No swimming if you can't swim...

Should dangerous activities be banned?

In my last post, I discussed the fact that some people think that smoking marijuana is immoral and should stay illegal, while about as many people think just the reverse. Today I'll talk about some reasons people might have for their positions.

Psychologists have been interested in how people decide what's right and what's wrong for some time. Here is one way that you might try to figure out why people think doing drugs, lying, or eating particular foods is wrong: ask them. These conversations go something like this:

Psychologist: Do you think doing drugs is wrong?
Subject: Yes.
Psychologist: Why?
Subject: Because drugs are bad.
Psychologist: But why are drugs bad?
Subject: Um... because Nancy Reagan said so?

More seriously, ever since work by psychologist Jon Haidt, it's become increasingly clear that people aren't able to explain the basis of their moral judgments.

If this seems odd, it shouldn't. There are lots of cases in which people can't say the reason behind what they think. Take the following sentence:

*If I was smart, I could think of a good example.

That sentence might sound a little off to you. It should be:

If I were smart, I could think of a good example.

Why does the second sentence sound a bit better? Unless you're a linguist, English teacher, or my father, you probably can't say that it's because the verb in the "if" clause should be in the subjective mood because it expresses something contrary to fact. You just sort of feel it's wrong.

Some aspects of morality work the same way, with people having a feeling that something is wrong without being able to say exactly why.

We can, however, rule out some reasons with hypotheticals.

Suppose you say that you think brother/sister incest is wrong because incest can result in genetically inferior offspring. Now I ask you about an incestuous relationship between two people, both of whom are infertile. Is this ok? You'll probably say, no, it's not ok. (Another way would be to ask if its wrong for unrelated people whose genes are known will generate inferior offspring to have sex. I'm guessing most readers will think this isn't morally wrong, but I confess I don't have data on that.) From this we can conclude that it's not really the genetic result that causes your judgment. It has to be something else.

Let's apply this to marijuana. A common reason people give is that marijuana is dangerous to one's health. The problem with this is that there are a tremendously large number of activities that we know are dangerous to health, but people don't think they are wrong or should be illegal.

Drowning, for instance, claims the lives of thousands of children every year. People don't think that swimming is morally wrong, or that it should be banned. Sure, people do think that the dangers of the water mean that people should be educated about swimming, but no one thinks that the government should fund a war on kiddie pools because it's a gateway to serious swimming.

The effects of drugs on health is probably the most common reason people give for supporting the laws against drugs. If this were the genuine reason for opposing drugs, one might expect that opposition to all sorts of dangerous things would relate in a systematic way to how much harm they do. As far as I know, there is little interest in banning cigarettes, despite the fact that they do much more harm. According to the Centers for Disease Control, tobacco kills more people than HIV, illegal drugs, car accidents, suicides and murder combined.

Another reason people give for wanting to ban drugs is usually something about "society." I have rarely seen people saying exactly how people being high is bad for society. Some argue that people who are high might commit crimes; I haven't seen the data on this, but my sense is that people who are good and stoned tend to be more concerned with snacking than breaking into Fort Knox. It's true that there is a link between drugs and crime, but a big reason for that is that drugs are illegal. There was a big link between alcohol and crime during Prohibition, too.

Further, it seems to me that the "society" argument should really be one of asking whether society is better off with current drug laws or different ones. For instance, depending on which source you consult - and how fast you read - in the time it took you to read this sentence, the United States federal government spent another three to eight thousand dollars fighting the war on drugs. The drug trade - illegal products always command big margins, because of the risk - have been suggested as a source of terrorist funding. Suppose -- just suppose -- that you were convinced that regulating and taxing marijuana would save the government money in enforcement costs and reduce the coffers of those involved in global terrorism. Would you oppose legalization anyway?

People give many reasons for opposing recreational drug use. These reasons might or might not be the real reasons. In my next post, I'll suggest what I think might really be going on. For the moment, I only invite you to consider that the reason a person says they oppose recreational drug use might not be the real reason.

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