Liberty, Responsibility, and Virtue – Amy Winehouse Edition

I don’t want to speak for the other Pilei, but I am in favor of nearly total drug legalization.*  The large majority of harm (and potential benefits) from drug use itself is largely internalized by the person engaged in that particular behavior.  When there are spillovers to others not party to the drug use (what economists call externalities), the government can legitimately punish the resulting behavior if it goes so far as to constitute a substantial violation of the rights of others.  For example, it can arrest someone who while drunk unjustifiably punches another at a bar due to the drug-induced inability to exercise appropriate judgement.  Or more obviously, it can throw the book at someone who kills another in a drunk driving accident.  It can also step in when someone is doing something while “on” drugs that is so potentially threatening to the rights of others as to justify preemptive intervention as in the case of drunk driving.  However, in these cases, what you are punishing isn’t really drug use but a behavior that whether drug-induced or not violates the rights of others who didn’t sign-up for the experience.  So drug use itself isn’t really a problem legally unless you think the government should define the kinds of things we should be able to do with or to our own property – our body and mind. 

Of course, this is a hard position to maintain in a society such as ours even in normal times.  However, it is especially difficult to advocate this position in the immediate aftermath of any bad news related to the misuse of drugs.  Enter rehab hating Amy Winehouse and her sad death (sad especially to those like me who loved her retro music).  I am sure that Drug Warriors will take the occasion of Winehouse’s death to tell the body politic how terrible drug use is and how we need to keep up the legal fight against the production, sale, and use of drugs deemed too dangerous for unprescribed or even prescribed use.  In other words, they’ll sing “Amy shows we shouldn’t le-gal-ize, no, no, no” to the beat of “Rehab.”

Despite my support of drug legalization and opposition to the Drug War, I don’t think we should forget that with liberty comes great responsibility — and that we should expect those who cannot exercise that responsiblity to pay the costs for their behavior, whether to the self or to others whose rights they may violate.  In the case of Winehouse, if we are going to respect her autonomy and human dignity, we also have to assume that she accepted the potential costs and benefits of her behavior, discounted the costs as she saw fit, and proceeded to use drugs despite the costs.  It isn’t the choice I would make.  Moreover, I would argue that such a choice is immoral given how inconsistent it is with human flourishing.  But it is a choice we should respect politically even if we don’t ethically.  To do otherwise would allow the state to make more choices about what we ought to do than it is capable of making, especially given our vastly different preferences and discounting rates (not to mention different moral theories and the information paucity governments face).  Even more important, as Frank Meyer and the fusionists claimed long ago, state restriction on non-rights violating moral choices essentially takes away our ability to be virtuous since it can hardly be said that being forced to act in a certain way makes us truly good. 

Therefore, if you love liberty and virtue, you can mourn Winehouse’s passing, get angry she made such a self-destructive choice, and even scorn her behavior.  But we should also applaud the idea of a legal system that would have allowed her to define what a good life for her was (without acting in violation of the positive law) and allowed her the freedom to be truly virtuous should she have taken a different path.            

 *I think certain drugs like antibiotics should be regulated on the grounds that usage dictated by individual choice would have huge negative externalities or may be viewed as a rights-violating act (see Jason Sorens here on this latter claim).   Given the collective action problem, individuals would rationally take antibiotics even when medically unnecessary (or would misuse them as is the case when you take these drugs until you feel better as opposed to the entire duration prescribed) and this will cause antibiotic resistant bacteria to be more prevalent.

7 thoughts on “Liberty, Responsibility, and Virtue – Amy Winehouse Edition

  1. Moreover, I would argue that such a choice is immoral given how inconsistent it is with human flourishing. But it is a choice we should respect politically even if we don’t ethically.

    Hmm, I think this goes to show that “ethics limited to it’s effects on others” is an important category in itself, and worth recognising even if you believe you have moral responsibilities to yourself.

    That said, there is something to self-directed morality. Frankly, while I am sad for Amy Winehouse (I’ve always felt sorry for her, even though I usually don’t give a damn about celebrities), I’m also a little angry at her for pissing herself away. This is not really because she deprived the world of her future songs (they are hers to give or to withhold), but because she deprived herself of her “flourishing”. She should have have been one of the immortals.

    1. Yes, it is like with Len Bias — you are sorry for yourself that you didn’t get to see his play on the court but also for him because he was not able to be the best man he could be on and off the court. So few people can be truly excellent and it is sad to see the possibility extinguished by the pursuit of fleeting “happiness” or “pleasure.”

  2. It’s worth noting that in Winehouse’s case, alcohol was arguably the biggest problem (her dad said she’s been off hard drugs for the past three years). And it was for alcoholism that ‘they tried to make her go to rehab’. Presumably we will be bombarded with calls for prohibition? No?

  3. I’m sorry to inform you but the fact is that antibiotics get abused in all the ways you list above despite being heavily regulated now. One of many examples: My wife (pharmacist) tells me that it is common practice, at least locally, for doctors to prescribe antibiotics for patients who come in with the flu. Flu is a virus, of course, and so the antibiotics are worthless in combating it. So why does this happen? Doctors tired of arguing with patients who demand “something” be done? Partially. The truth is I haven’t figured out why doctors would submit and do something they have to know will lead to bigger problems, but they do.

    My wife also tells me about all the half-empty bottles of antibiotics that people bring in from last year to see if they can take them now that the problem has flared up again. Her answer is no of course and she usually tries to get the bottles so she can dispose of the pills so the patients won’t go off and take them anyway.

    I guess what I’m saying is that individual choice still reigns despite the regulations already in place and, sadly, that resistant strains of bacteria are already present and frankly kind of scary.

    1. I’m not saying that the regulated world is perfect – only that it would be worse in the absence of some controls. The temptation and lack of knowledge would both lead to even greater misuse and the problems that result. I’m with Sorens on this one!

      1. Doctors and the pharmaceutical industry are as much to blame for the spread of drug resistant viruses as the patients. When most anti-biotics were injectible only, patients received the proper dose before they left the office. No problem there, unless you are trying to see more patients per day(doctor), or make a higher margin per dose prescribed(big pharma). With the advent and marketing of oral anti-biotics the doctor and pharmaceutical companies come out ahead. More patients per day through the office for the doctor, and big pharma makes more selling the drugs through the local pharmacy. The big loser is the public health since most patients can’t be counted on to follow their anti-biotic prescriptions faithfully.

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