If Drugs Make You Feel Happy, Why Should Johnny Say No?


Stephenville, Texas.-- Every year I ask the students in my Introduction to Philosophy class what they want out of life. Why, happiness, of course. Doesn't everyone?

What, then, is happiness? Feeling good, feeling good about yourself, feeling self-satisfied, feeling no pain. The answers are varied, but united in this one thing: happiness is feeling a certain way.

How do you get this feeling? One student -- a male student, I hasten to point out -- said that he got it by shopping. One student -- a female student obviously liberated to the point of freely choosing enslavement -- said that she gets it when a man buys her nice things. Making lots of money, spending it $l conspicuously, possessing things, showing these things off to others -- these are the most common answers. Some people get it by helping others. Some get it from sexual conquest. Some get it from performing well on the job. Some from music, art or good food.

But, unanimously, my students answer that what they are truly after in life is not the shopping, possessing, conquering, performing, or even the prestige, but the feeling that these activities or conditions produce.

To use the language of philosophy, the good for a human, according to this popular wisdom, is feeling a certain way. The end at which everything we do aims is a feeling we call happiness. Everything else is good only in an instrumental way, good for the sake of that feeling.

Suppose, then, that modern science were capable of producing a drug that would give you this feeling. Why bother with the shopping, the job performance (not to mention all of the school that is necessary to get you that job), the money-making, the altruism, or whatever activity or condition produces that feeling for you? If, indeed, what we are really after is the feeling, a certain state of mind, then there would be no reason to say no to this drug. Indeed, if the ultimate goal in life is a feeling, and this drug produces it, then there would be every reason to say yes to drugs.

Indeed, that is what everything in our culture teaches our children. It's no puzzle that we say yes to drugs. Not just to cocaine and the latest fad in recreational drugs, but to diet pills, tranquilizers, mood-altering drugs, anti-depressants -- not to mention alcohol. If we did away with all the illegal drugs overnight, we wouldn't be half way toward having the "drug-free society" President Bush champions.

Given our view of human happiness, it is just as reasonable to search for happiness through chemical alterations of the brain as it is through the purchase and conspicuous display of a BMW. We say yes to drugs because our culture says yes to hedonism -- the belief that happiness is what the Greeks called hedone, "pleasure," "feeling good." Our society free of drugs would be the same pleasure-seeking society that has led to rampant drug abuse.

Ironically, while we indirectly encourage the view that drugs can lead to happiness, our witch-hunt campaign against drugs (or, I should say, against some drugs) has led to bizarre consequences. I read recently of cases in which doctors have refused to prescribe adequate doses of pain-killing narcotics to dying patients suffering great pain, or nurses have purposely neglected to administer the pain-killing drug that a doctor had prescribed to a dying patient. When a person is dying, is drug addiction the issue -- or human dignity?

I think, too, of the tendency in some quarters of our society to treat a young person who has smoked a little marijuana as having done something Satanic. He has done something innocuous; the real danger is that he may become addicted to an innocuous life. What he needs is direction in life, not the pompous condemnation of witch hunters -- who seek in their own mindless way some form or other of feeling good. That's why the current drive for drug-free campuses at all costs may well obscure the broader issue of moral education. Some of the rhetoric bouncing around the halls of state legislatures all over this country sounds as if the raison d'etre of our schools is to have drug-free campuses. A drug-free environment may serve the purpose of education, but just because we have taken our children's drugs away does not mean that we have educated them.

Indeed, the mind-altering powers of certain drugs are enormous, and the addictive powers dangerous. Some drugs -- just like many other things in this world -- can kill you. But drugs in themselves are not inherently evil. The problem is not drugs, but the debilitating, ultimately nihilistic, view that happiness is a state of mind rather an activity. The goal of life ought to be living well. That's why Aristotle defined happiness as "an activity of the soul in accord with excellence." Working out the precise meaning of that statement could lead us into a many-century philosophical debate, but the basic point is simple. We ought to be primarily concerned with what we do, not with how we feel.

For a person of good character, pleasure, self-satisfaction, "feeling good about yourself," will accompany the activities involved in living well (Aristotle says that pleasure "completes" an activity), but our goal ought to be the activity of living well itself, not the feeling that accompanies it. That's a hard pill to swallow for some folks, but there you have it: It's not for the reward of heaven or the feeling that it results in that we ought to live good lives, but because a life lived well is better than a life lived poorly. Better for its own sake.

Obviously, we can argue about what living well means. There is no simple formula. Aristotle says that, in general, living well means living in such a way as to have excellence of character, including among other things courage, self-control and justice. And, please, a life aimed at human excellence is not a "lifestyle" -- lifestyles are all variations on the hedonistic life.

Excellence realized in a particular life takes good judgment and a good bit of luck. But the general point is that we need to teach our kids to be looking for something worthwhile to do, to be developing the character to feel good about the right things, instead of justifying what they do in terms of whether it makes them feel good. Indeed, doing good for someone lacking in self-control, courage and justice may feel like hell.

I call to your attention one final example. Recently I saw a TV commercial for a course in communication skills for physicians. One of the advocates for the program cited the reasons for taking this course in this order: The most important benefit is that you will feel better about yourself; in addition, these skills will improve the quality of health care you provide your patients.

Shouldn't physicians' primary goal be the practice of good medicine? What if a doctor feels good about himself when he provides incompetent health care, deprives patients of their dignity, causes patients to suffer unnecessarily? What if he feels good when he pops a few expertly prescribed pills?

Johnny -- not to mention his mom, dad and doctor -- takes drugs because the culture he's growing up in has given him a mistaken view of what life is about. What Johnny needs to say no to is the quest for the feel-good nirvana. And, indeed, it is a sad state of affairs when the dominant moral injunction of our times is "Just say no!" What have we taught Johnny to say yes to?

Craig Clifford teaches philosophy and is writer in residence at Tarleton State University.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad