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Forfeit Of The Will

21/09/2017 12:42 BST | Updated 21/09/2017 12:42 BST

Whether we are free to vote for Brexit or Trump or refrain from doing so - or free not to take that first dose of a drug, for that matter, is a mystery.

If free will does not exist, one cannot ultimately punish people for doing evil nor give them praise for their merits. We cannot blame people for voting against their own interests, or give them credit for quitting a nasty drug habit after years of heavy abuse.

In essence, there are as many reasons to go to the polls as there are ballot boxes. If you've been subjected to racism, there's a large probability you wouldn't vote for Trump. If you've experienced something that makes you worried of multicultural chaos, the chance is as large that you would choose just that political party.

If, like me, you've lived your life getting high, and as a consequence, been engaged in the debate regarding whether we should adopt a new and more progressive drug policy or not, it comes naturally - you follow a political party that takes such questions seriously. For me and many like me, drug policy is my main issue when casting my votes. The very essence of these choices - is the question of willpower. Political willpower - to change society and individual willpower to change ourselves, is at the heart - and will decide what kind of drug policy we will have in the foreseeable future.

But how free are we really when we enter the polling stations and give our signature? There are parallels between vote casting and drug use, which might not be obvious - but far from irrelevant - on the contrary. The age old question of whether we are really free to make our own choices still cause our finest philosophers and scientists to scratch their heads.

Whether we are free to make or not make these choices it is apparent that we can give ourselves a clap on the shoulder when we make a smart or correct choice - and put ourselves (or be put) in the naughty chair when we make bad and incorrect choices.

The psychopath who axe-murders his whole family obviously falls into the second category. But is it possible to imagine that he just had bad luck, being born with a combination of genes, environmental factors, circumstances and possibly a soul (for those who believe in such) that lead him to end up with a bloody axe in hand and a bunch of bodies scattered around him? Could one imagine him merely having bad luck being born into a life whose fate lead to the situation where he became a mass murderer, or are we bound to believe he is in possession of an "agent" called free will, and as a consequence he could and should have acted differently if he just wanted it enough?

And what about the athletics star who wins triple gold at the olympics - against all odds: could we imagine that she or he is not driven by an iron will, but rather by a perfect storm of lucky coincidences?

A debate have for the last couple of years been raging between two of our time's most famous public intellectuals, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, about just this. Whether we are lords of our own mental maisons, or simply slaves of cosmic winds, the potential outcome of this debate has practical and moral consequences for me and you. Practical consequences that aren't that different from those that occur in front of ballot boxes or crossroads when faced with the decision of buying a bag of heroin or not.

If free will is an illusion as Harris claims, one does not need to be a neurologist to imagine what consequences this revelation potentially has for society. If free will doesn't exist, we ultimately cannot punish anyone for evil or give credit for their merits, as they aren't the "true author of their own actions" as Harris puts it. Dennett, on the other hand, and many like him, fear that society will collapse under the weight of said realization (a realization Dennet, by the way, does not accept as an epistemological truth).

Stop right there - warns Harris, when met with these objections. Perhaps the potential for acknowledging his viewpoints could not only be less fatal than we fear but also for the better, he argues - and provides a simple thought experiment to help understand this view and its' consequences.

Imagine a tiger on a killing frenzy in a village. The tiger kills x amount of the village population before it is neutralized by a tranquilizing dart and caught. What happens to the tiger? Is it put on trial? Do the victims' families arrive in court, sitting on the front benches, hateful and ready to get their vengeance over the evil tiger?

It seems highly improbable. The tiger will most likely be caged to protect the village, or, in the worst case, put to sleep. Leaving no feeling that people's sense of justice has been taken into consideration. The chance is larger (if the tiger ends up in a cage rather than being put to sleep) that the family will travel to the zoo with their children and grandchildren to point at it and tell them without a trace of hate or judgement that "his is the tiger that ate your grandmother".

The psychopathic axe murderer, on the other hand, suffers a completely different fate when faced with his victim's family. Depending on what country we are talking about, he will, unlike the tiger, not only end behind bars to protect future victims, but also subjected to hate, vengeance and contempt from his victim's relatives as well as society at large. "Look, there's the tiger that took grandfather" is suddenly swapped with "I wish that evil asshole burned in hell".

But really, what is the difference between the fate of the tiger and the psychopath? If one is to believe Harris, there is, in principle, no difference. Even if both are born with a soul (again, for those who believe in such) they did not choose it themselves. They did not choose their place-of-birth, their parents, their genetics or their experiences leading to their fatal choice to tear apart and ax their victims to pieces. They were, ultimately, both victims of their own fate, in the same manner as their victims were victims of their common fate.

We do not stop encaging murderous and savage animals who pose a threat to people's welfare, but neither do we hate them for what they do. We do not place them in prison, in the sense that we punish them for their evildoings. We simply separate them from an environment filled with potential future victims of their inherent brutality, without moral condemnation.

If we choose to follow Harris' pattern of thought, it is possible to envision a future where we approach people who do not manage to live by social norms and rules, in much the same manner as we currently handle savage animals? Tribunals handing out vengeance and offering repatriation, are, in such a society, replaced by tribunals who decide whether he has to be separated from his environment for longer or shorter (or in rare cases forever) periods of time, simply to protect people.

In that way we can, according to Harris, get rid of totally meaningless and destructive motives, feelings and concepts such as shame, schadenfreude, revenge and hate. In the future, no gold medalist or hard-working millionaire should allow themselves to feel pride. Arguably a small price to pay. In any case, what has the concept of "pride" provided in the long run? How does the pride of gold medalists measure up to the pride despots and military commanders have let themselves get intoxicated from since we created fire, wheels, spears and worse? The balance will most certainly end up being negative if the currency is blood and tears.

Realizing that no-one is guilty of their crimes nor have they any reason to be proud of their merits, is, instinctively, scary and unfamiliar. The realization however, does not need to bring total anarchy, if we adopt Harris' sober and pragmatic view. On the contrary, the potential for a better world is obvious, if we take the next logical step: from Nietsche's murder of God to a collective mercy kill of the illusion of free will, inspired by Agatha Christie's Orient Express.

In what manner are these philosophical ideas relevant to drug policy? The short answer: In every possible way.

The age-old question of free will is precisely the question at the heart of drug policy debate. Is it, ultimately, your own fault if you become addicted to a drug (or sex, food, porn, exercise, power, etc) or are the unfortunate circumstances one is born into - such as genetics, environment and experiences, to "blame"?

Lack of morals and weakness of character is, according to the traditional view, and especially in the case of alcohol and drug addictions, the main culprit. It's a fault of the individual and the person in question has to assume all consequences, as they are to blame, according to this view.

Cracks are appearing in the foundations of the traditional view, however - much thanks to science and moral philosophy, which, with increasing speed, helps us understand the world in updated scientific and empirical ways.

As many people dabbling with these questions have highlighted for a while, an increasing number of scientific findings prove that a large number of adults who end up suffering from drug addiction follow a suspiciously similar road. That road - more frequently than not - passes through a childhood environment filled with trauma, ranging from domestic violence, addiction in other family members to sexual abuse. If you combine genetics, billions of tiny experiences between birth and that fateful day where the "decisive" dose of a drug was injected, sniffed, smoked or ingested in an another manner, we are quickly starting to approach Harris' frightening (for many) view of the illusion of a free will.

If we dare enlarge our thought-space a slight bit, we could fill said space with terrorism, pedophilia, mass murder and corruption as well. As far as I reckon, no animal has been convicted for any of these actions, and very few people (if any) seem to be troubled by this lack of moral judgement cast upon our friends and foes of the animal kingdom.

We could also add a deep realization that free will really is an illusion. As Harris argues, there is, in principle, no reason that we should need to address these sorts of processes in the near future. I am under no illusion, however, that we have gotten as far in our humanist transcendence. And I have, in spite of having looked high and low, yet to find a political party that wants to abolish the criminal justice system as we know it in such cases.

Let's start somewhere, though. Let's start with victimless crimes.

There still isn't one good argument - if you ignore vacating and corrupt motives (such as those which Richard Nixon's advisor John Ehrlichman admitted to Harper's Magazine in 1994 that the War on Drugs was meant to crack down on blacks and opponents of the Vietnam War) to cling to current drug policies, in which the goal is to punish, fine and imprison so-called criminals who commit victimless crimes - such as filling their bodies with "illegal" intoxicants.

The practice has to end, and it has to end now. No-one is, ultimately, given free will being an illusion, responsible for their own "bad" actions, nor is there reason to make champions into idols for their merits. Does that mean we should stop protecting society from dangerous tigers or murderous psychopaths? No. But not because we hate them or because they deserve to experience the same suffering they subjected others to.

Likewise we should stop awarding gold medals and wage increases to those who "deserve" it (in spite of a cosmic storm of coincidences having put them in their advantageous positions, and not their inherent strength and strong will). Neither winners nor losers, neither villains nor heroes, neither evil people nor good people - have freely chosen the circumstances leading to their merits or dishonourable actions.

The best argument for a social democratic security net is the philosophical argument: it's a system which harmonizes the good and bad luck allocated by life's lottery. Even if the road to a society where no-one is punished, condemned or subjected to hate - is long, it is time to use the opportunity to take a small step in the right direction and decide once and for all that victimless crimes shouldn't be punished - not from a moral perspective, not from philosophical perspective nor from the pragmatic perspective.

- What about Hitler? one may ask. Wasn't he sufficiently evil to be punished just for the sake of being evil? Tragicomically, in lieu of the controversial book entitled Blitzed - Drugs in Nazi Germany by Hermann Ohler, a debate has arisen in Germany in which the author and his supporters suggest that Hitler wasn't completely aware of what he was doing during the WWII because he was constantly high on opiates and amphetamines.

Critics believe that defending Hitler's misdeeds by suggesting he wasn't the real "author of his own actions" is a terrible thought, which is obviously a natural reflex given the extent of his gruesome actions. You could turn the argument around however and ask: If, at the beginning of the last century, we recognized that no-one were the true authors of their own actions, it being drug use or genocide, we might have stopped Hitler earlier - if we understood the circumstances that lead him to become the evil dictator and protected the dictator against itself, as with the tiger. And even more important: protected society against him before it was too late.

World history might have looked different, if knowledge regarding our lack of free will - given that Harris argument actually rings true, which I for one truly believe - was available at the beginning of of the 20th century.

Let's start this century by implementing these ideas in practice, and let's start with those at the bottom of the ladder, the weakest in society - those who do not even manage to control their own use of drugs. Who knows, perhaps we will manage to create a humane world without bloodthirsty dictators - perhaps we could create a world characterized by empathy for those who pull the worst card in life's lottery.

Let's start by abolishing the condemnation of drug addicts and take it anoter step from there. I am convinced, even if I lack the willpower.