Kant’s Moral Maxim of Universality Applied to Buying Drugs

There were many fascinating comments to my previous post on drugs, and are evidence for why Cal Newport has called readers of this blog "freakishly smart."

Lindsey of Crooked Lines left this comment:

… because [drugs] are illegal, drug creation and the ensuing multi-level drug distribution scheme usually involve violence, intimidation, and corruption in some form or another — especially in urban communities with fewer resources, which are often the main source of many different drugs that the more affluent people use. Many of the drugs at the University of Michigan, where I went to school, for example — especially the ever popular marijuana — made their way there from Detroit, and while the affluent drug users in Ann Arbor are, for the most part, safely insulated from the effects of the trade, the people who live in and around the earlier links of the supply chain (whether or not they are part of the trade itself) are not so privileged…

the reality is that as long as drugs are illegal and thus…must be grown/harvested/created in a way that begets violence and corruption — violence and corruption that are often endured by people who are removed from but no less affected by the people you will ultimately buy from — for me personally outweighs any of the other considerations.

Lindsey is elevating the societal impact of her behavior — the funding of narco-violence — above personal preferences in deciding not to buy drugs on ethical grounds. The tricky part is that there is essentially zero societal impact of a single person buying or not buying a drug.

Economists argue that it's irrational to vote in an election because it's essentially impossible that your vote will affect the outcome. As the old joke goes, if an economist sees another economist at the voting booth, they say, "I won't tell if you won't tell." But what if everyone adopted this mentality, people reply, then your vote would matter! Why yes, but everybody does not think this way.

What are the ethics surrounding decisions that, if universalized, would make a big difference, but which, at the margin, make essentially zero difference?

In Kant's Categorical Imperative he includes this moral maxim of universality: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction." In other words, if your action were to be the action everyone was taking, would you still do it? The implications of Kant to non-voters would be, "If everyone chose not to vote, the democracy wouldn't function. So vote!"

That seems like a fine aspirational ethic — a principled stance applied to things like democracy and drug buying — but the more realistic approach would to weigh the probability of universal adoption of the action. If it's insanely low — like in the case of non-voting or drug-buying — then ignore it. If, on the other hand, there were only five total drug buyers in the world, and if you stopped buying drugs that would drastically shrink demand and perhaps result in less drug violence, you would be right to incorporate societal implications more seriously in your decision as they much greater.

Bottom Line: In the case of buying drugs, since the personal impact (positive and negative) so vastly outweighs the societal impact, I believe solely a personal consideration of costs and benefits is an ethical way to think about it. But ethics is simply a basis for making individual decisions, and to each his own.

(thanks to Dave Jilk and Nathan Labenz for brainstorming this post)

30 comments on “Kant’s Moral Maxim of Universality Applied to Buying Drugs
  • This is more controversial than you’ve implied. In order to be consistent with this principle you’d also have to be against “supporting the artists” — including authors! Just one of many, right?

    Overall, I don’t think it’s necessary to go all the way to “ignore” on your importance scale. Maybe just say that the ethics of the purchase are not *that* big of a deal in comparison to the personal effects.

  • Wait. I disagree with your comparison of voting and drug buying.

    Voting is irrational because it is a winner take all event. As long as the race isn’t close, the votes on the margin make NO difference.

    However, buying drugs (and other aggregated activities) is not like voting. If you don’t buy drugs, demand drops a tiny bit, and then the evils caused by drug demand drops a tiny bit. Even though this bit is tiny, it is somewhat proportional to your tiny demand.

    If you argue that ‘tiny’ is close enough ‘none’ such that buying drugs is fine, then to be consistent I think you have to admit that almost any evil act perpetrated by you is ‘tiny’ on some scale and is thus moral.

    Voting is like a step function – its derivative is 0 so marginal behavior is irrelevant. But for all other aggregate functions of human behavior (no matter the curve), they will have nonzero derivatives.

    Moral of story: voting is an exceptional case because the effects of the margins truly are 0. But for many other things in life, the effects of the margins are not 0.

    P.S. Elasticity of demand will amplify or mitigate the effect of your demand addition/reduction, but this doesn’t affect the argument

  • Agreed. Though not sure I understand your first point — I don't think most
    people think about "supporting the artists" — maybe .00001% of music or
    books or movie buyers….

  • The issue is more complicated because if drug-use reached majority levels it would surely be turned into a legal substance via the mechanism of democracy (or at least, that is what one could expect).

    So if you applied the rule of universality, it would seem that drug use would once again boil down to the personal cost/benefits (or their aggregate in a society) as the violence and corruption caused by illicit drug’s illegality would disappear.

    I understand this isn’t a strict application of Kantian ethics, but it does make the issue more complicated.

  • I dont actually know how it is elsewhere, but in Chile a great deal of college students simply grow their own. I actually heard it as an argument towards stripping the violent-drug-culture impact that consuming marihuana creates as an illegal drug. Instead of buying it from a seedy violent drug subculture, exposing yourself to crime, violence and police enforcement, you grow a couple of plants and sell it at a very low cost to only your weed-friendly acquaintances. When it’s over, one of your acquaintances has a plant ready to be harvested, and the low-cost privilege is returned. Between really close friends, i’ve even seen it being given away for free, knowing that the other person already has his own batch on the way.

    One particular group told me that they had kept it up for at least 3 years, and that they’d never go back to the traditional way of buying from some dubious drug dealer.

    It’d be interesting to see what would happen if their supply suddenly stopped and they’d be forced to put their ethics to the test: either be consequent and dont buy nor smoke until a new plant grows, or break free and find a drug dealer. Im pretty sure most would quickly forget their pledge for responsible drug use, but in essence the whole thing doesnt seem like a terrible idea.

  • (Hit the “comment” button by accident…)

    Particularly since it seems kant-ish. Would I do this if everyone did it? Sure. Send the whole rotten pack of drug dealers to hell. It’s obviously utopia, but I think it would get a lot better and safer than how it is right now. And it only applies to drugs you can grow easily in your backyard (Chile being a very good place for it — there used to be hemp plantations by the dozen)

  • Lindsey says, “I think that that situation is far, far from the everyday reality, and that those claims of harmless drug distribution are mostly just BS to make people justify/feel better about making a decision to participate in something that is destructive to people they aren’t connected to.”

    How about the decision our government made to force our own people to participate in something (the War in Iraq) that is destructive to people we aren’t connected to, not to mention the devastation on our own soldiers?

    I imagine that the sum of human misery wreaked on humanity by this war is far greater than that dealt to us by Mexican drug cartels, but of course there’s no way to quantify that– I’m just making a counterpoint to Lindsey’s self-righteous sermonizing.

    Her opinions are far, far from the everyday reality of hundreds of thousands of pot smokers who get their weed through small distribution channels of growers and their friends with extended networks.

    Lindsey is profoundly disconnected from the reality of buying weed, so how would she know anything about it?

    I vehemently object to her assertion that “the reality is that as long as drugs are illegal and thus (at least to satisfy the lion’s share of the market) must be grown/harvested/created in a way that begets violence and corruption.”

    This may apply to drug crops like opium poppies and coca (only because they are illegal), but where is the data to support her sweeping assumption (otherwise known as bullshit) concerning marijuana?

    A report issued by The Marijuana Availability Working Group assembled by the Office of National Drug Control Policy says:

    “Annual production of marijuana in the USA was estimated by the US authorities to amount to more than 10,000 [metric] tons in 2001/2002.”

    According to Jon Gettman’s report in The Bulletin of Cannabis Reform, “Marijuana Production in the United States”, American marijuana farmers grew 22.3 million pounds of marijuana in 2006 with a value of $35.8 billion.

    It’s true that the Mexicans have moved into stateside marijuana cultivation in our national parks, but I challenge Lindsey to show that this production satisfies the lion’s share of the market in the US for marijuana.

    Just as the violence and corruption engendered by the prohibition of alcohol was promptly eliminated by its repeal, so should we demand the repeal of the unjust and socially destructive prohibition of marijuana and all other illegal psychoactive substances.

    Lindsey’s statements do not hold water.

    Please pass the bong.

  • Arguing Kant is always fun, but I think you’re overlooking a more fundamental point in the argument here.

    Drugs only cause the peripheral harm you’re concerned with BECAUSE of government. If drugs were legalized, these problems would go away, just like Kennedy and Capone went away when prohibition ceased (or at least found some other activity other people had problems dealing with on their own)

    This argument is in the same retarded vein as the one the government was pushing about 5 years ago: “Buying drugs supports terrorism!” While this may be true, it’s only because of government’s actions that allow it. You think Americans would rather buy heroin grown in Kansas or Canada, or freaking Kabul?

    While there are certainly reasons to ban certain drugs, I don’t think Kant supports your argument on the peripheral harm here. In fact, restricting the freedom of individuals to access substances seems to violate most of the more fundamental Kantian principals.

  • Another major difference between drugs and voting is that there is a major ‘viral’ aspect to drug use like marijuana. Many drugs are a social thing, and especially smokers like to encourage their friends to join them. This means that often each smoker spreads it to their friends, and maybe a few of their friends spread it to their friends. The individual impact for drug use can reach farther than voting which is a more personal affair (other than debating politics with politically interested people).

    Also, Vince the Mexican drugs gangs are making about 35% – 45% of their revenues from marijuana [I don’t have the stats on me, want me to track it down?]. That is a serious source of their revenue, and I think it’s safe to say that much of that revenue is coming from U.S.

    It’s definitely a case where buying ‘local’ is very important to not finance the narco-violence which is wrecking the reforms in Mexico.

  • Michael,

    I think you need a big fat toke.

    Assuming that the Mexican cartels get 35% – 45% of their revenues from marijuana, as you say, what kind of proof is this: “I think it’s safe to say that much of that revenue is coming from the U.S.”?

    You’ve got to do better than that, hombre.

    Let’s pretend that a full 35% – 45% of their marijuana revenues come from the US and call it x.

    Do you think x is larger than the $36 billion valuation of the American marijuana crop in 2006 ?

    What percentage of $36 billion is x?

    Track that down and get back to me.

  • Wow, Ben, thanks–both for starting a really interesting discussion about this, and for the link to my (embarrassingly crude and underdeveloped) blog! 🙂

    I wanted to clarify my comment a bit, and then hopefully add something to the discussion. With my original comment, I was not making any judgments about whether or not drugs should or should not be legal, or to argue that since the government decreed it, not doing drugs is the “right thing to do.” In fact, I think that if drugs were legal, most likely the quality and purity of drugs would become more standard and more predictable, more reliable data would be available, and drug production and distribution would be potentially open to more public scrutiny (which would hopefully eventually lead to the elimination of the negative effects I’m talking about, as consumers and activists demanded socially responsible supply chains). It would also likely mean that drug addiction would be treated more like a disease (such as alcoholism) than a criminal behavior, which would be a more pragmatic approach to the problem than the “war on drugs,” which, both internationally and domestically, has proved to be not only a failure, but especially harmful to the most marginalized populations (some examples are: mass environmental devastation to farming land and increased violence in Latin American countries, and targeted mass incarceration of certain neighborhoods and communities in the U.S.). Legalizing drugs is a really interesting topic, and, if it’s ultimately desirable, *how* to legalize them is even more interesting—I’m not sure I’m convinced that mass usage would lead to legalization (there are a lot of other things—I’m randomly think specifically about lying on tax forms—that a majority of people do, but have not been legalized…it only creates the situation here some people are punished while others aren’t).

    Vince, I truly apologize if anything I wrote sounded self-righteous—that was not my intention at all. Nor did I mean to imply that people who do drugs are “immoral” or “unethical” people. And I think you made some incorrect assumptions about my “connection,” so to speak, with the drug trade. I have had the opportunity and been in countless social situations where everyone around me was doing drugs, and I had to make the same decision that Ben is now making—and in a lot of those cases (and no, this was not middle school) it was the expected social norm. I had point for point the same reasons as Ben did in his last post for not trying drugs until that point, plus one more reason that was not on his list—a reason that, even if I reconciled/overcame all the other reasons I had for not doing drugs, would still prevent me from doing them: the knowledge that my actions could potentially have a serious negative impact on other people. And Ted, thank you so much for your useful analysis—the fact that drug usage is not a step function so much more eloquently describes why I made the choice I made…because my choice does have an impact.

    I think the points about local growers are really good ones, and as T points out, it seems that in some instances there may be a socially-responsible way to procure drugs. I would be careful, however, about assuming that since a drug is produced in the United States it means that its distribution is free of violence and/or government or institutional corruption (which is what, Vince, you seemed to imply with your domestic drug production statistics). If you can find a way to do this, Ben, perhaps my point is then not relevant to your decision.

    But then I think Michael Cole’s point is a really, really good point to consider as well. If someone anonymously buys and uses drugs, tells no one about it, and only uses it while he’s alone, theoretically the only increase in demand is what he directly purchases. But if someone who is generally respected for intelligence and entrepreneurialism, who also has a blog with a large readership decides to do (and thus in some way purchase) drugs, the ripple effects will likely be much larger and harder to measure, and his decision’s effect on drug demand could be much larger than just his own personal purchases, since he has effectively “endorsed” them.

    I’m not at all trying to tell you what to do, Ben—I’m just explaining what else was going through my head when I made my decision, and giving my thoughts for why your decision might be very similar and/or very different.

  • Found the original source: “Marijuana accounts for anywhere between 50% to 65% of Mexican cartel revenues, say Mexican and U.S. officials” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704254604574614230731506644.html

    “More than 60 percent of the cartels’ revenue — $8.6 billion out of $13.8 billion in 2006 — came from U.S. marijuana sales, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.”

    Using the white house’s numbers and yours x would be 23.88% of the American crop.

    Unfortunately that is enough money on corrupt hands to fund a constant bloody war through Mexico. Not to mention the destabilizing effects of Narco money going into corrupt government officials and the Narco assassinating those that go against them. Much of Mexico’s serious reform was under the prior president Vicente Fox, and many of those freedoms are being removed as the war becomes more bloody and costly. Not to mention the Cartels have been moving up into the U.S. in New Mexico.

    I think that makes it a pretty strong case for the serious global cost to black market drug use. Definitely suggests the importance for either legalization or buying from American growers to weaken the Mexican Cartels.

  • Lindsey, thanks for your reply. I did make it to the end, and I see you’ve done a good job of ignoring or distorting my points.

    You may have fraternized with drug users, but that doesn’t mean you have a clue about the networks I’m talking about.

    Please don’t patronize me with your talk about violence. I’ve had machine guns pointed at my head.

    I can’t tell what you think because your comment seems to be a masterpiece of equivocation, and that gives me a headache.

    Thank God I have a cure for that.

  • Thanks for your speedy reply and the research, Michael.

    I can’t respond now because I have a blinding headache and various ailments.

    Amazingly, some people want to prevent me from getting the best medicine I’ve found for the pain.;-)

  • Ben, fascinating discussions in the last few posts. Most of my sentiments have already been covered so there’s not a ton left to contribute, except to say that I would love to see an analysis of the subject matter/formats of your posts which seem to prompt disproportionately high numbers of comments. I have some theories as to which ones and why, but I’d love to see you (or maybe someone else in your readership with some statistical inclinations) run the numbers and report back.

    It’s a pleasure reading as always.


  • 1.) Ben, you bring up Kant’s categorical imperative and then abandon it, saying, “, since the personal impact (positive and negative) so vastly outweighs the societal impact, I believe solely a personal consideration of costs and benefits is an ethical way to think about it” Are you implying that the categorical imperative is useful til such a point when personal impact vastly outweighs societal impact?

    2.) As Scott notes, if we follow the principle of universality and will that all of mankind purchases drugs, then drug illegality ends (or becomes unenforceable) and societal harm plummets.

    3.) James’s comment is interesting. Let us suppose that government intervention is immoral and responsible for the negative social externalities associated with private drug use. Let us also suppose that the universality principle would suggest that drug use is moral in the absence of government and immoral if government exists. Following Kant, should a moral actor apply the universality principle with the assumption that other agents are acting morally?

  • I’m not sure what I’m enjoying more: the lengthy ethical analyzation of drug use, or Vince’s humorous (“I think you need a big fate toke” or “”Thank God I have a cure for that”) and usually thought-provoking comments.

  • Actually, you’re misrepresenting Kant and the Categorical Imperative. The idea that the *consequence* of everyone failing to vote would be an end to democracy is actually rule utilitarianism.

    Kant was solely interested in what we as rational beings, can will. He derived proper motive from a priori knowledge — logical operators and so on, rather than empirical data or observations. So you cannot will not voting because that would mean willing rational creatures to universally not express reason — a logical rabbithole.

  • This is actually a very shallow understanding of Kantian ethics. For one, as Rich says you’re framing everything in consequences. That’s utilitarianism not deontological ethics.

    Second, you’re ignoring the particular nature of marijuana and essentially all recreational drugs. The consequences of these drugs aren’t what make them wrong under Kantian ethics. They fundamentally are wrong under Kantian ethics:

    “The vice existing in this species of intemperance is not estimated by the prejudice or bodily pains mankind may entail upon himself as the sequents of his excess; for then we should regulate our judgment upon a principle of conveniency (i.e., on a system of eudaimonism), which, however, affords no ground of duty, but only of a dictate of expediency; at least such principle gives birth to no direct obligations.

    The inordinate gratification of our bodily wants is that abuse of aliments which blunts the operations of the intellect : drunkenness and gluttony are the two vices falling under this head. The drunkard renounces, for the seductive goblet, that rationality which alone proclaims the superiority of his rank; and is, while in his state of intoxication, to be dealt with as a brute only, not as a person…
    The former state of degradation, abject even beneath the beasts, is commonly brought about by the excessive use of fermented liquors, or of stupefying drugs, such as opium, and other products of the vegetable kingdom; the betraying power whereof lies in this, that for a while a dreamy happiness, and freedom from solicitude, or perhaps a fancied fortitude, is begotten, which, after all, concludes in despondency and sadness, and so unawares, and by insensible and unsuspected steps, introduces the need and want to repeat and to augment the stupefying dose. Gluttony must be reputed still lower in the scale of animal enjoyment; for it is purely passive, and does not waken to life the energies of Fancy,—a faculty susceptible for a long time of an active play of its perceptions during the obstupefaction of the former, upon which account gluttony is the more beastly vice.”

  • Are ethics reducible to personal decisions, as Kant says? Wouldn’t that drive us back as human beings to a position (advocated by existentialists, to be sure) of standing alone, an autodidact, secure in ourselves, and alienated from God, society, nature and something else I can’t remember at the moment? What is the difference between that position as a human goal and that of a sociopath, who has reached it?

    I don’t believe that we ARE alone, nor that God, society, nature and the something else I can’t remember intended for us to live our lives alone. Instead, we are social animals, and thus we are inclined to look to others for comfort and consolation in despair of not having final answers.

    That is the basis of ethics, and not the flight from others to an illusory autonomy. Even if Kant says different. Just my 2 cents.

  • Jake Bryant,

    Exactly. Ben’s arguments totally miss the starting point of Kantian ethics.

    You might as well say “This is ethical because everyone is doing it.” This post is appallingly naive.

  • Interesting justification of “Everybody’s doing it.”

    What’s really interesting is how you even got GOD roped into this and even equated prophets, burned at the stake for a principle, with sociopaths.

    The basics of ethics (and piety too) is determining right from wrong regardless of what everyone else does. In fact, a corollary of the teachings of Jesus is that the greater the percentage of people taking the path, the more likely it is the less worthwhile.

  • I respectfully disagree. Thinking of ourselves AS WELL AS God, society, and nature is the basis of ethics, and this distinguishes us as ethical thinkers from sociopaths. Sociopaths burn because the follow their id/will alone. Prophets like (for instance) Giordano Bruno followed their understanding of nature to their death.

  • Well i am new here.I am an engineer and right now working with a software company.I believe that certain type of drugs like Maryjuana,Hash are not that harmfull but well addicted and i have gone through the same things as ted have mentioned above.But i am not in to this any more.so not agree with the rests.I believe it gives you a greater ability to think in a wide area whether you are high or not.Car Buyers

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