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A simple utilitarian argument against drug dealing is that while the user may experience a great deal of pleasure, their family and friends are hurt more. But does this argument hold once a critical mass of people are hooked?

Imagine you are a heroin dealer. And imagine the region you work in is a connected graph, with each node being a person. Distance between nodes represents how close the relationship is and thus how much it will hurt one if the other is an addict. You start dealing to one person. He is totally satisfied in his drug-induced stupor, but his contacts aren't. So one person is ecstatic, 8 are despondent, for a happy-to-sad ratio (HSR) of 1-8. This could be represented by the following graph, were X's are sad people, and O's are addicts.

X X X
X O X
X X X

Now you expand your operation to those 8 people as well, meaning now there's 9 ecstatic people to 16 despondent people, for an HSR of 9-16.

X X X X X
X O O O X
X O O O X
X O O O X
X X X X X

Again, you expand your operation in the same way. The HSR here is 25-24.

X X X X X X X 
X O O O O O X
X O O O O O X
X O O O O O X
X O O O O O X
X O O O O O X
X X X X X X X

Expand again and it's 36-28.

X X X X X X X X 
X O O O O O O X
X O O O O O O X
X O O O O O O X
X O O O O O O X
X O O O O O O X
X O O O O O O X
X X X X X X X X

There seems to be an inverse-square law situation going on, where the satisfied grow exponentially and the hurt grow linearly. Even if you loosen the standards such that being mildly inconvenienced counts as being hurt, all that does is mean drug dealing requires more expansion before its benefits outweigh its costs. The same is true if you have a higher number of relationships-per-person, the more addicts there are, the more relationships will be addict-addict rather than addict-sober.

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    Interesting argument, but it only runs on the most simplified versions of utilitarianism. Even Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures stops the argument in its tracks, setting aside all of the other nuances in more sophisticated versions of utilitarianism. Less formally, the assumption that there is utility in being a heroin addict is itself a false assumption. Heroin addicts are mostly miserable by their own admission. Add to that the kinds of territorial wars that occur between drug dealers, and the whole thing falls apart very quickly the more real-world constraints you add. Jan 7 at 19:23
  • I'm more of a consenting adults guy. They made beer illegal once and it didn't stop anyone from drinking, it only led to the rise of organized crime. Prohibition never works. If someone wants to sit in a room and shoot heroin, I say let them do it and give them a cheap supply so they don't have to mug me or break into my car. We already have laws against impaired driving. As far as the utilitarian harm argument, you could outlaw Hostess Twinkies or sugared soft drinks on the same basis. It's a slippery slope. Plenty of people abuse legal drugs too.
    – user4894
    Jan 7 at 19:36
  • @transitionsynthesis Those both seem like problems of effectiveness, not morality. Do heroin addicts say they're miserable while they're high? It's my understanding they're miserable while sober, not while high. So a dealer who could keep them high 24/7 wouldn't have that problem. A similar argument will work in regards to gang wars, a good enough dealer will win and end up with a monopoly. The war won't expand at the same rate as his clientele.
    – Ryan_L
    Jan 7 at 19:41
  • Another point is that you are confusing the dangers of heroin with the dangers of prohibition itself. Studies have shown that heroin isn't actually all that bad for you. People with a steady, clean supply have functioned normally for years. (Unlike meth and coke, for example, that are bad for you regardless). When you make heroin illegal, it's harder to obtain and more expensive, so addicts have to spend all their time getting it so they can't hold a job; therefore they mug you to get the money. If you legalized heroin and made it easy to get, a lot of the negative issues would disappear.
    – user4894
    Jan 7 at 19:56
  • What you've shown here is quadratic, not exponential, growth for the "satisfied," which means that the ratio would grow linearly.
    – Sandejo
    Jan 7 at 22:37
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The balance of costs and benefits depends a lot on the considered drug. But I think your reasoning is flawed even going solely by its own premises.

You say "while the user may experience a great deal of pleasure, their family and friends are hurt more". Why are the user's relatives hurting? It is not because the user is high, which harms no one, but because of the side effects. Be it their spouse they can't assist in the housekeeping, their kids they don't take care of, their friends they stop interacting with, or their job they can't perform, if people around the users are hurting enough that it's noticeable we are not talking responsible, recreational use from the get go, whatever substance we may consider.

So now, what if we have the drug so widespread that basically everybody is high and nobody cares anymore if they're taken care of or not ? One thing that does not appear in your model is that, usually, non functioning addicts rely on other people to care for them. As the proportion of high people goes up, more and more burden is pushed on less and less functioning people, dramatically increasing their pain. Until the proportion of addicts is so high they can't be taken care of anymore, and everything collapses, including the dealer's market.

I think it is the main flaw of your model, to consider "being high" and "hurt because relative is addict" to be fixed values only to be multiplied by the number of addict or relatives, but it seems that while the value of "being high" is indeed fixed for each individual (actually, it decreases with time because of habituation), the "hurt" factor increases as more and more people stop functionning.

For the sake of completeness, let's also consider the case of functioning addicts, either because the product is relatively benign or all users are responsible in their consumption, then the question becomes "would utilitarianism approve the distribution of a product that makes people happy but has no side effect (by hypothesis)", which answer is kind of obvious.

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    +1. Besides, as the burden and hurt of the care-givers grows they, as responsorial agents, will soon pay back to the addicts, by obstructing their pleasure or even eliminating them, or depriving them of care. In this scenario, the overall sum of pleasure on the side of addicts eventially stops growing prior the "collaps" of the system.
    – ttnphns
    Jan 8 at 1:42
  • Yes, my corrected model includes the very generous assumption that the non addicts will even try and support the addicts as long as they possibly can. And even with that, it does not look very good...
    – armand
    Jan 8 at 1:58

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