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)

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