Our evaluation of drugs – as with most of the big issues of our day, from redefining marriage to euthanasia – frequently has to do with consequences. What will be the consequences of taking a particular policy stand on “medical” marijuana as these ramify to persons and situations outside the focus of the policy in question?
Or, how it will differently affect other areas of society and culture? Without question, drugs have dire addictive consequences impacting the health and psychological wellbeing of those who take them. They impact families and the relationships of drug takers. For society, the most obvious and alarming consequence is their generation of spiralling crime to pay for, and supply, the needs of the addicted. “Milder” drug habits lead to more and more serious and destructive ones and so on.
A question of human responsibility
While the consequences that flow from drug taking are unquestionably drastic and sufficient reason to ban their use, I prefer here not to focus on arguments against drugs because of their consequences. Rather, I would like to explore the concept that any taking of a consciousness-altering drug – even a single, isolated (and supervised) taking of drugs by a supposedly justified consumer (on medical or other grounds) – is, in and of itself, wrong.
The reason for taking this tack is twofold. First, because bad flows from bad: that is, the consequences are bad because the initial act, as I wish to argue, is bad. Second, if we separate the act itself from the consequences – suspending judgement on the act itself and concerning ourselves only with the consequences – then we become drawn to all sorts of proposals, arguments, plans and promises to contain and avoid the disturbing consequences, and could be “trapped” into endorsing implicitly the act itself, which, however, is morally flawed.
Thus, following a consequences-only argument people can be led to argue for euthanasia because they have a bill that is the most “conservative” and “safeguard-laden” one in the world. But this carries the immensely problematic assumption that in an “ideal case” euthanasia is acceptable.
So they will argue for the limited use of “medical” cannabis, because with all the restrictions on cannabis use designed to stop it spreading, there is nothing really wrong, in their view, with the use of cannabis in a specific situation. However, we risk missing the essential ethical reality: that the taking of consciousness-altering drugs is wrong in itself – there is no
justifiable circumstance for it.
The explanation of this is to be prefaced by the consideration that the true hallmark of the human being is moral responsibility and answerability in every moment of his or her existence. This is understood by reference to the make-up of a human being, as a composite of body, mind and a higher faculty, which we could call conscience and which in traditional religious language is called the soul. The conscience (or soul) has the ability to apprehend – or at least to ratify and resonate with – objective universal values. That is what the Bible means when it says the human being is made in the image of the Creator: it relates to a moral compass.
That soul or conscience, however, resides in the person alongside body and mind, which can draw the human being in directions contrary to that moral compass. This struggle or tension between conscience and psychophysical impulse is the source of human freedom: the freedom to choose whether to follow the moral compass or to follow contrary persuasions – be they bodily, psychological or ideologically cultural.
Our faith tradition teaches us that we are mandated to choose the good and to follow that moral compass. It is within our ability to do so because conscience or soul is ultimately the sovereign power within the person and has the ability to win its internal struggle.
Psychologist Viktor Frankl stated that, so long as a person is alive and intellectually conscious, there are no limits to human freedom and responsibility to find meaning and moral purpose and to respond accordingly. Even in the most drastic circumstances, such as where a person is hemmed in by paralysis or physically constrained by others, he or she has the freedom and ability still to take up an attitude towards – to find meaning in – one’s predicament.
The instrument of responsibility
The role of mind is central in the life of responsibility. The power of intellect, properly used, has two sides. On the one hand, the power of mind is the power of analysis, review and restraint – to calculate the consequences of acting on a particular impulse and on that basis to decide whether to desist from, or to permit, so acting. Intellect submits unruly emotion to a reality check.
The second side of intellect – that is, of healthy and honest intellect – is its recognition that the principles upon which it decides to admit or to reject certain desires or impulses are beyond itself. The ultimate criteria of “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong” transcend, and transcendently inform, intellect.
The culture war we have today – over whether the human being is solely a material, sentient being (for whom pleasure and pain alone exist) or whether the human being also has a spiritual dimension with an absolute moral compass – is about such first principles. This does not leave us with a relativism of ultimate assumptions. For the truly self-transcending intellect, as Viktor Frankl pointed out, leads to that which is beyond the interests of mind and body – to the Divine, to that which is greater – while hedonistic materialism is tied to the
interests of mind and body. Hedonism is incapable of self-transcendence: its first principles are not beyond, but below, mere predilections.
Now the problem of drugs is that the instrument of responsibility – namely, intellect – becomes disordered at both ends. The regulative and analytic function of the mind, with its unique ability to review and check experience and feeling, is weakened.
In the words of the report on “The health and social effects of non-medical cannabis use” (World Health Organisation, 2016), the factors of “cognition, attention, emotionality and motivation” all become impaired under the use of cannabis. But not only has the lower regulative function of intellect broken down. In, and because of, its hedonistic self-directedness, the taking of drugs also impairs the higher function of intellect in a self-transcending opening to values beyond itself.
Here is the difference between consciousness-altering drugs and other stimulants such as nicotine, caffeine and alcohol. While (especially) alcohol in an extreme measure can remove the function of intellect in responsibility – regulating action in accordance with higher values – a controlled, moderate amount (and certainly with nicotine and caffeine) does not. With drugs, even a small quantity can introduce qualitative degradation of rationality and hence of responsibility.
As noted by David W. Murray: “Alcohol … is eliminated in a few hours, there is little or no evidence for carcinogenicity or teratogenicity [producing abnormalities in the developing foetus] … psychotic phenomena only occur after heavy and prolonged dosage … it escalates only to itself; the price paid for overuse is paid in later life. Cannabis is taken specifically for its psychic action; it is cumulative and persistent; its tar is carcinogenic … experimentally it is teratogenic; psychotic phenomena may occur with a single dose; it can predispose to the use of other drugs; the price for its overuse is paid in adolescence or in early life.”
In summary, the difference between alcohol and drugs is that the same “moderate” quantitative intake of each produces qualitatively different results. Consciousness-altering drugs generically put out of function the instrument of human responsibility. For this reason, not even a person in great pain or suffering, should be “stoned” – should lose the power to relate meaningfully and responsibly to his or her circumstances, however hard they are. For that is a deprivation of a person’s essential humanity – his or her power of responsibility, the ability meaningfully to respond. The same applies to “safe injecting rooms” for heroin addicts. The act of injection of heroin is humanly wrong, in and of itself, whatever the addict’s circumstance.
The culture of responsibility
For the higher function of intellect and responsibility – the ability to access those values upon which we act – to operate, we need the cultural conditions that permit and favour self-transcendence. The sensitivity to, and appreciation of, religious belief is the nurturing culture of self-transcendence. Religious belief is not the only, but it is the greatest and most central, expression of human self-transcendence.
As both the religious – and the enemies of religion – know, the capacity for, and knowledge of, religious experience is primarily conveyed within the family. But ours is a society in which the bulwark of the family – marriage – has been fractured. About one-third of all children in Australia are born out of wedlock, and among those marriages that were contracted there is significant breakdown. This impairs the transmission of religion and the culture of self-transcendence.
The second vital support for religious transmission – religious education – has also been greatly weakened. The former President of the European Union, Herman van Rompuy, asked poignantly with regard to so much of contemporary European youth, “How can one find G-d when one has never heard of him?” Much of our youth – in Australia – does not even know of their legacy of the knowledge and experience of faith, to claim it for themselves.
To restore, or indeed even to offer, to our youth their unclaimed religious inheritance, the first thing we can do is to face up to the aggressive attempts to remove it from education in our society today.
One such successful aggressive move to dismantle religious transmission was accomplished by the Victorian Department of Education under the present Victorian Government. A resolutely atheist organisation – protestations of non-hostility to religion notwithstanding – called FIRIS (“Fairness in Religion in Schools”) managed successfully to lobby the Labor Government to exclude from school hours even one lesson of optional religious education provided by Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious education bodies to children in Government Schools in Victoria. Around 200,000 students in government schools in Victoria stopped receiving even this modicum of religious education within school hours.
The Victorian Education Department supposedly “compensated” this removal of religious education with something that in fact contributes further to secularisation. It established a new compulsory stream throughout the school curriculum that teaches not religion but “about” religion. Setting up a comparative study of religions, which includes secular humanism as an alternative to religion, is, however, not an education in personally experienced and confirmed religious belief and practice. Rather it is a comparative study of beliefs and non-belief which relativises and neutralises religious beliefs, both among one another, and alongside the religious non-belief of secular humanism.
The educational model comes from Sweden, possibly the most atheistic society of the West (without a communist background), which has pursued a secularisation of traditional values to the extent that it permits siblings with one common parent to marry – incest. The fundamental rationale of this subject is that religion is the problem, not the solution, and it can only be neutralised through comparative, relativising study that teaches “tolerance” and “respect”.
It seems that FIRIS plans to work on other state education departments, focusing now on the NSW Department of Education, with the same objective.
The secularist attack on religion – as “the problem” that produces conflict – is born of a deep ignorance of religion. The authentic heart of religiosity is self-transcendence. Violent movements such as ISIS, which claim a religious motivation, are crude idolatries that may speak of a Creator but in fact mean themselves.
Today, as traditional values are assailed by hedonistic materialism, we find the great world religions delineating the true common ground, which they possess and want to save. This is the set of common ultimate values, which are ratified by every self-transcending soul, and the authentic element of self-transcendence in every faith.
Interestingly, the great psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote that when the non-religious person embarks upon genuine self-transcendence, he or she is actually on the same trajectory as the religious person – and will ultimately resonate with the same transcendently anchored universal values.
It follows that a sensitive religious education is ultimately a force for social harmony and the common apprehension of ultimate human values. It is aggressive secularism that undermines self-transcendence and breeds social disintegration. Its focus is primarily on the diverse flux of individual hedonistic gains, the opposite of a rallying to common values and spiritual ideals. It has largely produced the “existential void” which has become the lot of a spiritually orphaned generation (or perhaps we could say, generations – those of both young adults and of their parents today).
An existential void of meaning predisposes towards hedonism and escapism. Viktor Frankl wrote many years ago of sexual hedonism as a reflex of existential void: “We see how precisely where the will to meaning remains unfulfilled, that the will to pleasure serves to anaesthetise the existential unfulfilment of persons, at least as far as their own consciousness is concerned. In other words, the will to pleasure first appears when a person’s will to meaning is unfulfilled.
“Sexual libido only runs wild in an existential vacuum. The existential disappointment of the person in the struggle for existential meaning will be vicariously compensated through a sexual anaesthetisation.”
I believe his words apply equally to the culture of drug taking: When religion atrophies so too does self-transcendence, the model and mentor of all self-transcendence, and so does the meaning in life and the motivation towards living a meaningful life that the religious tradition transmits. When religion atrophies in society, so too does meaning and motivation in life. There dissipates the sense of, and source for, responsibility – that we need to answer.
In its editorial of August 14, 2017, headed “Drug deaths hit statewide”, grassroots mass media tabloid the Herald Sun wrote: “Education and rehabilitation are the major tools to be used in the fight to stop people using dangerous drugs and help them kick addiction. In the end, individual responsibility, danger awareness and comprehensive support must all form part of the response if we are to turn the tide of these awful losses.”
The ingredient, which the newspaper listed first, “individual responsibility”, is nurtured, above all, by our spiritual tradition. FIRIS managed to have the Creator shown out of the classroom, but it opened the door to the Ice Age.
Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen is Patron of the Drug Addiction Council of Australia (DACA).