Dying is worse

It’s important to remember that solution to a lot of problems looks like enabling the problem. It’s OK to acknowledge this. It’s OK to be frustrated by this. But it’s important to not get locked into a “pure” morality—or, to put it another way, it’s critical to be flexible about solutions.

That’s not to say we can’t disagree about these things. Of course we can! But don’t disagree reflexively (don’t use the moral muscles you’re used to). Disagree reflectively. Think about whether or not there might be something else at play when talking about problems and their solutions. Is there a deeper problem? Can it be fixed or treated or dealt with in a way that seems unintuitive?

Take racism. Just for right now let’s put systemic racism aside and use the common “discriminating on the basis of race” definition.

We can all agree that discriminating on the basis of race is wrong. But then aren’t affirmative action programs racist?

We shouldn’t be afraid to say… yes. They are. They are absolutely discriminatory. Because we’re not trying to fix “discrimination on the basis of race” with affirmative action. That’s not the problem. The problem is something else, a deeper, more pervasive problem that has the effect of discriminating on the basis or race without seeming to actually do that.

We’re not trying to fix people; we’re trying to fix systems. The system is the deeply embedded discrimination built into our hiring practices, university selection processes, and so forth. Where qualified candidates are being denied opportunities because they’re a certain race. We do that by intentionally making space for these people. This has the local effect of discriminating against someone, but the system-wide effect of making a more just society for everyone. (And obviously this is just one thing that we do; there’s opportunity for lots more.)

Or take drugs. We can probably all agree that being addicted to drugs is bad.

So then aren’t safe injection sites just enabling addiction? Isn’t decriminalization just tacit approval?

I hope you can see where I’m going here. It’s important to say… yes. Safe injection sites do, on the face of it, enable addiction. But they do that in order to try to prevent worse things like disease and death. And decriminalization aims to treat addiction instead of punishing it. Both these initiative aim to create a path out of addiction. Dying is worse. Going to jail is worse.

These solutions aren’t super-intuitive.

But maybe that’s an indictment of our moral imagination. The idea that you can punish someone into not taking drugs, or that tut-tutting at racial slurs is going to fix racism… these shouldn’t be the first tools in our moral toolbelt. Sometimes it takes a deeper imagination (a more prophetic imagination) to seek answers to problems.

I am a pragmatist. Sometimes.

You know, I’m still kind of idealistic. I’m pushing 30, but I keep a bit of that idealistic vigor in a bottle somewhere. You see, I’m idealistic about pragmatism. I think it can work, at least most of the time.

I keep looking at the things we ban, or try to hide, or ignore as a society. We ban drugs. We try to hide racial hatred and racial discrimination. We try to ignore sexual abuse in families. Instead we play mind and word games while the epidemics rage one.

Trying to address these problems ideologically isn’t working. Pushing drug culture underground has only nurtured a system of gang violence and disease. Pushing racial hatred underground merely makes it fester. Ignoring sexual abuse in families turns the threat inside out to a hysterical fear of the mythical predator.

These are only three of a long list of problems and issues that we can’t seem to fix by beating on them with the ideological stick. There are many more (teen pregnancy, anyone?).

I think the American “founding fathers” got this one right. You get to say whatever you like. Your ideas go into the public square, where if you’ve said something supremely stupid others can tell you that you’re stupid. There can be an argument. There can be a discussion. The racist can perhaps be convinced he is wrong.

In the same vein, let people shoot up as they wish. But stop treating addiction like a law enforcement problem, and instead treat it like the medical problem it is. Strip away the culture of drug violence. Help prevent disease.

Stop fearing sexual abuse by predators on the street. The biggest threat of sexual abuse is from the people you know. Face this fact. Deal with it. Talk about it.

I’m idealistic about treating these problems with the things that get the best results. Yes, sometimes the ends do justify the means, especially if the end result of the means is merely knocking down a collection of cultural hang-ups that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Prohibition & Drugs

Prohibition was a curious and unusual time. What convinced a nation of alcohol consumers to turn on a dime and outlaw a drug so famously successful in the West for thousands of years?

We’ve gotten back on track now: Alcohol is both a blessing and a vice. We treat alcohol addiction as not merely a personal failing, but as a medical problem as well. Which is as it should be. Addiction is more than vice. Addictions effects are societal, not merely personal. Societies have a vested interest in reducing the effects of alcoholism. We may want to punish the alcoholic for his moral problem (which it is), but we recognise that it’s cheaper and more effective to treat the problem as an addiction (which it also is). So for the moral component, we’ve turned to support groups like AA. But for the addiction problem we’ve also turned to medicine, which is by far the most effective way to treat addiction.

Cooler minds have prevailed in the war against prohibition, though neo-prohibitionist groups like MADD still exist. (For all the good work MADD has done with drinking and driving, they’re still just another bunch of prohibitionist crazies, and it’s no co-incidence that they’re mothers. The nanny state is almost always driven by mothers who “know best”.)

The war against drugs is another thing altogether. Our culture is schizophrenic with regard to drugs. The number of people incarcerated for drug offences in the US is startling, and almost certainly a great evil perpetrated against the citizens of that nation.

Why have we collectively chosen the legal system (police, lawyers, judges, prisons, parole boards, etc.) as the best way to deal with addiction in this case? And when addiction isn’t a widespread problem, especially in the case of pot, why have we criminalised it?

It seems to me that drugs need to be treated the same way that alcohol is treated. That’s not to say we need to legalise all drugs. Some drugs are very dangerous indeed and need to be controlled if not eliminated. But why not treat drug addiction with support groups and medical intervention instead of cops and courts? It seems the rational way to move forward, at least to me.

Maybe we’re at the point now in our pointless, expensive, and liberty-infringing “war on drugs” that we were almost a century ago with prohibition: Figuring out that it’s not worth it.