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On political liberty and drug use Nick De Leu // Tartu University // 2010 Over the course of this essay, we will look into how the use of narcotic substances fits in with the idea of political liberty. To do so, this essay will first draw a brief map of three different views that define political liberty. A distinction will be made between a negative view of political liberty and a positive one, with the British philosophers Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) falling into the first category and the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) into the latter. In conclusion, the case of drug use will be applied to the theories, to decipher what the philosophers’ attitudes towards the question would be. As for the methodology used, this paper will discuss political liberty (mostly regarding the state), and more specifically the views of the aforementioned philosophers on whether or not a person should be free to take drugs. It should also be noted that for this paper, no distinction between “liberty” and “freedom” will be made. Individual freedom (eventually, the freedom of the drug user) will be discussed, as opposed to liberty of groups. Whatever form of state may emerge from the views of the discussed authors, for the sake of this paper it will be assumed that the state is justified and legitimate, and that its subjects respect their political obligations to it. It is important to stress that this essay will not try to advocate or condemn drug use, nor propose specific policies. On one end of the spectrum, there is Thomas Hobbes. He grants a right of nature to every person - the liberty to act as you think fit to preserve yourself. This means that in the state of nature, it is entirely rational and beyond moral criticism to do whatever is appropriate to secure one’s own survival, even if this means taking another’s life or attacking the innocent.1 People are not submitted to any external impediments, and are free individuals, making their own decisions. However, man is egoistical. He will use his liberty to acquire as much as he can. This means that society in the state of nature will be determined by conflict: a permanent war of everyone against everyone, in which homo homini lupus est (man is a wolf to his fellow man).2 In order to end this permanent state of war, Hobbes suggests his infamous Leviathan, a sovereign authority to which all subjects concede some rights for the sake of protection. This authority has no obligation to pay any regard to the liberty of its subjects, and may enforce any rules and restrictions it wishes. After all, this is just the price of peace and security.3

Jonathan Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 13. Koen Raes, Van Rechtswege(n), Politieke en rechtsfilosofische stromingen door de eeuwen heen (Gent: Academia Press, 2008), 43-44. 3 Jonathan Wolff, Political Philosophy, 105. 1 2


On political liberty and drug use // Nick De Leu // Tartu University // 2010 In short, Hobbes attributes great liberty to every man, but he argues that there is a strong need for authority in order to keep anarchy at bay. This implies state interference that largely restricts the area of personal liberty an individual enjoys. One could say this means that in Hobbes’ state, the individual does not enjoy a great deal of negative liberty, as the latter implies the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. This kind of liberty can be distinguished from positive liberty – a distinction defended in depth by political theorist Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). Positive liberty implies acting while in control of one’s life and realizing one’s fundamental purposes, a thought which will be discussed later in this essay.4 Hobbes views on freedom are, like many theories of negative liberty, based on the notion of a sphere of action within which the individual is sovereign and free – in other words, a zone in which his liberties are not restricted, so he remains un-prevented from realizing any desires he may wish to realize. This area just might be rather small according to Hobbes. John Stuart Mill famously courted another view on the principle of negative liberty. Mill cherished it, but does not go on to defend it to the extent of anarchy, as he argues – much like Hobbes – that if people are given complete freedom, some will surely abuse it, using the absence of government to exploit others. Thus, “all that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people.” Moreover, Mill states that liberty is only valuable under certain conditions. In the case of children and savages, for instance, liberty can even do a great deal of harm.5 But what exactly are these restraints? Mill formulates it as the Harm Principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”6 However, Mill immediately distinguishes three kinds of activity which are absolutely free from paternalistic state coercion: speech and opinion, combination among individuals and tastes and pursuits.7 If there can only be interference in matters that harm others, that means that there must be “purely self-regarding actions”, as Mill argues, as opposed to “other-regarding actions.” However, it appears to be quite hard to find such self-regarding actions. As author Jonathan Wolff (°1959) points out, one person’s decision to wear black shoes may offend his friends with a disliking for black shoes. Understandingly, Mill does not consider mere offense harm, as “the sphere of liberty was not to be left to the likings and disliking of society.”8

Positive and Negative Liberty, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberty-positive-negative/ (accessed 4 December 2010). 5 Jonathan Wolff, Political Philosophy, 105-106. 6 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1859), 22 (accessed through http://books.google.com/books?id=qCQCAAAAQAAJ&dq= on 6 December 2010). 7 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 26-27. 8 Jonathan Wolff, Political Philosophy, 112-113. 4


On political liberty and drug use // Nick De Leu // Tartu University // 2010 Harm could therefore be defined as “the damaging of interests.” However, the same example could easily point out that by wearing black shoes, one damages the economical interests of producers of brown shoe polish.9 This is why Mill rules out the objection against economic competition on utilitarian grounds: the advantages of free trade mean that no other system can advance happiness to the same extent.10 Furthermore, Mill believes in “man as a progressive being.” He may be willing to accept that liberty does not always lead to improvement, but Mill stresses that freedom is “the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement.” Individuals may make mistakes, and Mill sees a duty invested in each to try and convince others of their mistakes (through social pressure, not force) if people feel that they are embarking on foolish or damaging courses of action, but they are still more likely to be right about what would make them happy than anyone else. Therefore, human progress is best served by giving individuals license to engage in experiments of living – through these experiments, society may learn things of great value for permanent benefit. 11 But what if human kind really does not learn from its mistakes as well as Mill thinks it does? This brings us to the notion of positive liberty – represented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is called positive because it requires the presence of something: self-mastery. An individual is divided between a master-self and a mastered-self. The former represents rational thought, whereas the latter is directed by its irrational desires.12 Theorists of positive liberty define freedom in terms of “living the life that the rational person would choose to live.” Rousseau adds that the rational life is only available in civil society, for “the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law we prescribe ourselves is liberty.”13 As such, self-mastery is perceived as wider than the individual: it is part of an organic social whole, achieved through the collectivity of Rousseau’s volonté générale (general will).14 This, however, leads to the paradox of positive liberty, where people can be “forced to be free.” 15 If one happens to think X is the right thing to do, and the majority of people think it is Y, then Y seems to be the general will. In that case, Rousseau would say that doing anything else than the general will – doing what one prefers, for example – is slavery to one’s impulses, and not true freedom.16

Jonathan Wolff, Political Philosophy,, 112. Ibid., 120. 11 Ibid., 121-123. 12 Positive and Negative Liberty, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 13 Jonathan Wolff, Political Philosophy, 87. 14 Positive and Negative Liberty, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 15 Positive and Negative Liberty, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 16 Jonathan Wolff, Political Philosophy, 87. 9

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On political liberty and drug use // Nick De Leu // Tartu University // 2010 To Rousseau, this central restriction to liberty is just the other side of the coin of the social contract. The individual loses the freedom to be unconventional and experiments of living would also be restricted, as the majority already knows what is best: what reason dictates.17 Furthermore, it is sometimes said that a government should aim actively to create the conditions necessary for individuals to be self-sufficient or to achieve self-realization.18 Now that three views of political liberty have been outlined, it is time to tackle the drug question. Generally, damage to the user’s health is referred to as one of the main flaws of drugs – it is often perceived that the user should be “protected from himself.” Drugs are often accompanied by crime: either to obtain them, or offenses committed while under the influence. Socially speaking, use of narcotics can cause emotional pain to friends and family, or people might morally object. Concerning Hobbes, the case of the drug user seems quite clear cut. People are free to make their own decisions, so in the state of nature, there would be no interference. However, the sovereign authority Hobbes propagates changes things. As it may enforce any rules and restrictions it wishes to provide peace and security, it may well restrict the liberty of its subjects to use drugs as it deems fit. This could mean that the authority does not interfere with what individuals put into their bodies, but it could also mean the exact opposite – it is, in fact, rather arbitrary. The situation is different for John Stuart Mill. As he considers purely self-regarding actions to be safeguarded from interference, habits which damage personal health should fall into that category. As the libertarian free marketer Thomas S. Szasz (°1920) puts it, drugs are like ideas. If in a free society, it is none of the government’s business what ideas a man puts into his mind, it has nothing to say about the drugs he puts in his body either.19 However, the damage done to the interest of others by an individual’s narcotic usage might appeal more to Mill’s Harm Principle. The emotional pain and moral objections are easily dismissed on the grounds that liberty should not be left to the “likings and dislikings of society.” Crime implications pose a more serious challenge to Mill’s claim for liberty. However, Mill thinks the remote, indirect or possible threat of harm is insufficient reason to justify intervention.20 Coercion is only justified when there is a definite risk or actual inflicted harm. Nonetheless, state and society may educate and persuade individuals (not through force) to not misuse drugs.21 In other words: when a person takes drugs in the privacy of his home, this is merely a question of “tastes and pursuits”, so he Jonathan Wolff, Political Philosophy, 86. Positive and Negative Liberty, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 19 James P. Gray, Why our drug laws have failed and what we can do about it (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 214 (accessed through http://books.google.com/books?id=XkiQ8Gna4jQC&pg= on 5 December 2010). 20 James B. Bakalar, Drug Control in a Free Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 3 (accessed through http://books.google.com/books?id=OLtupZuF_eYC&pg on 5 December 2010). 21 Ibid., 3. 17 18


On political liberty and drug use // Nick De Leu // Tartu University // 2010 should not be subjected to interference. When that same individual drives a vehicle under influence, however, the state is rightly justified to interfere – for this is a serious risk of harm. On top of that, Mills pleads for “experiments of living.” The theory behind this is that freedom is an important means of improvement. However, if it appears that human kind does not learn from its mistakes, this might justify a former drug addict in stopping a future experimenter.22 This brings us back to the notion of positive liberty – philosophers like Rousseau court the idea that freedom is not the will of an imperfect individual, but the product of good life in a reasonable society. Furthermore, as no genuinely whole person can exist outside society, self-harm also harms society.23 This might justify Rousseau in “forcing the people to be free”: the rational majority helps promote selfmastery through the collective, thus liberating the un-free of their irrational desires (like drugs). Political philosopher Thomas H. Green (1836-1882) even takes this reasoning one step further. He argues that by restricting drugs, for instance, new rights can be created. If society prevents behavior that interferes with the possibility of free action contributing to public good, it nullifies hidden, desirefueled coercion that destroys human power and violates human rights.24 In conclusion, it seems that Thomas Hobbes leaves the freedom of an individual to use drugs up to the whims of the sovereign authority – however his pessimistic view of human kind seems to imply that man would not be able to handle the freedom, so that the authority would see itself forced to intervene. John Stuart Mill fights fiercely for the right of an individual to his very own tastes and pursuits, and only allows forceful interference in the case of actual harm. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, appears convinced that the rational majority has the duty to liberate the desire-driven minority by interfering in its drug use. Subsequently, it should be stated that people who treasure a negative notion of liberty might be more permissive towards use of drugs, whereas thinkers who entertain the positive concept are more likely to impose restrictions.

Jonathan Wolff, Political Philosophy, 120. James B. Bakalar, Drug Control in a Free Society, 10. 24 Ibid., 11. 22 23

On political liberty and drug use  

A look into how the use of narcotic substances fits in with the idea of political liberty.