What would John Stewart Mill say about weed? Are psychedelics OK if they expand your mind? Are drugs a bad thing from a moral standpoint? We asked an expert.
Peg O' Connor has made thinking about drugs her life's work. Her blog, "Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken," puts some of the greatest questions of Western philosophy to our hedonistic lifestyles: Why do students love MDMA so much? Can shame ruin your life? And is it OK to have friends that you only party with?
Philosophy has historically taken a more idiosyncratic approach to drugs than other disciplines. Aldous Huxley's 1954 book The Doors of Perception documents the breakdown of his ego and resultant "obscure knowledge" he gained from an eight-hour trip on Mescaline—a psychedelic also favored by Sartre. Nietzsche was reportedly addicted to opium while writing The Genealogy of Morality. And according to a 2013 survey, 90 percent of philosophy students in the UK have taken drugs.
Philosophy can tell us more about our drug use than the black and white mediums of science and the law, which is perhaps why research shows it's also helpful for people trying to recover from drug addiction. A former alcoholic, Peg has been sober for ten years. It was philosophy, she maintains, that enabled her to understand the causes and consequences of her addiction, and what motivates her to stay sober, live well, and "flourish," in the words of Aristotle.
Peg recently published her latest book, Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery, so we thought we'd ask her—from a philosophical point of view—whether or not it's OK to take drugs.
VICE: Firstly, how do philosophy and drug-taking fit together?
Peg O'Connor: Philosophy, since the time of the ancients, has always been about how to live well. It can give people skills to ask themselves, "Why am I doing this? Is it fun? Where do drugs fit in the total package of my life? Is this substance affecting my character in some kind of way? Am I being the person I want to be?" I think these are questions that everyone asks generally, but I think philosophers intentionally ask them of themselves.
Is that why philosophy students apparently take more drugs?
I think a lot of people are drawn to philosophy because it gives them the opportunity to ask certain kinds of questions that they're struggling with themselves, but in an academic context. My students are most interested in the existential philosophers: Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, etc. My theory is because the existential philosophers in part are always asking about oneself—questions like, "How I am in the world? What's my kind of responsibility? Why am I suffering in this way? What does this situation mean?"—I think that resonates with a younger age group who are more angst-ridden.
Then there's the traditional romanticization of taking drugs. You know the great alcoholic writer who has these incredibly deep thoughts, we see the same thing with musicians and poets, the idea that drugs and alcohol are going to somehow help fuel their inner genius or rile up their muses or something like that. The idea that philosophy students take more drugs is part of a cultural production—it is part of the university experience.
Is it immoral to take drugs, from a philosophical point of view?
I'm not sure that framing it in terms of moral or immoral is the best way to go because that's automatically polarizing, but we can apply John Stewart Mill here—if someone is just getting stoned in his or her own apartment and he or she is not driving or operating machinery affecting anyone else, shouldn't that be OK? However, there's always good reason to pay attention to why people are using, what they're using, and how much they're using. Just because something is legal, doesn't mean that it isn't harmful and addictive.
Does the government saying that drugs are bad make them bad?
It depends in what sense you mean "bad"—if the government says these drugs are bad and we make them illegal—well, there you've got the "bad." I'm cognizant of the fact that governments have a lot of control over which drugs are depicted as so bad that they will never be legal. For a long time, marijuana was really regarded as the ultimate boogie man in the US and now it's legal in many places.
What about psychedelics? Because obviously there is the argument that psychedelics can help open the mind and help you see things from a different perspective...
Psychedelic drugs have been used in certain religious traditions, so you have to acknowledge the fact that there have been uses for just the reasons that you said—that they will open up new ways of seeing, in part because they affect the regular cognitive processes that have been so habituated. You've got some really well drawn mental grooves there from always seeing things in the same kind of way. But then again, the effects are really unpredictable, and you don't know how long they are going to continue. They have a greater potential for suddenly feeling so out of control because your perceptions of reality have flipped.
How can philosophy help with drug addiction?
Philosophy has always dealt with meaning-of-life questions and with suffering—making sense and meaning out of suffering. Drug addiction is often both the cause and consequence of suffering—it's about human nature and the human condition, subjects that philosophy has been grappling with very productively and innovatively for a very long time. We just haven't really intersected philosophical thought that much with drug and alcohol concerns.
So if addiction is about both the cause and consequence of suffering, is it a catch-22?
It's definitely a cycle. I think a lot of people start to drink or use drugs because they're suffering in a variety of ways. All kinds of social science data, for example, shows that people who have been victims of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to develop an addiction. You can see why some people start using drugs to self-medicate, to numb, or to escape. Of course, you also see people who don't have any of that in their background and they start using drugs or various kinds of alcohol and their use begins to change—they move from use, to misuse, to addiction, to dependence.
Do you think drug use is always a form of escapism?
I don't think it always is. That's the thing, we can't ignore the fact that taking drugs can be fun and really pleasurable. But we do live in a culture that really glamorizes alcohol and drug use, it signifies, "I'm mature now." Any kind of popular culture movies that you see with university students, part of the fun is getting really drunk or really high and going on these adventures. But they never depict any real horrible consequences, so it's glamorized.
How did philosophy help you out of your addiction?
In many ways. But most importantly, it helped me exercise my own free will. William James makes this wonderful distinction between wishing and willing. For a long time I was wishing my life could be different, but without the will, the wish is just some pretty little button that spins around and doesn't do anything—until you press it.
Peg's book, Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery is out now. Buy it here.
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