If there are currently drugs which release more dopamine and other chemicals in the brain on a level which cannot be replicated naturally, why aren't more people taking them, considering you cannot attain that level of pleasure on your own?

And is the level of pleasure/happiness that is attained from taking these drugs actually better than the levels from natural achievements, or could they be be considered "fake"? For example, is a long life of achievements and success better than a life of drugs, even though the perceived feelings of pleasure wont be as high due to the amount of chemicals involved with the drugs? Is the high that you get from drugs "worth more" than the high of the best of human achievement, due to the chemical release involved?

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    It is not just about the "level" ("quantity") of pleasure, but also about its quality. Utilitarians, like Mill, rejected the purely quantitative conception of pleasure as "fit only for swine". And considered the "higher pleasures", like intellectual pleasures, infinitely more "superior" to what's attainable by getting high on dopamine and serotonin, see SEP, Happiness and Higher Pleasures.
    – Conifold
    Jun 11, 2023 at 0:17
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    You also have to consider sustainability , your ability to make the pleasure last and to reproduce it. How are you going to sustain your drug addiction if you are high 24/7 ? The original effect of dopamine is to help you identify and reproduce behaviors that help sustaining you (it's far from perfect, but useful). By taking drugs you are misleading this mechanism and motivating yourself into an attitude that will make it difficult to get your next fix. Spinoza in Ethics explained the importance of knowledge to find sustainable sources of joy.
    – armand
    Jun 12, 2023 at 23:26

7 Answers 7


My first point is: hard drugs aren't generally as good as people imagine.

Heroin makes your skin itch all over and gives you terrible constipation. Cocaine turns you into an intolerable arse of a human, to anyone not high by the same amount. Crack is extremely unsatisfying, to the point of burning up all the money you can access. And meth turns people gibberingly delusional, and withdrawal is horrific (heroin has a reputation for bad withdrawal, but handled gradually in a medical setting it can be painless; alcohol withdrawal can literally kill you outright very quickly if done too abruptly). A realistic picture of use and abuse is the first line of effective harm-minimisation.

Owen Cyclops: Let People Enjoy Things Image by 'Owen Cyclops' @OwenBroadcast

This comic I think portrays your suggestion, and the cliche of it's defence.

When exposed to addictive drugs, not everyone gets addicted, it is an inconvenient truth that healthy use is possible, though it's a bit of a lottery of what harms you might be susceptible to. 'Problematic usage' is around 15% of heroin and cocaine users and around 5% of alcohol users. It's interesting the different moral framing we have for alcohol, where we accept some involvement of choices for the addict, whereas there is this idea that hard drugs just 'hotwire' people exposed to them. A lot of that picture relates to flawed research on rats, where isolated rats with nothing to do chose drugged water over food, compulsively until they died. The Rat Park experiments revealed the flaws: if the rats have friends, and things to occupy them in their cages like running wheels, then most rats don't choose the drugs, and those that do only choose them occassionally.

The first drug-panic was when quick and cheap 'Ginevre' became available, for around the same price to make per bottle as beer, but more than ten times stronger. The fears were illustrated by Hogarth, as Gin Lane. Substantial government action was taken, to control and tax distilling, and the Temperance movement remained significant really until the end of Prohibition. But the deeper issue, was agricultural changes, and people dislocated from their communities sustained by commoning and crofting, to live in slums with no support networks, to work all the hours in mills and mines, in laundries and every kind of drudgery, where one injury or illness could end your working life.

In philosophy, Nozick framed a related thought-experiment, the Experience Machine. And, some people would genuinely choose his machine if available - and, many choose as close as they can, like the figure in the comic is portrayed, engaged in computer games and mood regulation of various kinds (which is the real subjective psychological purpose), through consuming stimulants and depressants and deliriants, while occupied with the ludic-loops of game worlds (or gambling). If you frame human purposes as purely about maximising personal happiness or pleasure, as us running a maze to get to dopamine and serotonin, that will even makes sense. But I would suggest what actually motivates us, is finding meaning; with pleasure and happiness as just supportive guides on our journey there.

The Rat Park work shows the impacts of nurture, of social networks and stimulation, or lack of. On nature, our biology, there's substantial work showing exposure to oxycontin and analgesics have been predisposing people to compulsive opioid use, eg increased use of fentanyl as an obstetric analgesic and the current opioid epidemic. There seems to be a link between stimulating opioid receptors and long term reductions in sensitivity that predisposes people who then encounter recreational opioids to addiction - I can't locate the research but I read that children born with some opioid epidurals are at substantially higher risk of related addiction as adults (pethedine has been shown not to have a link).

There's also research showing people paid well but with little control over their work, are less happy and live shorter lives, than people working longer and paid less such as self-employed people. See eg Autonomous orientation predicts longevity. This illustrates how often the thing we think we want, like money, is often just a necessary but not sufficient support for what we really want, like autonomy.

Evolutionarily, what organisms persist in an environment just depends on the replication of replicators. Withdrawal into unreal worlds and heavy drug use is probably not correlated with reproductive success, but then again it may work for some, and a culture or community that aligns these may emerge and persist. In the mechanistic picture, Dawkins describes:

"Now they [genes] swarm ... safe inside gigantic lumbering robots"

-in The Selfish Gene

And the phenotype-robots are controlled by our neurotransmitters regulated by genes, whereby if the incentives change we might cease to reproduce before we can evolve to meet the change - like The Giant Jewel Beetle That Mates With Beer Bottles, which was seriously damaged by the similarity of an Australian beer bottle to it's evolved mating queues (they changed the packaging to prevent risking it's extinction).

Biologist Denis Noble has a more optimistic counterpoint:

"Now they [genes] are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves."

-in The Music of Life

If we look at the emergence of intelligence, we find play among all the brightest creatures, the exploration and development of capacities, and a restlessness towards repetition and stasis, that makes boredom painful especially for young organisms.

So I'd bring these points together, to say retreat from reality is absolutely an option, and based on an individualistic picture of meaning and purpose in life it can even be justified. But, it will be a failing strategy for a species, and desire for that escape correlates with trauma, unhealthiness, and unhappiness - and will be boring, it won't fully engage us because relief from boredom is at root about using and developing our capacities.

A confounding factor is that drugs and games don't always mean a user is seeking to escape reality, they can involve exploration play and socialising in healthy ways. Psychaedelics in particular have been linked with inducing the kinds of neuroplasticity children seem to have, helping allow the rewiring of our brains to overcome trauma and unhappiness and compulsive or unhealthy behaviours. Similarly VR and computer games can augment rather than avoid socialising (I'm sceptical about the positives of gambling, but there too somewhat I guess).

I would note the human capacity to cooperate is our 'superpower', and to a large extent the selection process on culture and political systems will inevitably not only select out autocracies as just innefficient, but also pure individualistic selfishness, as failing to contribute to succesful cooperation. My picture of the mechanics of personal meaning arising from and in relation to our communities, here: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?

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    I'm all for people self-selecting out.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 11, 2023 at 11:32
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    @ScottRowe: I'm all for trying to save all sentient beings from suffering.. 🤷
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 11, 2023 at 11:46
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    It's good if they want to be part of saving themselves, tough if they don't want to. I can't want it for them.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 11, 2023 at 11:51

It depends...

If your life contains little in the way of natural satisfaction as generated by successes, then artificial happiness looks attractive, and the illegality of the drug and the inevitability of addiction are insufficient as deterrents. Then, once you are addicted, you have no rational or logical choice in the matter. You must continue taking the drug whether or not you want to, just to maintain some minimal level of functionality.

For people who do not need supplemental dopamine because their life furnishes them with happiness and satisfaction, there is no motivation to eat the drug, and its illegality and the risk of addiction serve as sufficient deterrent. The exception here would be the thrill-seekers who drug themselves recreationally and then become addicts.

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    So this is part of the basis for the argument that we shouldn't punish drug addicts, but instead improve their lives. But really, we should just improve their lives first. We just have to decide who 'we' is.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 11, 2023 at 11:35
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    @ScottRowe, agree 100%. Jun 11, 2023 at 19:15
  • This reads a bit biased, labeling drugs as 'artificial happiness' and in one quick phrase mentioning 'thrill-seekers who drug themselves recreationally and then become addicts.' as if there is no other possible outcome. I grew up in an environment with heavy drug use all around. Most people turn out fine; they move on, they learn to use on a manageable level. Only a few (well under 10%) have serious problems as a result.
    – user66406
    Jun 12, 2023 at 20:42

The truth is you can have both if you live long enough:

  1. Achieve all you can while you are young and able.
  2. When you are old, successful, and retired by all means smoke a bowl! It's legal in many states. Vist Oregon!

It's called deferred gratification.

As a side note, successful, knowledgeable old people have great stories making them far more interesting when they are high.😉


In the Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant argues:

It is surprising that men, otherwise acute, can think it possible to distinguish between higher and lower desires, according as the ideas which are connected with the feeling of pleasure have their origin in the senses or in the understanding; for when we inquire what are the determining grounds of desire, and place them in some expected pleasantness, it is of no consequence whence the idea of this pleasing object is derived, but only how much it pleases. Whether an idea has its seat and source in the understanding or not, if it can only determine the choice by presupposing a feeling of pleasure in the subject, it follows that its capability of determining the choice depends altogether on the nature of the inner sense, namely, that this can be agreeably affected by it. However dissimilar ideas of objects may be, though they be ideas of the understanding, or even of the reason in contrast to ideas of sense, yet the feeling of pleasure, by means of which they constitute the determining principle of the will (the expected satisfaction which impels the activity to the production of the object), is of one and the same kind, not only inasmuch as it can only be known empirically, but also inasmuch as it affects one and the same vital force which manifests itself in the faculty of desire, and in this respect can only differ in degree from every other ground of determination.

He actually goes on and on about this in that section of the text, with local examples, but if I try to post the entire quote, it'll show up as a horrible blob of words, here. Anyway, see also Kant's Doctrine of Virtue, specifically the section on "duties with respect to our animal nature": Kant curiously argues that alcohol can be morally useful when it makes drinkers more honest, for example.

Now, a theistic philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, argued that the ultimate goal of human life is the visio beatifico, or the direct perception of God. Abstracting over this sideways, we might offer that the direct perception of "ultimate reality," if such a thing there is (and then whatever it is), is the highest possible long-term achievement as such. And now there are people who claim that, when exposed to high enough doses of DMT, they engage with something known as the Central Light, which satisfies the description "ultimate heart of all possible reality" (or whichever castle-in-the-air you're looking for). Apparently, then, there is a drug that can, perhaps, "magically" give you the beatific vision. (I myself don't know about that for certain, for when I tried DMT, I panicked before taking in a large enough dose to trigger the "rapture," and when I tried to discuss concepts like aleph numbers and Platonic Forms and noumena, with people who "broke through," I was met with hostility and mockery, which made me think that those people are mostly arrogant and so arguably untrustworthy.)

One might also worry, modulo criticisms of capitalism or similar economic standpoints, that there isn't really much in the way of "long-term achievement" anyway (or that expecting every possible laborer to dedicate their lives to fulfilling the valorful whims of the aristocracy is already a non-starter), or that death nullifies all achievements anyway, etc. Generally, I would be wary of thinking that pleasure by whichever means can be quantified so sharply as to allow us to make strict/absolute comparisons between the amount that can be cultivated by abstract "internal" processes and what can be unleashed by high dosages of "external" chemicals (e.g. consider people who internally produce alcohol).


Not a doctor or a biologist but I'm pretty sure your conception of how drugs work isn't correct (though again not an expert, pls consult more trustworthy sources).

Though afaik drugs work by faking messenger molecules that excite nerves to fire electric signals. So chances are the cap isn't even the production of these messenger molecules but the reception by the nerves. So upping the dose might not always make you more high, but it could also run into a saturation where no new material can be processed and you piss/shit out the rest, damage your kidneys or have unintended, negative or even fatal consequences of overdosing.

The other thing is that nerves firing all the time isn't great either so they likely will "recognize" that it's a false alarm and readjust their parameters that filter out this noise. So you're likely going to damage these pathways and/or require consecutively higher doses for the same effect.

The other problem is that "better" implies that you have something to compare it to and/or a parameter that is being tracked for comparison. However "pleasure" and happiness are notoriously hard to track. Like if something gives you the time of your life, it doesn't mean that repetition or increase in intensity will increase or repeat the effect. On the contrary if your motivation is curiosity, repetition makes it boring. So the effect can decrease over time or even be negated altogether and turned into it's opposite.

And you have the problem that you always ever live in the "now". Meaning "future you" will hate "present you" for being happy while he/she is sad (in the "future now"), but simultaneously "present you" can only feel "present happy" so "delayed gratification" isn't actually "present you"'s happiness but "future you"'s happiness, while present you might feel even more down. So for this to work present you would need to be able to gain pleasure from anticipation so that "present you" and "future you" are able to enjoy their state of existence.

Which puts "present you" into a weird position where they enjoy the present in anticipation of a future that is different from the present that they already enjoy. So some sort of self-deception to enjoy the state of being as it is, which will be how it is because the future will be the present until there is no future.

The difference is that this is dynamic, you stay in a similar state or aim to stay in a similar state but it's an active struggle, while you propose a static state where you keep present you in a state of blissful occupancy for all eternity or however life will last.

Though a) what's the point in continued existence if nothing changes? Like it's objectifying people, in the sense that you become an object rather than a subject. b) This necessarily means that future you is worse off than present you as you know at some point this is going to end and the anticipation of the end somewhat taints the experience or requires the suppression of the self that is aware of that knowledge. c) Though if you suppress yourself to be happy, who actually are "you" in that scenario.


The short answer is that epicureanism -- I.E. the pursuit of pleasures and avoidance of pains, is only a first approximation of what truly motivates us. We humans are further motivated by social interactions, accomplishments, and by what we have turned ourselves into -- IE what virtues we feel we exemplify with our life and self. Pure epicurean thinking argues for the drugged up life. All the other values would suggest such a life would be pointless and a failure.

For the long answer, I endorse the answer provided by @CrigleCragle.


The pleasure of drugs is better than long-term achievements according to Charbak Philosophy founded by ancient Indian philosopher Brihaspati. This school of philosophy says that the ultimate goal of man is to attain "pleasure" regardless of the consequences as the ultimate consequence of all concious beings is death.

According to Nietzsche, attaining "pleasure" gives the mind a feeling of "satisfaction" and "calmness" that prevents the individual from pursuing long-term achievements. Thus, the pleasure of drugs is harmful according to Nietzsche.

According to Buddhist philosophy, "pleasure" acts an obstruction to "salvation". A logical explanation of this belief goes as the following:- Attaining pleasure makes you addicted, and you suffer later if you are not able to get pleasure.

I have provided the views of three philosophers. This may help you to draw a conclusion.

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