Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Liberty of John Stuart Mill and its relevance to Recreational Drug Use

This short essay will briefly outline some of the ideas of John Stuart Mill pertaining to individual freedom and liberty, as well his general approach to truth/knowledge. Following this, these ideas will be considered in relation to some of the present issues surrounding recreational drug use. Taking Mill’s general approach, it will be assumed that a complete, holistic truth on matters pertaining to individual freedom, communal wellbeing, and so forth, is not attainable; but rather, that only the ongoing refinement of such issues can serve as an adequate and prudent approach. Concrete truths, claimed to be whole, are detrimental to the ongoing function of knowledge; or, in Mill’s words:

Popular opinions, in subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth. They are part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjointed from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited.

And furthermore:

…the new fragment of truth is more wanted, more adapted to the needs of the time, than that which it displaces…

Marx’s notion of ideological rule will also be briefly considered, as its relation to popular conceptions and majority opinion is relevant to the concluding discussion on drug use.
But first, an outline of the relevant aspects of Mill’s thought.

Mill was largely concerned with individual freedom and the threat of its being encroached by the state or—more emphatically—the majority, the latter being, in essence, dominant popular opinions. Contra Rousseau’s notion of the general will (in which “the vote of the majority binds the minority” , and which is “always rightful and always tends to the public good”, disregarding “private interests” ), Mill repeatedly stresses that the general will must be kept in check. If it is not, there is danger of society itself becoming tyrannical, of the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”. Essentially, Mill’s concern lies in the notion that majority opinions can pull in and intimidate minorities, hindering minority opinions which are essential to the refinement of truth, and to the expression of free thought in general. The force of majority opinion can be observed all over the world, where all kinds of minority groups—from sub-cultures to political parties—are seen to hold ideas considered “perverse”, but which are often of far more value than is popularly considered. Without said consideration, many opposing opinions are thoughtlessly written off and disregarded, which not only damages the victorious opinion through exposing its inability to defend itself against an opposing view, but augments that popular opinion in such a way that it is in danger of growing into a ruling dogma.

Here we can make a slight comparison with some of Marx’s ideas.

Marx put forth the proposition that people are subjected to the ideas of the ruling classes because they do not have the means to express powerful counter-ideologies. The ruling ideology represents “the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas” ; that is, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” Similarly, Mill recognises that “wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority.”

Both Mill and Marx recognise the ideological domination of the upper classes, though perhaps to different extents. The popular conceptions of drug use in the modern age are no exception to the rule of majority opinion. Generally, it seems that the lower classes are seen to be more associated with substance abuse than the middle to upper classes; furthermore, this is generally interpreted as a decadent trait, frowned upon by those who believe they know better, but who, of course, are often addicted to legal drugs like coffee, alcohol and cigarettes, but do not consider themselves so. As will be discussed later, this is largely due to a lack of information available on the specifics of drug culture.

But to continue: Mill stresses that one must be responsible for any actions that are seen to affect society, but concerning oneself “independence is, of right, absolute…” Essentially, one is sovereign over one’s own body and mind. Mill later qualifies this statement, noting that others may be affected through one’s individual actions. This slight ambiguity proves difficult in the case of recreational drug use, as the point where personal use can be seen to affect others has not been clearly defined and such a definition is no easy task; nonetheless, it is not a task which should be neglected or overlooked, especially considering the prevalence of many drugs in the modern world. It seems that consciousness-altering substances—which have been in use for time immemorial—and the human propensity to alter consciousness, which is arguably as natural as eating or sleeping , are not something that can be easily stricken from the list of basic human liberties.

It is important that Mill sees knowledge as relative and as such rejects universal ideals and divinely inspired morality, or dogma. Humans are “progressive beings”, whereby external forces are only necessary when there is a concern for others. As a utilitarian, he is largely concerned with pleasures and pains, arguing that these, as well as the means by which they are required, eventually become peoples’ primary ends. Such pleasures are found in societies that exercise a comprehensive form of liberty, whereby there is “absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological.” Furthermore, in such a society there is no silencing of opinion whatever; such silencing is “robbing the human race”, including the silencers themselves in that a portion of the truth may be lost in the very act of suppressing opinion. In sum: “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”
Mill also declares ages “no more fallible than individuals” and considers truth to be perpetually affected by persecution. The modern age, it appears, is no exception. Rarely today do arguments consider extreme cases, as Mill would have had it ; but rather, many laws and general societal issues presently seem directed towards a lowest common denominator. This, of course, has some prudential merit, but has been excessively and blindly applied to many areas of law. Societal opinion reflects this attitude and has grown customary and uncritical in many matters, including recreational drug use; it is rarely considered that, as Mill states, “He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice.” Rather, it seems that custom is not only vigorously defended and aimed for, but has even become an accepted part of developmental education: rarely is questioning custom in order to refine one’s opinions and progress as a human being—as part of a progressive society—an accepted aspect of healthy learning.

According to Mill’s paradigm, it must be assumed that a safe form of personal drug use should be allowed. This, of course, must take into consideration any form of drug use which affects others, and there is certainly a complexity to this issue which calls for much consideration; nonetheless, one should be free to experiment under the right circumstances. Unfortunately, not only have “the right circumstances” been stricken from consideration in many cases—that is, through legislation—but the illegality of many drugs has stripped individuals of their freedom to experiment with their own bodies and minds, or deemed them criminals for doing so. Obviously, an argument advocating the free use of mind-altering substances is laden with complexities well beyond the scope of this essay, but in short: every drug should be treated in its own right, with consideration for the various relevant properties pertaining not only to the drug itself, but to the user. Like alcohol and cigarettes, which are both legal killers, many illegal substances should be treated objectively and with the relevant scientific, medicinal and spiritual research firmly in mind.

It is important not to bypass Mill’s statement that actions should not be as free as opinions regarding other people; but it is also important, in this topic, to stress that he advocated practical diversity and the application of “different modes of life”. It is evident in modern Australian society that recreational drug culture is not accepted as a way of life, but rather is frowned upon by the majority as unquestionably perverse, dangerous and to be treated as an illness to be cured—and, of course, criminal. But consider Mill’s account of human genius, whereby the genius is considered “more individual than any other people” and is of utmost importance in the progress of society. Many people admire genius in their day-to-day lives, particularly artistic genius; and it goes without saying just how many artists have been inspired by drug experiences (the 1960s counterculture movement epitomises this). Many people, it seems, have been drawn in to the majority view that the generic category “drugs” is and always will be detrimental, despite being ignorant admirers of drug-infused creativity. The actions arising from such drug use has produced creations that will likely be forever admired.

The stigma surrounding drug use seems to derive from one of Mill’s primary concerns: a lack of fierce discussion and debate. As such, the general public’s attitude toward drug use has taken the form of dogma. Of course, like many other issues such as alcohol and tobacco ingestion, there are elements of potential harm to drug use. However, the very fact that “drug use” is frowned upon is evidence that the issue has not been comprehensively discussed; that is, the epithet “drug” has been blindly applied, rather than each substance being separately addressed and perhaps most importantly, conveyed to the public in such a way.

Considering the fact that many people harm themselves and others with legal drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes (the latter being, essentially, the sanctioned poisoning of populations of people, seeing as it is commonly understood that poisonous chemicals are in the product), it is completely inconsistent that other drugs are so ruthlessly outlawed due to the same fears. Furthermore, the prevention of information and scientific research heightens the potential for irresponsible use by those who choose to use these drugs. And again, the fact that these substances are forced into underground markets creates not only the loss of tax revenue (on the money being illegally circulated), but also the loss of taxpayers’ money in law enforcement costs arising from the underground criminal drug trade.

Mill states that the whole meaning of truths “cannot be realised until personal experience has brought it home.” How many of those who legislate have any more than a vague, biased notion of what, for example, psilocybin (“magic”) mushrooms actually do to a human being? It is easy for conservatives to stand back and condemn substances; their opinions are, of course, set in stone—there is simply no need to re-address the legal status of something which has been, largely due to ignorance and naivety, deemed “dangerous” to the user and those around them. But this is exactly the kind of embedded dogma that Mill warns us of. Unless information is gathered and made public, there will forever be a na├»ve attitude towards substances and the laws will inevitably reflect this closed approach. Advocates for the prohibition of substances simply have not taken on the counter arguments, leaving the issue in limbo while populations grow increasingly misinformed or ill-informed about psychoactive substances.

A slight revival in psychedelic research perhaps tells us that there are in fact benefits in this field. For example, the first scientific study of LSD with human subjects in thirty-five years (since Albert Hoffman’s work) was recently undertaken in the UK with the aide of private funding. The subject of the experiments was the nature of the creative process in relation to brain chemistry, as well as the possibility of use in psychotherapy. Again, LSD, cannabis and ecstasy have been used to treat conditions ranging from anorexia to anxiety, as well as psilocybin to treat those with chronic substance addictions. The organisation MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) has looked into the use of LSD to treat anxiety related to terminal illness, as well as MDMA for psychotherapeutic benefits. Although these studies have proved completely safe when undertaken with care, there have still been considerable bureaucratic pains in establishing them.

Even if there were absolutely no usefulness for such substances (which I would argue is simply not true), there should still be ongoing discussion in order to strengthen and refine existing ideas. It is becoming a well-known fact that legal drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes are bigger killers than many street drugs, which exemplifies the ignorance inherent in present authorities’ attitudes towards drug use in its entirety. There can be no strong contention and thus no refined knowledge of substances if they are banned outright, even for medicinal and scientific purposes. Furthermore, the aforementioned legality and consequential proliferation of legal substances like alcohol and cigarettes, which are arguably more addictive than, for example, psychedelic drugs, points to ulterior motives within the parties that control drug legislation. Again, the concept of Marxian ideological rule comes to mind here.

The issue of recreational drug use and individual liberty has only been briefly addressed here, and much needs to be discussed in order for progress to be made. Perhaps what is most important about Mill’s thought in general is that, regarding any given societal issue, he sees progress in the reconciling of opposite ideas to form a fuller, more comprehensive and updated truth. This is reminiscent of the basic form of Hegel’s dialectic—thesis, antithesis, synthesis —, of Marx’s seemingly fallacious account of historical progress. The idea remains highly relevant, especially in a world where opinions are so ruthlessly pitched against one another, without the consideration that a portion of the truth is likely inherent on both sides; a world where egos tend to block the way to a reasonable, open and pluralistic approach to the pursuit of dynamic knowledge. None should be shunned due to popular conceptions deeming their ideas perverse. Society still strives to free individuals from limitations placed upon them by both the state and popular custom, both of which remain formidable forces barring the way to true and ongoing individual liberty and societal development.


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