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.