Friday, March 19, 2004

Drugs and Moralisation

Russell Brown's rundown on the Party Drug issue makes good reading. An outright ban would be the worst possible course of action for all the reasons he states.

How might an understanding of evolutionary psychology shed light on the issue?

One insight to be gained is to be able to understand why there is such strong opinion against the harm prevention approach even though it seems so obvious to its supporters that its the only way to go. Know thine enemy.

Stephen Pinker in The Blank Slate:

"Another strange feature of the moral emotions is that they can be turned on and off like a switch. These mental spoinks are called moralization and amoralisation...They consist in flipping between a mindset that judges behavior in terms of preference with a mindset that judges behavior in terms of value."

While some acts have become moralised, such as smoking:

"At the same time , many behaviors have been amoralised, switching ... from moral flaws to lifestyle choices. The amoralised acts include divorce, illitimacy..."

And the political reaction:

"To the cultural right, all this shows that morality has been under assault from the cultural elite, as we see in the sect that calls itself the Moral Majority. To the left, it shows that the desire to stigmatise private behavior is archaic and repressive..."

The relevance to the drug debate sort of ends there. The mental modules he described having the habit of switching on and off very quickly. For those that prefer harm minimization the switch has been reset to amoralisation. For those that consider drugs to be evil, their switch is still in the moral position.

Its important to note that what Pinker flippantly calls "spoinks" are actually being studied in the lab, they are really physical parts of the brain. These are not metaphors, that's the advance in the debate provided by evolutionary psychology. And for liberals the challenge is to use this information to best advantage. A first step is to acknowledge that there is no need to posit some nefarious external agent such as the media or advertising or propaganda to explain these differences in opinion. Secondly, to understand that the strength of feeling in the opposition has a "rational" cause even if it does appear infuriating to those who have switched to amoralisation on this issue. Thirdly, to get the opposition to flip their switch - which I have no idea how to achieve.

Pinker follows on with another part of his argument that is not quite so relevant to the drug debate but is interesting, he goes on to say:

"Both sides are wrong. As if to compensate for all the behaviors that have been amoralised in recent decades, we are in the mist of a campaign to moralise new ones."

And goes on to list the newly moralised:

"advertising to children - automobile safety - Barbie dolls - ...."

The switch goes on.


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