Here’s my writing assignment for week 3 of Phil 250 EL, “Making Moral Decisions” (fully online section). All of the material covered in class was about the advisability or not of drug use; none of it focused on questions of legality or politics.
Directions: Write a 750 word essay outlining the basics of your views on the use of mind- or mood-altering chemical substances for recreational purposes. At one extreme, someone might argue that you ought never to take drugs for recreational purposes. At the other extreme, you might argue, with Sullum, that there’s nothing wrong with doing so. Where do you end up? In particular, how does autonomy figure into your answer?
Representative answers, Type 1 (all emphases added):
(1) For me, the debate on whether or not drugs should be made legal for recreational purposes is pretty black and white.
(2) I believe the use of mind or mood-altering chemical substances for recreational purposes should not be allowed.
(3) Ultimately, I will end up with a belief that marijuana should be legalized for use as a recreational drug….
(4) Whether or not the use of mind/mood altering substances recreationally should be allowed or not is a question that will always be a controversial topic.
Argument form: “Either there is an authoritative law-giver to decide ethical questions, or we are pushed to total subjectivism. There is an authoritative law-giver, and that law-giver says….”
Representative answers, Type 2 (all emphases added):
(1) Since the effects of some chemical substances do not affect others, it is up to the person using them (autonomy) to decide if the risks are worth the rewards.
(2) I tend to believe that people should be able to make a conscience [i.e., conscientious] choice on what they put into their bodies.
(3) I like drugs. I have ever since i was 17 and got high for the first time. If I didn’t like them, I obviously wouldn’t use them.
(4) I feel that use of any mind-altering substance should be a personal choice.
Argument form: “Either there is an authoritative law-giver to decide ethical questions, or we are pushed to total subjectivism. There is no authoritative law-giver (i.e., there is no authoritative law-giver); hence we are pushed to total subjectivism.
Diagnosis via Elizabeth Anscombe (“Modern Moral Philosophy”), mutatis mutandis:
The ordinary (and quite indispensable) terms “should,” “needs,” “ought,” “must”‑-acquired this special sense by being equated in the relevant contexts with “is obliged,” or “is bound,” or “is required to,” in the sense in which one can be obliged or bound by law, or something can be required by law.
How did this come about? The answer is in history: between Aristotle and us came Christianity, with its law conception of ethics. For Christianity derived its ethical notions from the Torah. ….
In consequence of the dominance of Christianity for many centuries, the concepts of being bound, permitted, or excused became deeply embedded in our language and thought. The Greek word ” ἁμαρτάνειν,” the aptest to be turned to that use, acquired the sense “sin,” from having meant “mistake,” “missing the mark,” “going wrong.” The Latin peccatum which roughly corresponded to ἁμαρτημα was even apter for the sense “sin,” because it was already associated with “culpa”‑-“guilt”‑-a juridical notion. The blanket term “illicit,” “unlawful,” meaning much the same as our blanket term “wrong,” explains itself. ….
To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician)–that what is needed for this, is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law‑giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of “obligation,” of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word “ought” has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of “obligation,” it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and special feeling in these contexts.
It is as if the notion “criminal” were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten.
Or as if the notion “criminal” had been appropriated and transformed by the War on Drugs.
Passing pedagogical question: Is it permissible (ha ha) to downgrade students for misreading the assignment question if, as Anscombe suggests, they are in the grips of broadly cultural assumptions that drive them to their misreadings? Or am I being overly charitable in inferring that anyone can literally be driven by ingrained assumptions to misread a question?
Passing pedagogical observation: Teaching philosophy in a fully online format is one of the dumbest ideas ever to have come down the pike. Don’t believe the hype. (More hype.) But more on that some other time. Back to grading!