Stoned or Straight? Let Adults Decide for Themselves

Fresno Bee, January 24, 2020

Fresno may soon join the rest of California in making cannabis commercially available. So let’s reconsider the morality of marijuana.

The basic argument for legalization — apart from generating revenue through taxation and reducing prison time for drug users — is libertarian. The legalization of marijuana is part of a rising tide of libertarianism with regard to issues such as abortion, physician assisted suicide, pornography, and gay marriage. Libertarians allow adults to do whatever they want, as long as they are not harming others.

Marijuana use can harm others: through second-hand smoke, driving under the influence, and so on. Libertarians should want to find ways to minimize those harms. But for the most part libertarians want to leave people alone, even if this means allowing people to make their own mistakes.

Paternalists disagree. Paternalists want to prevent people from harming themselves. They worry that people are not virtuous enough to choose well. They think people can be profoundly mistaken about what is good for them — and should be prevented from misusing their liberty. Libertarians reject this as nosy and intrusive.

The libertarian argument has prevailed in California with regard to marijuana legalization. But the question still remains as to whether cannabis consumption is a wise use of freedom or a mistake. Said differently, is there anything wrong with getting high?

The natural law tradition provides an argument against getting high. The Catholic Church teaches that recreational drug use is a “grave offense” that “inflicts very grave damage on human health and life.”

This argument has been made in philosophical terms by Robert P. George and Patrick Lee, who argue that recreational drug use is an abuse of the body. Their critique of drugs is connected with a conservative sexual ethic. They suggest an analogy between masturbation and drug use. These authors say that when people masturbate or get high, the body is used as an instrument to be manipulated in order to obtain pleasure. They say that masturbators and drug users express “contempt” for their bodies.

Hedonists see things differently. The hedonist’s goal is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This means that hedonists will want to avoid the downside of getting high. If marijuana leads to a hangover or addiction, that’s a problem. But defenders of marijuana often argue that marijuana has less of a downside than alcohol.

The comparison with booze often arises in discussions of pot. If wine is fine, what’s wrong with weed? Lee and George allow alcohol use. They say it is OK, if used as a social lubricant to enhance social interactions. But there is a difference, they argue, between social drinking and getting drunk.

Of course, the same thing could be said for cannabis. Some sad stoners may hide out alone in darkened rooms. But marijuana is also a social drug. And there is a cannabis culture that includes Bob Marley, Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson.

This reminds us that culture matters. Alcohol is the drug of choice for mainstream culture, which takes the consumption of beer and wine for granted. But marijuana is (or was until recently) counter cultural, a drug for Rastafarians, rappers and hippie cowboys. A cultural analysis of marijuana shows how competing views of the drug reflect our thinking about race, culture, and class.

This cultural divide cuts into our thinking about consciousness. Authors such as Dr. Andrew Weil have discussed the difference between the stoned and the straight mind. Philosophers, scientists, lawyers, and mathematicians celebrate rational thought, logic, and problem-solving. Cultures and careers that value quick wit and critical thinking will tend to emphasize sobriety and what Weil calls “straight” thinking.

But artists and mystics view things differently. Cannabis has been used to free up artistic creativity and stimulate mystical experience. For the artist or mystic, there is value in in the stoned mind. Instead of logic and calculation, mysticism values intuition, sensuality, and creative insight.

These differences in culture, religion and consciousness run deep. That’s why the libertarian solution is best. We’re going to disagree about the morality of marijuana. But as long as harm to others can be minimized, adults should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they want to get stoned or stay straight.

Moral Brain-Hacking and Moral Education

Science not enough, ideas and thought needed

Fresno Bee, May 16, 2014

Perhaps the solution to crime and other social problems is to fix people’s brains or dose them with love drugs. Moral brain-hacking might be a cheap and effective way to produce moral people.

Moral behavior appears to depend upon chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin acting in our brains. Paul Zac argues in his book, “The Moral Molecule,” that oxytocin levels are correlated with empathy, trust and love. A squirt of oxytocin can make people kinder and more trusting.

Brain structure also matters. Magnetic resonance imaging suggests that a sense of justice is located in the part of the brain associated with higher-level cognition. Antisocial behavior is linked to brain defects.

Locating moral behavior in the brain — and not as the free choice of an immaterial soul — may require us to rethink traditional ideas about guilt and responsibility, punishment and reward, praise and blame. If we follow the neuroscience, it might make sense to “punish” people by requiring them to take drugs or have brain surgery. Locking criminals in prisons with other people who have similarly defective neurochemistry may eventually seem, well, medieval.

Spiritually inclined people may be dismayed by this materialistic focus. Brain-based discussions ignore the soul and the moral conscience. Neuroscience dusts the angels and demons off of our shoulders, focusing our attention on the space between our ears.

Those who think that consciousness is distinct from the brain have to explain how Prozac, Ritalin, marijuana, and St. John’s wort are able to change experience, mood and focus. The attitude adjustment provided by a glass of wine or a cup of coffee can make you wonder whether there is anything more to the mind than the brain and its chemistry.

Some may feel that this materialistic focus misses the really big picture of why morality matters. If moral experience is reduced to brain science, traditional metaphysical notions of good and evil may be lost. A brain-based view of personality rules out punishment and reward in the afterlife. The move from the soul to the brain involves a radical reassessment of the meaning of morality and of life itself.

The focus on brains does, however, overlook the importance of ideas and education. Even if we admit that experience is based in the hardware of the brain, we still need the software of consciousness — ideas and theories — that allows us to interpret our experience. A dose of oxytocin may be able to stimulate empathy. But empathetic emotional responses are devoid of content.

Ideas and ethical theories tell us how to act on our emotional responses to the world. Does caring for a loved one mean I should pull the plug and let them die — or keep them on life support? Does empathy for murder victims mean that criminals should be executed — or should empathy extend to criminals?

To answer those kinds of questions we need ideas. Pills, potions and powders can only take us so far. The brain’s capacities and responses are channeled by the stuff of thought: ideas about right and wrong, theories of the good life, models and heroes, and the whole range of issues that arise in the context of moral education.

Ideas cannot simply be reduced to chemical signals in the brain. Does that mean that ideas float freely in a world apart from physical reality. There is a deep mystery here. What is an idea like “good” or “evil” made of? Where do ideas dwell? And how do we know them? Those kinds of questions can really blow your mind (or brain or soul?).

Neurochemical enhancement can’t entirely replace moral education as traditionally understood. Religion, philosophy and literature fill the brain with ideas that guide, bewilder and inspire. Neuro-ethical hacking may make moral education easier. But the neurotransmitters cannot tell us whether brain hacking is a good idea. For that we need moral argument and critical thinking.

Neuroscientific enthusiasm may lead us to miss the moral forest as we gaze in fascination at the neurological trees. Some of us could benefit from a chemically induced compassion boost. But a compassionate brain without moral ideas is empty. A moral person is both a brain and its ideas. And those ideas come from good old-fashioned moral education.

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Ethics of Brain Hacking

Brain hackers raise social questions about learning, understanding

June 28, 2013


Is it ethical to use “smart drugs” to improve cognitive function?

Legal concoctions of vitamins, herbs and nutrients are advertised as improving memory, focus and mental acuity. Some of these supplements claim they can produce lucid dream states and lessen the need for sleep. And prescription drugs are being used in illegal ways as mental stimulants, aimed at enhancing memory and concentration.

So-called “brain hackers” claim that cognitive function can be enhanced by sending mild electrical current through the brain. At least one company is marketing a trans-cranial electrical current device to video game players as an upgrade for the gamer’s brain.

Assuming that these things really work, one obvious ethical issue is health and safety. But if we assume that neuro-enhancers can be used safely, another ethical issue is fairness. It doesn’t seem fair for people to artificially enhance performance in school or in business, especially if these enhancements are not widely available to everyone.

One might also worry that the learning that occurs through brain hacking doesn’t really count. It seems like cheating. Of course, these products won’t do the learning for you. They help you focus and retain information better and faster. But you still have to do the studying. If it is acceptable to drink coffee during a cram session, is it also acceptable to use another, more powerful chemical that can help you focus even better?

If learning is primarily about creating pathways in the brain, resulting in new skills and abilities, then there is nothing inherently wrong with brain upgrades that help build those pathways more quickly. Flashcards help and so might a drug. Result-oriented learning will encourage the use of the most efficient tools. From a result-oriented standpoint, it doesn’t matter that you took a chemical shortcut so long as you actually end up knowing the thing you set out to learn.

But learning and thinking are not only a means to an end. They are also ends in themselves. Aristotle suggested this when he said that learning gives us the liveliest pleasure. One source of the pleasure of learning is the resultant mastery — the ability to perform or do something as a result of learning. But there is also pleasure in the very process of practicing and working at mastery. Is the road of learning enjoyable for its own sake; or is the point to achieve mastery as quickly as possible?

The brain-hackers want to shorten the process, perhaps underestimating the pleasures of practice and study. They are primarily focused on performance and achievement. If a short cut can be found, why not take it?

But Aristotle and others would argue that the road matters as much as the destination. Learning and thinking are also deeply social activities, which build connections with other people through the shared effort of the process. There is no mechanical or pharmaceutical shortcut to building community and developing relationships.

In a culture of high-stakes testing and dog-eat-dog economic struggle, it makes sense that people would want to hack their brains, looking for a competitive advantage.

In our culture, there are tangible rewards for those who can process and recall information quickly and accurately. Quick thinkers get better grades, bigger scholarships, and higher-paying jobs. Slow thinkers are left languishing in the dust.

But quick processing and recall skills are merely mechanical: machines can process and recall information much faster than we can.

Machines cannot, however, evaluate what is worth thinking about. The brain hackers are focused on the question of “how fast?” But they forget to ask “how come?”

There is no quick answer for the deeply human question of what matters and why it matters.

Existential questions require unhurried contemplation. But our caffeinated, video-game culture has no time for ruminating and mulling things over.

We spike our brains, filling them with images and words from dawn to dusk.

We are competitive thinkers, looking for an edge in a world that has little patience for the poets and dreamers who pause to wonder about the point of the hustle.

In the end, we may find that the faster we arrive at our destination, the less we understand why we wanted to get there in the first place.