Say that

  1. I’m a drug user
  2. I'm aware that such drugs are harmful.
  3. Nevertheless, I still want to use them.

If the government bans recreational drug use on the basis that they’re harmful to individuals and society as a whole, would this banning constitute an undermining of my autonomy (insofar as I know they’re bad and I still want to get high)?

  • Depends on what stands for morality here. There are various theories which give various answers. – rus9384 May 8 '18 at 6:54
  • I'm not prepared to offer a coherent answer here, but a (compelling?) argument governmental ban on illegal drugs undermines the autonomy of all individuals, regardless of whether an individual actually uses drugs, can be found in Peter McWilliams' Aint Nobody's Business If You Do: the Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in our Free Country. Adding another dimension to the question can make it even more complicated: instead of imagining a drug user, imagine it from the perspective of a drug addict. – simpatico May 8 '18 at 14:57

While there's lots of theories, the way you've formulated the question narrows the possible answers pretty significantly.

We can narrow even further what views would allow or prohibit it by addressing a potential ambiguity.

First, let's start with autonomy. The term has more ambiguity than you might hope, but let's work with the SEP definition:

Individual autonomy is an idea that is generally understood to refer to the capacity to be one's own person, to live one's life according to reasons and motives that are taken as one's own and not the product of manipulative or distorting external forces.

If we want to simplify it, then autonomy is to

  1. Know what it is that I would choose to do.
  2. Choose to do that thing.

In your question, you state you are "aware" that such drugs are harmful. There's an ambiguity there about what that "awareness" entails. On one reading, it would mean that you have knowledge that this is true but are not moved by such knowledge. On another reading, it means that you don't really fully grasp what it means for such drugs to "be harmful." The latter case would mean that you are not autonomous, because you would fail the knowledge condition. So let's just assume that what you mean is that you have full knowledge of the harm it causes.

On such a reading, it's quite possible the government is undermining your autonomy because it is preventing you from taking a course of action you fully understand.

But a second possibility still remains. Aristotle identified the notion of Akrasia ("weakness of will"). Augustine also looks at the problem of the will. The basic case of akrasia is that you know what you ought to do but somehow you don't do it.

In the case of drug use that you know is harmful but you still do it, this could actually indicate a lack of autonomy vis-a-vis a weak will. This is the best most thinkers in the West prior to the era of Kant would be able to make sense of your action, because the classical idea of action is that you get a practical syllogism, e.g.

  1. Everyone with back pain should exercise.
  2. I have back pain.
  3. Thus, I should exercise.
  4. Therefore, I (will to and then do in fact) exercise

The hard part is that 4 does not always follow even when 1-3 are in place.

The place where this runs into your argument is that you know the drugs are harmful. Thus, the corresponding practical syllogism is that you shouldn't do them. Therefore, on the classical picture, you have a problem of will and are not acting autonomously.

On a modern picture, you might still be able to plead that this autonomous because the orientation to the good that the classical philosophers assumed need not be a part of the picture. (in other words, in the above argument, I have assumed "harm" is an objective reason not to choose something, because objective harm is against the good. Without this belief, no practical syllogism arises about how to relate to the harm -- leaving it open).

Let's rearrange all of that back to your question about the government.

First, we have to assume your awareness is knowledge that is sufficient (or complete) with respect to the choice. Second, we have to assume that this choice is not arising from weakness of the will but is itself well-reasoned or at least within the realm of rational choice.

Given these two assumptions, the government prohibiting you from doing it would be undermining your autonomy.

In all practical situations, the government is denying that you are acting rationally and autonomy either because your will is compromised or because your awareness of the harm is insufficient. Thus, the government does not think it is denying your autonomy -- but rather acting on behalf of someone who doesn't meet either the knowledge or choice criterion for autonomy

  • Insofar as the question title mentions addicts, they have limited autonomy to act, as a consequence of their earlier choices and actions. If, beforehand, they considered addiction to be harmful but assumed it would not happen to them, then, with hindsight, we can see that their decisions then were made with inaccurate awareness. Does it follow that addicts have little autonomy now, regardless of the law, and that they also lacked it when they became addicted, on account of their awareness being faulty, if they assumed they could resist addiction? – sdenham May 8 '18 at 15:25
  • If we accept everything you say about addicts, then (a) both those who are addicts and (b) those who wind up being addicts would both be people of limited autonomy. But then that's to deny either one or both of the criteria I mentioned (knowledge and choice). – virmaior May 8 '18 at 15:35
  • But when I audited a class on the autonomy literature, I learned some strange things about addiction. Specifically, the behavior of most addicts is at least semi-rational in that they are able to make calculated judgments about when to get high, etc., this tends to undermine the addiction as unstoppable compulsion and suggest that it is possible that someone is rationally choosing to use drugs on a repetitive basis. Now, if we keep digging we can always circle back and say there's something making their behavior actually non-rational – virmaior May 8 '18 at 15:37
  • But the strategy "people who do things I don't like must be non-rational or incapable of making choices" can descend pretty quickly into some ugly authoritarianism that most of us would find unpalatable. One of the main ways people try to address this is by adding orders of autonomy -- "ah yes, he's first-order autonomous but ... he's second order non-autonomous because he's only interested in doing drugs because he was scolded as a child and this warped his values." Or by adding further criteria to the standard of autonomy. – virmaior May 8 '18 at 15:39

This is a very interesting question.

In a way, the prohibition of drugs is a philosophical paradox.

On one hand, allowing people to do drugs ensures their individual freedom and allows them to think for themselves.

On the other hand, proliferation of drug use within a society in the long term will diminish the ability of those within the society to have independence.

At the end of the day, what's best for the individual may not be what is best for society in the long term. As I see it, the more drugs are used, the "duller" a society becomes. The degree by which drugs inhibit people intellectually of course varies depending on which drugs are being used and the frequency of their use. But in general, long term and frequent use of drugs is proven to have negative effects of the brain - Therefore diminishing your intellectual freedom. There are sacrifices to individual freedom that must be made in order to ensure the furtherment, quality, and perceived value of intellectual endeavors in both the humanities and sciences.

The more disconnected people are and the more they become dependent on escapist activities, the less interested people will be in endeavors that don't produce a physical benefit. (ie. Philosophy, History, Literature, etc.)


Autonomy - recreational drugs

Few in society live an autonomous existance. Food, shelter, heat, work, travel, safety are provided by others. Drugs imply addiction, antisocial behaviour, cost and destruction of someones life and their social network.

Making drugs illegal merely gives the police and courts the ability to discourage such behaviour and exact a cost from the perpetrators.

By merely taking recreational drugs costs society in medical, social, environmental, police, hospital, job costs. So rather than making drugs illegal impacting the drug user badly, it is rightly putting a price on the impact they are having on everyone else.

If drug users were autonomous and stayed such, no one would bother worrying about drugs. Look at the drugs culture, its violence and the death of young people caught up in it, making it illegal is just a first step.

Providing legal counselled alternative sources should though go hand in hand providing a way out and a possible future.

  • Depends on what you call drugs, though. There are some things considered drugs which are not more harmful than frustration from them being banned, I'd say. – rus9384 May 8 '18 at 13:54
  • Unfortunately all drugs that get banned are banned because of the harmful effects they are having, else they would not have bothered to ban them. Alcohol is not banned but restricted, simply because they could not ban it effectively, but can limit its impact. Some other drugs are going down this road as well. – PeterJens May 8 '18 at 14:18
  • I'd argue they are banned because of confirmation bias. Can you prove I am wrong? How much wrong? Completely wrong? – rus9384 May 8 '18 at 14:19
  • Much of what gets legally and socially prohibited is determined, at least in some small way, by majority and/or monied influence, and this is all undergirdded by beliefs about causality. I would argue "drugs culture -- its violence and the death of young people caught up in it" is at least as causally related to the fact of illegality as it is to any characteristic of the commodity. I enjoy clipping my toenails. If we made toenail clippers illegal, I imagine the black market for them would be marked by violence, since this is a characteristic of black markets, not the commodity itself. – simpatico May 8 '18 at 15:04
  • 1
    But again, some of them are strong drugs and some are weak. No reason to equal them all. That's the worst mistake people ever do when speaking about drugs. – rus9384 May 8 '18 at 18:45


Banning recreational drug use certainly reduces the freedom of the user, who is no longer free to do what previously they did. They are no longer exempt from interference. What they previously did voluntarily - use recreational drugs - they are now forced not to do. There is a legal barrier between them and what they want to do. (I assume the law is effective - a large assumption.) This diminishes the area of freedom.

I use 'freedom' here as it is widely used in ordinary discourse. I say nothing metaphysical about freedom of the will.


How is autonomy affected if it is different from freedom ?

X (a) cannot choose to live in the way they see fit (b) in accordance with the values they have accepted, and (c) carrying out decisions they have made without external hindrance. These conditions of autonomy are defeated.

There are wider and different views of autonomy but in this minimal sense, a ban undermines autonomy to the extent that it blocks any or all of these conditions.


However, one can expand the idea of autonomy beyond this minimal view. Suppose, for instance, we take a view of autonomy along these lines :

A person can be said to be autonomous to the extent that (d) what they think or do cannot be explained without reference to their own activity of mind and (e) that activity is competent. Much is vague and contestable here but I have in mind that a person lacks autonomy to the extent that they are unable to conceive a range of alternatives rather than just a single action, to estimate or foresee the consequences of their actions, and to revise their choices on reflection and to act on those choices.

We can add to this provisional account that an autonomous person has the minimal rationality of (f) believing propositions that are strongly supported by the evidence available to them, (g) refraining from believing propositions that are improbable on the available evidence, and (h) striving for a broad consistency among their beliefs.

Now, it would be reasonably argued that in banning recreational drug use, the law (to the extent that it is effective) acts as a barrier to the destruction or impairment of autonomy, as conceived in this way, that can result from recreational drug use. In this sense the law reinforces and protects autonomy.


Gerald Dworkin, The Theory and Practice of Autonomy, Cambridge : CUP, 1988.

Peter H. Schuck, 'Rethinking Informed Consent', The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 103, No. 4 (Jan., 1994), pp. 899-959. (Includes discussion of autonomy.)

R. S. Downie and Elizabeth Telfer, 'Autonomy', Philosophy Vol. 46, No. 178 (Oct., 1971), pp. 293-301.

Rüdiger Bittner, 'Autonomy Modest', Erkenntnis (1975-), Vol. 79, Supplement 7: WHAT MAY WE BELIEVE? WHAT OUGHT WE TO DO? Keynote Papers of the Eighth Congress of the Gesellschaft für Analytische Philosophie at Konstanz, September 17–20, 2012 (2014), pp. 1329-1339.

Thomas Kelly, 'Epistemic Rationality as Instrumental Rationality: A Critique', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 66, No. 3 (May, 2003), pp. 612-640.

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