abusers know deep down that what they are doing is wrong.

It comes down to character: Is the person contemplating the abuse of drugs or alcohol capable of sacrificing fun for the good? How ready is he or she to reason well about what IS the good, for the self and for others.

Student: Will we be talking about morality and ethics in our literature class? I’d find this quite enjoyable if we could actually have a classroom discussion about them or if we could write papers or essays about them.

Dr. Rap: You better believe we will. And I hope this exchange has illustrated why it is important to do so. See you in class.