Redefining Morality in the Public Sphere

July 29, 2010 | 20 comments
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This past week more than 10,000 scientists launched the Vienna Declaration, a call for a major change in handling drug crimes and treatment. Noting that the global war on drugs has failed, the group wants governments to use scientific methods to determine policy instead of, as one health professional puts it, “a moralistic approach.”

I do see the point when these scientists claim that the war on drugs has failed. If anything, the problem has grown worse. Inside the U.S. we have ended up incarcerating huge portions of our population, especially among minorities, often educating them to be worse criminals in the process. The industry that supplies this has become a haven for organized crime and a major support to a culture of immorality. But despite the increasing problem, those who want treatment and help are sometimes hamstrung by regulations and laws that focus on punishment. [The declaration website cited above goes into much more detail.]

But what troubled me about the news wasn’t the declaration itself, but that health professional’s language, attributing the problem to “a moralistic approach.”

I do see why this language is used. For many people, perhaps even for a majority in the U.S., morality enters politics only as a “do this or else you will be punished” force. In this view, “moral” equals punishment.

As an alternative, these scientists offer science, suggesting that policy should be set after experimentation to see what actually works. [I should note that many studies and experiments have already been done on what works, yielding policies that are radically different from current law.]

While I respect and like the scientific approach to setting policy, I don’t like the exclusion of morality, or the cultural assumption that a moralistic approach is focused on punishment. [I suppose th Old Testament might, in a simplistic reading, support this idea, but I don't think that the other scriptures focus on punishment -- especially the New Testament, which sometimes even finds a way around punishment.]

I’m NOT suggesting that law breakers not be punished. I’m quite sure that even the scientific approach will include some punishment. I AM suggesting that our views of what a “moralistic” approach is must change. The program that comes to mind when we talk of a “moralistic” approach needs to reflect what our morals really are.

The approach we use withing the Church isn’t one of punishment, but one of repentance — the key is responsibly changing behavior and (usually voluntarily) making restitution. While I’m not sure how or even if it could work in the political sphere, it does seem like it could work well with the scientific approach advocated in the Vienna Declaration, since experiments and studies could determine what works in modifying behavior.

Undoubtedly there are other approaches that could represent a moral approach that reflects our true morals. I’m interested to know what readers think there could be.

But regardless of what these other approaches are, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that a moral approach is focused on punishing offenders.

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20 Responses to Redefining Morality in the Public Sphere

  1. Solicitor on July 29, 2010 at 9:09 am

    Having not read the Vienna Declaration, an initial query: what is the definition of something that “works”? It seems to me that before we talk about methods, we should be discussing objectives. Do the signatories to the Vienna Declaration seek an outcome where: 1)people are not subject to the slavery of addiction and other problems that accompany drug use, or 2) there are no (or effectively very few) legal impediments to chemically-induced “highs”, whether they come through traditional illegal substances or through new synthetic substances?

    It seems to me that before we start talking about the most effective means of realizing an objective, we should agree on what the objective is. Or perhaps they propose the elimination of “moralizing” in the determination of policy objectives? I’m unclear how this would work — policy is by its nature subjective. We may (nearly) all agree on the value of a policy [e.g., "all children should learn to read"], but that does not change the nature of such a policy as being subjective in itself.

    A more fundamental problem with this approach is its inherently undemocratic nature. Leave the policy determinations to those who are “smarter” and the little people should just come along, quietly.

    I think the analogy to the Gospel is slightly off. In the Church, if someone is acting in bad faith, or has no desire to repent, the ultimate penalty is expulsion from the society — excommunication. How do we handle criminals who don’t want to repent? We chuck them in prison, or, in former centuries, expel them to a distant penal continent. I suspect that most violent criminals, based upon my own (admittedly limited) experience in law enforcement, do not desire to change their behavior — they simply wish to avoid punishment.

    Perhaps we need some examples of how these “scientist-kings” (apologies, Plato) may determine preferred policy outcomes through the scientific method. But then again, data collection through trial-and-error will result in the victimization of many innocents.

  2. Andrew S on July 29, 2010 at 9:32 am

    I didn’t quite get that sense from reading the transcript of the NPR dealie. I didn’t get the sense that they were saying that a moralistic approach = punishment. (Well, not totally.)

    it seemed to me that they were saying that a moralistic approach is any approach that says, “Drugs are bad. Don’t do them.” and then upholds this, “Don’t do them” model as the paradigm of a drug policy. It seems that this approach is similar to abstinence only sex education. “Premarital sex is bad. Don’t do it.”

    And it seemed to me that when Dr. Strathdee talked about scientific approaches, she meant, “We can’t just say, ‘these are bad; don’t do it.’ We have to recognize that some people are not going to see them as bad, but that in that case, there *are* ways to mitigate some of the risk.”

    For example, she said:

    Well, it’s really looking at the problem of drug abuse from a public health and medical perspective in that if people are going to use drugs that, you know, we tell them it’s not good for you, but if you’re going to go and use it, then you need to protect yourself and protect the people around you.

    and

    You know, it costs 10 cents to buy a needle, and we in this country until very recently have made it very difficult for people to get sterile syringes if they’re injecting drugs.

    In both the drugs case (and the sex analogy, which I think works), there *is* a difference between “moralistic” and “scientific” approaches. Consider the behavioral changes each group wants. The moralistic goal is “no premarital sex” and “no drugs.” So, a sex policy that says, “people are going to have sex; let’s teach them how to have it safely” is morally anemic, even if it is scientifically effective. Similarly, a drug policy that says, “people are going to do drugs; let’s teach them how to do them safely” is also morally anemic. The behavioral change that these scientific approaches encourage is, “Do x safely,” not, “Avoid x completely.”

  3. Clark on July 29, 2010 at 11:18 am

    I was kind of troubled by that Vienna declaration as well. And I’m no fan of the drug war. I think though that what is going on is basically the old battle in ethics between Kantians and Utilitarians. The Kantians think there are universal things we ought do independent of consequences and Utilitarians think all that matters are results. (Yeah, I’m oversimplifying guys) I think the attack on morality by the declaration was more an attack on Kantian ethics. But of course one can defend the war on drugs in a utilitarian fashion. Indeed that’s typically how it is done – by arguing that for all its failures it prevents greater social harm. What’s weird about the Vienna approach is that it tends to adopt a narrow focus on what constitutes results: primarily the use of drugs plus the prevalence of infectious disease.

    What’s wrong about their approach is that you don’t tend to convince a Kantian using Utilitarian arguments. So all they are really doing is telling Kantians not to be Kantians which is just a losing battle. Many people’s ethical intuitions tend towards the Kantian approach.

    Given that really, really weird approach look for this to go no where.

    What they needed to do was make utilitarian arguments for those inclined towards utilitarianism and Kantian arguments for those inclined towards Kant. Morality really has little to do with it in the way they discussed it.

  4. Chris H. on July 29, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Clark said: “So all they are really doing is telling Kantians not to be Kantians which is just a losing battle.”

    Plus, I make me really cranky when people do that.

  5. Clark on July 29, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    I thought you’d chime in Chris. (grin)

    It is funny that some people call “morality” Kantian ethics whereas utilitarian reasoning (which is just as much ethics) is somehow called scientific. It’s a pretty weird way of putting things as both are just as ethical.

  6. Andrew S on July 29, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Good point, Clark. especially on the framing of the dichotomy. I think the issue is not simply because of Kantian ethics (I don’t see the categorical imperative), but because divine command theory is just another deontological approach, and *that* is probably what is being called “moralistic”.

  7. Clark on July 29, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Andrew, as I said I was using the terms loosely as a catch all for ethics in terms of results and ethics in which results don’t matter. I don’t think divine command theory enters in, although that would fall under what I’m labeling the Kantian side.

  8. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on July 29, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    I do not prefer the Vienna Declaration, but I’ll accept it for what it is – an attempt to correct the errors of our lawmakers.

    It happened before, when Emperor Constantine gathered all Catholic Bishops in Nicea. Rome was surroundered by hostile invaders and he did not need the bickering Bishops. The Nicean Creed is not believable to me and neither is the Vienna Declaration.

    Where should I turn, when the doctrine of Korihor is so popular with our legislators? As we speak our Congress and Senate is seriously considering making Internet Gambling a reality for US.

    I am committed to the doctrines of Jesus of Nazareth and Joseph Smith, Jr. Do you see any Mormon giving a political solution to a very serious immoral world?

  9. Chris H. on July 29, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    “but because divine command theory is just another deontological approach”

    Andrew, this depends. Augustine’s moral theory was very consequentalist (do those thing that will lead to eternal life).

    Clark, I agree with James Sterba of Notre Dame that Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics are not really all that far apart. They usually bring us to the same result.

    Eduard,

    “Do you see any Mormon giving a political solution to a very serious immoral world?”

    I get accused of this all the time Guilty.

  10. Alison Moore Smith on July 30, 2010 at 3:36 am

    I don’t remotely understand the line of thinking here. Making a decision to use “science” instead of “morality” as the policy guide is itself a moralistic approach, based on Dr. Strathdee’s value set. You simply can’t set policy (or decide on a breakfast cereal) without making judgments.

    Do note, however, that he didn’t say that the problem came from using a moralistic approach (although he does unnecessary divides science from morality), but from using “a moralistic approach that really ignores the science.” For the most part, that failure has nothing to do with the morals, but with the stupidity of ignoring known drug research.

  11. jkimballcook on July 30, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    I wonder if you’re reading too much into the term “moralistic.” I have always understood “moralistic” to have a negative connotation that doesn’t necessarily imply a rejection of making judgments in terms of morality. Something similar to “preachy.”

    In other words, given this negative connotation of the term, it is possible to reject something as “moralistic” without rejecting the idea that it is okay to make moral judgments.

  12. Clark on July 30, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    Chris, I’ve long thought that on practical grounds Kant and Mill aren’t that far apart. However the issue is what the central defining issue that determines what the good is. (As I understand it – clearly I’m no fan of ethics philosophy) My experience with Kantians, and I don’t know if you’d agree, is that they are basically Utilitarians who think the calculus is impossible to do and is non-sensical but want to keep the basic stance. However I think it’s more rule-utilitarians and Kantians that are similar. Act utiltarians can often come up with pretty different reasonings that Kantians. I’m curious as to your own views here.

  13. Ken on August 2, 2010 at 7:48 am

    Allison Moore Smith: “You simply can’t set policy (or decide on a breakfast cereal) without making judgments.”

    Sigh! Tell me about it! I was gonna have the Chex for breakfast, until I realized that would make the Cheerios feel bad (and what right do I have to do that? I mean, what have the Cheerios ever done to me, except provide delicious breakfast nourishment?); but if I had the Cheerios for breakfast, the Chex would feel bad; I thought it would solve the problem to skip the whole cereal dilemma and have bacon and eggs for breakfast … but that would make BOTH the Chex and the Cheerios feel bad; I thought I’d settled on a solution when I decided to have Chex for breakfast, Cheerios for lunch (yeah, interesting lunch, I know, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, morally speaking ;D), and bacon and eggs for dinner … but then I realized that would make the ham, bread, and cheese I usually use in my lunch sandwiches feel bad …

    I’ve decided that the only moral thing to do is to go on a permanent fast!! ;D (Speaking of bacon and eggs, this whole discussion reminds me of the difference between the chicken’s involvement and the pig’s involvement in a bacon-and-eggs breakfast: the chicken’s involved, but the pig’s committed! [Or for that matter, how about the difference between the cow's involvement and the pig's involvement in a ham-and-cheese sandwich? The cow's involved, but the pig's committed!])

    Dang it, this whole discussion’s making me hungrier by the minute, but I’m still morally paralyzed! What to do, what to do??? (Geez, great job, Allison! Thanks to you, now I’m gonna STARVE to death! I hope you can sleep at night with my death on your conscience! ;D)

  14. Ken on August 2, 2010 at 8:33 am

    From The Declaration: “The undermining of public health systems when law enforcement drives drug users away from prevention and care services and into environments where the risk of infectious disease transmission (e.g., HIV, hepatitis C & B, and tuberculosis) and other harms is increased.”

    I’m not sure law enforcement, at least in my community, is driving users away from treatment. I don’t buy the contention that the “carrot” of treatment would work far, far better if only we got rid of that darned “stick” of threatening prosecution. For at least some of these folks (more than one might think), the ONLY way they’re gonna get clean is if they go (or at least, if they might go) to jail. I’m sure the reasons why court-referred clients in the substance abuse program in which I work outnumber self-referred clients by a ratio of perhaps 10-to-1 are varied and complex, but one of them isn’t because we’re picking up the phone every time someone comes in for treatment and saying, “Hello, police department? I have an admitted drug user here …”

    I don’t think the fact that our attendance dips during the spring and summer and picks up during the winter and fall is due to varying patterns of enforcement. People are having too much “fun” right now to admit they have a “problem”: it’s only when the nights get longer, and the weather gets colder, and life isn’t quite as much “fun” anymore that people finally take a good, long, hard look in the mirror and say to themselves, “You know what, maybe I do …”

    This isn’t to say that there are no problems in the current scheme of things: I’m all for more treatment and less incarceration (as long as the latter continues to serve as an inducement for the former), and I think it’s bad public policy to throw in the towel with respect to use and sale drug crimes. Of course, I’m not involved in the prosecution side of things, but if I were, I’d tell users, “I’ll make you a deal: I don’t want you as much as I want your dealer,” and I’d tell dealers, “I’ll make you a deal, too: I don’t want you as much as I want your supplier.”

    And the problem with needle exchange programs is that every clean needle eventually becomes a dirty needle. If you say, “Oh, well, that’s OK, Ken. He has to turn it in to get a new one,” that leads me to wonder what the actual turn-in rate is: if someone needs his next fix badly enough, I doubt he’s gonna care where the needle came from, whether it’s clean or dirty, and/or how many people used it before he did.

  15. Matthew on August 2, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Nice post Ken, but I’m confused by the title. Morality refers exclusively to sexual purity, no? Hence my excited anticipation for the content of this post and the subsequent let down. :-(

  16. Clark on August 2, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Ken, I think that’s true although I think one can debate the tactics of enforcement. For instance is the militarification of the local police, primarily for raids on drug dealers, really worthwhile? Why not keep drugs illegal, arrest people and send them to compulsory treatment combined with ankle bracelets and community service. It’s treating drug use as on par with theft and murder that I think is pretty questionable as a tactic. But I agree a lot of people won’t deal with their drug use until the law enters in. Likewise a lot of crimes are drug related, which I suspect is why the police like the drug policy. It lets them arrest thieves and the violent on easier to prove charges. I’m not sure it makes society better off.

    I do tend to think it naive to assume offering treatment programs is a solution since the success rate when people don’t want to go isn’t that great. (As opposed to fairly good results when people really do want to change) I think a stick has to go with the carrot in those cases.

  17. Clark on August 2, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Chris, that looked interesting enough that I checked out the book The Triumph of Practice over Theory in Ethics and found Amazon had it for $0.01! So I bought it,

  18. Ken on August 2, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    While paramilitary policing (popularly known as “SWAT,” for Special Weapons and Tactics) is used to root out some, perhaps much, drug crime, such tactics are much more commonly used against dealers than against users. You may disagree, but I think the use of such tactics in these situations is prudent: failure to use them places officers in unnecessary jeopardy, for at least two reasons: (1) dealers tend to be paranoid because of the business they’re in, and (2) being paranoid, they tend to arm themselves, and are committed to using the weapons with which they have armed themselves if they feel even the slightest necessity.

    The advent of paramilitary policing came about, not as a result of the war on drugs, but rather as a response to the civil unrest that occurred in major metropolitan areas in the 1960s and 70s. While SWAT tactics often are used against dealers for the reasons I note above, such tactics are much more rarely used against mere users. While I live in suburbia, and things may be different in a metropolitan area, SWAT (or a similar unit) had no part in the apprehension of the vast majority of people who are referred to our program for treatment. (Ironically, though, the concept of paramilitary policing in the U.S. originated, not in a major metropolitan area, but rather in much smaller Delano, California, whose officers resorted to such tactics to counter unrest that Cesar Chavez fomented among farm workers in the area.) Most drug crime is uncovered by officers on the beat in the course of routine patrol.

    And yes, there is room for improvement in tactics employed by SWAT. While I understand the employment of overwhelming force and the element of surprise in order to gain the advantage over people whom officers wish to control, much of the noncompliance that occurs in such situations arises, not from willful decisions on the part of the subjects of such raids, but rather from confusion that results when 20 officers are shouting commands at once. One thing I would do is designate ONE officer (or perhaps one officer per room) to be “voice” in such situations. Other improvements are possible, I’m sure.

    And yes, I’ve signed dozens of log sheets that accompany the “jewelry” which some of our clients are provided, courtesy of one of the local courts and/or of Adult Probation & Parole.

  19. Ken on August 2, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    My foregoing is directed at Clark, who questions tactics employed by law enforcement in the war on drugs in his #16.

  20. Clark on August 3, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Ken, I think the issue is whether one should be focusing in on this crime to the degree they do. A change in drug policy would significantly change the economics of drugs as well as the incentives and arguably change the need for paramilitary forces. I’d also note there is a big difference between SWAT today and in the 70′s. Also paramilitary tactics are used more and more for warrants with the expected consequences when the inevitable mistakes are made.

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