A Philosopher Explains What Aristotle and Co Thought About Getting High
According to modern-day philosopher Dr Matthew Beard, moderation, not abstinence is the way to transcendence.
Illustration Ashley Goodall
"Sex, Drug, and Rock and Roll"
Until very recently, the blanket response to these vices was strict abstinence: Don't do drugs, no sex before marriage, turn that garbage music off. It's a nice idea: "just say no to drugs." If that approach worked, life would be so much easier for worried parents and governments trying to safeguard the moral character of their children and citizens.
But based on a different approach to drug use, abstinence might be just as unethical as overindulgence. Reflecting in Ancient Greece—where they were no strangers to substance use—Aristotle argued deficiency of anything is just as bad as overindulgence and we should aim for somewhere in the middle. Philosophers have come to call it the "Golden Mean" and Aristotle believed it was the ideal guide to living a virtuous life.
If getting completely munted everyday sits at one end of the ethical spectrum and never touching drugs sits at the other, common sense might suggest the Golden Mean might condone occasional use. The middle ground between two extremes, according Aristotle, is the place to be if you want to be a good person and lead a good life. All good things in moderation, right?
So were all the prudes wrong? Maybe the path of abstinence will lead you no closer to the good life than one of indulgence.
As with anything in philosophy, it's not that simple. Before we assume it's even possible to have an attitude of moderation towards drugs, we need to test whether we're applying virtue to something it's worth being virtuous about. For instance, most people would think there's no honour in being loyal to a completely corrupt cause; by the same token, there's no virtue in being moderate toward drugs if they don't actually contribute toward what Aristotle called "a life worth living."
Determining whether drugs can or should form part of a life worth living, we need to ask whether the reasons why people use—enhanced experiences, escapism, altered consciousness, emotional regulation or whatever—are good ones or not.
For many early ethicists, drunkenness was thought of as a vice because when we're drunk we can't function reasonably. They believed our ability to reason was the thing that defined us as human beings—anything that undermined our rationality was deemed an ethical no-go.
Even if we accept this argument, it doesn't follow we should be total prudes about drugs. Not every substance is going to change your consciousness so much that you can't act rationally. In reality, most of us can be "responsible drunks." We can indulge but we can still make decisions when we need to. But if you're the kind of person who can't retain any sense of responsibility when you're taking any drugs—be it caffeine, alcohol, or meth—the ethical choice would be not taking them at all.
There are other philosophers who think drug use shouldn't be thought of in terms of rationality and that being able to alter our consciousness is precisely what makes them worthwhile. Psychologist Abraham Maslow believed drugs could provide people with a "peak experience," something that couldn't be adequately described but could be life-altering precisely because it transcended our reason. For Maslow, these experiences were often almost religious in nature, giving him a sense of being at unity with all creation.
Another psychologist, William James, thought nitrous oxide (aka nangs) was the secret to achieving Maslow's peak experiences. He published a whole bunch of articles detailing his experiences on nitrous. James never discussed whether this path to peak experiences was the way for everyone, but his prolific writings don't paint a picture of someone who thought of drug use as the same as having an occasional beer. He treats the idea with a respect that suggests he saw them as something altogether different and needed to be thought of as such.
Both these world views—rationalism and the more transcendent take—have a common thread, revolving around why someone is taking drugs. Rationalists don't like it if your intention is to alter your consciousness. William James would likely have found it pretty shallow if someone is just getting high all the time without any real reflection.
Aristotle would probably agree with him. He thought our ability examine why we do what we do is what distinguishes us from other animals who only act on instinct and emotion.
This doesn't leave us with anything concrete on drugs and ethics, but at the very least it suggests we should look closely at what we think defines the good life and whether the way we use is consistent with that.
If you're a consistent user, think about why you're altering your conscious and how much you value rationality. If you never use, consider how you approach legal substances like alcohol – are you just altering your consciousness in another way?
Dr Matthew Beard is a moral philosopher at The Ethics Centre. Follow them on Twitter.