Wednesday, June 08, 2005

On the (Epistemic and Possibly Moral) Obligation to Smoke Marijuana

[1]
It is obviously morally permissible to smoke marijuana. No decent arguments have ever been produced to the contrary, so there's no need for us to spend much time arguing for that conclusion. Marijuana is no more harmful that cigarettes or alcohol (and, in fact, probably a lot less harmful than either), and there is no serious debate about the permissibility of the responsible use of those substances. (It might be worth noting that irresponsible use of those substances--using a pack of cigarettes or a six-pack of beer per day, driving under the influence, etc.--like pretty much everything else that's irresponsible, is wrong. But that could go without saying.)

[2]
Much conservative moral thinking puts one in mind of an old witticism about the Soviet Union (told by the citizens/subjects thereof): that which was not forbidden was mandatory. Non-libertarian conservatives (like many left-wing extremists) have never been comfortable with the concept of permissibility. To note that something is merely permissible but non-obligatory seems to strike them as smacking of moral slackness. They like do this's and do that's; they don't like either would be fines.

I don't want to promote that perverse way of thinking, so don't read what follows in that spirit. The most important point to make about smoking marijuana is that it's morally permissible, period. Like casual sex, it's something that is pleasurable and does not cause significant expected harm if engaged in responsibly. And unjust puritanical laws against it do nothing to change its moral status.

[3]
But it may be the case that there are, in fact, moral or epistemic reasons in favor of smoking marijuana. First the obvious moral one: If a government makes an unjust law, we may have a responsibility to break it even if we don't have any antecedent reason to do so. I don't like playing poker. However, if the government passed a law against it, you can be sure that I'd take it up. I wouldn't react that way, of course, if the law made sense. I don't murder people, for example. I've gone long periods of time without smoking marijuana, and actually felt kind of guilty about it. I imagine that if Tom Paine and Sam Adams were alive today, they'd have a hit, too, just to stick it to the man for his anti-American authoritarianism.

[4]
More interestingly, perhaps, are the epistemic reasons for smoking. I used to think that all that teaching of Don Juan-type stuff was unmitigated crap. For many years, I smoked weed just because I liked it, and mercilessly ridiculed anyone who claimed that any epistemic advantages attached to the use of drugs. A few years ago, my attitude changed. I started smoking with a philosophically-inclined friend of mine, and came to realize that I could sometimes have interesting insights under the influence of marijuana that I simply would not otherwise have had. Now I frequently keep a small notebook handy when I'm stoned, and I go over the notes the next day. About four out of five ideas are stupid or uninteresting or incoherent or unreadable as a result of having had beer Kool-Aid spilled on them. But about one out of five is interesting enough to keep thinking about. That's a pretty darned good record.

Of course there are cognitive disadvantages to being stoned. It's not a time to attempt careful logical thought. It's a time for brainstorming and gestalt shifts. It's a time to synthesize, not analyze. Of course if we only had two options (a) stay straight forever or (b) get stoned forever, anyone who chose (b) would be a lunatic. (As would anyone who chose to sit in philosophy classes forever.) But those aren't the options. Marijuana allows one to take a brief excursion into a slightly different cognitive realm, a place where things look just a bit different.

This is not a minor advantage. One of man's greatest cognitive failings is that he gets stuck fairly deeply in cognitive ruts fairly early in his life (note that an inordinate number of thinkers do their best work while they are young). Anything that can help us to break out of those ruts is to be cherished. Aside from the tendency to blindly accept government restrictions, perhaps the only thing that prevents people from fully appreciating this advantage conferred by some drugs is a puritanical opposition to coping a buzz. If GlaxoSmithKlein developed a drug tomorrow that had the cognitive effects of marijuana but no attendant euphoria, taking it would soon become a kind of sacrament.

[5]
Ah, look at the time. It's 4:15. Time for me to go.

24 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

FROM wmr:

I have had the same experience that you relate in section 4. In fact, after I have read quite a bit about a new topic, I find that a some high time helps me to make new connections both within the new material and to old knowledge. Thus I believe that it can actually promote later recall--even at times when I am not high.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

“In the early days of the Republic, it would have been unthinkable that Congress could prohibit the local cultivation, possession, and consumption of marijuana…. Congress presented no evidence in support of its conclusions, which are not so much findings of fact as assertions of power.” – Clarence Thomas, Dissenting Opinion.

Rock on, CT.

The word on the legal street is that the liberals didn't want to lose their chokehold on American life through the interstate commerce clause. (Scalia voted typically in keeping with his primary legal philosophy that congress should pass a law pro or con.)

*******

Speaking from experience, I'm skeptical that anything of value results from the "altered" consciousness. It just seems all so deep, like in that Animal House scene where Pinto contemplates the universe.

I'd tell you all the great insights I got from my pothead days, but I just can't remember 'em. ;-)

6:43 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

That's why you gotta write 'em DOWN, t...

Yeah, now apparently the interstate commerce clause can be used to regulate anything whatsoever...

5:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am only a very casual marijuana smoker: I could probably count on all my fingers and toes the number of times I've smoked up, but I remember right after reading Eric Scholler's "Reefer Madness" feeling mightily guilty for not smoking and making a vow to get high at the next available opportunity. And I did, indeed, get that Tom Paine feeling when I did.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's 4:20 somewhere!

6:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best argument for smoking grass (aside from the purely hedonistic one, which actually is pretty good and works for things we enjoy like sex, food, etc.) is found in Terry Southern's short story "Red Dirt Marijuana." Basically, pot's illegal because it is an aid to seeing the governmental bullshit. I gave up grass in 1984 because of two things--first, I didn't think I could stop smoking tobacco otherwise; and second, because I think pot does cloud one's perception of the future by encouraging too much focus on the immediate--in other words, the hedonistic principle is heightened. Pot, in other words, is a few steps down the road to crack in the sense that crack has been described as a drug that should only be used if you want to be completely unhappy from then on without it's effects. --Beel

10:53 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I agree that anybody who finds that weed makes them inclined to smoke crack should STOP SMOKING WEED!

For most of us, though, there's not link. My inclination to smoke crack is, as it has always been, right at zero.

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