Everyone has free will. Whilst this can have positive implications, such as exercising or volunteering, it also means that we can engage in behaviours that are more harmful for ourselves, like drinking copious amounts of alcohol until we pass out. But the point of free will also means that since there is no-one forcing us to partake in certain behaviours, we also have the ability to stop ourselves from taking something too far. At least that’s the idea, but often an addiction can mean that we lose that ability to control ourselves. This is because the most harmful substances trigger a physical and mental response which are enjoyable to the point where you want it to be repeated.
There are two types of liberty: positive and negative. Positive liberty is the right to be able to do something, for example, the right to smoke. Negative liberty is the right to be free from harm and external restraints, for example, the right not to smoke or the right not to have to breathe in smoke from other people’s cigarettes. However, if someone is addicted to nicotine, they do not have the option not to smoke; because of their urges, they have to recreate the feeling they experience after smoking. Addictions take away a sense of personal freedom in that they can control a person’s ability to make rational choices if the addiction is not satisfied. The degree to which a person has freedom is contested by politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives believe that a person has the ability to stop fulfilling an addiction by themselves, which justifies cutting budgets to rehabilitation programmes. Liberals, on the other hand, support community projects that help rehabilitate alcoholics or narcotics, and believe that those dealing with addictions need outside help. The liberal viewpoint of rehabilitative justice, especially in cases where drugs are concerned or a crime is committed under the influence of narcotics or alcohol, is portrayed by conservatives and the media as being ‘soft on crime’, which was very influential – especially in America – and can lead to an unbalanced system where the punishment is harsher than the offence.
It can be argued that when an individual first takes a substance, they have free will. However, that is not always the case, because often a variety of factors, such as the socioeconomic situation a person is in and peer pressure, can influence not only the substances that are available, but whether those substances are then taken. One of the most important debates around addictions is about freedom of choice: how much freedom does an individual have when they first try a substance, and how much freedom does an individual have once they are addicted. If we have freedom of choice, then surely, we have the same freedom when we decide to stop? But the point with addictions is that it’s hard to stop once you get hooked. Moreover, if we live in a free country, then we should have the ability to make certain choices, even if they have the potential to harm you. We can never truly live our lives harm-free. This creates an argument that banning substances on the basis of harm caused is not very useful, because we live in a world where we make choices that have the potential to incur harm like driving to work or drinking coffee that’s too hot. Choosing a particular brand of cigarette and smoking it is an example of exercising choice and personal freedom. Whilst it can be argued that laws that seek to regulate certain products by imposing age restrictions are infringing on personal freedoms, most laws serve as a way to protect children and teenagers and reduce the possibility of harmful effects from addictive substances such as alcoholism or respiratory problems.
But surely by this logic you should be able to do whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t harm anybody? The problem with this question is that it assumes that your actions do not harm people. Again, we have laws that limit the indirect harms that can occur. For example, people aren’t allowed to smoke inside and rather have designated smoking areas, and in some countries, people can be arrested for being drunk and disorderly. But it is simplistic to then say that you are only harming yourself. While you may be the only one having adverse side-effects from your drug habit, there are people in South America whose lives are uprooted and are in constant danger from rival drug gangs who you are funding via your cocaine habit. In a country with an underfunded medical system, if you are treated for a medical condition as a result of an addiction, it means that there may not be enough resources to treat someone else whose medical condition is most likely not self-inflicted. And unless you are completely alone in the world, your addiction may cause emotional harm to your family and friends. Addictions cause much greater harm than on an individual level, and most of us may not take that into account.
Addiction is a lot more complicated than anyone would have initially thought. We do not necessarily think about how they may harm others apart from ourselves. The harmful health effects may not be enough to stop someone from smoking, because in the end, they have the freedom to do what they want. And if you’re already hooked on nicotine, a couple of disgusting pictures on cigarette cartons aren’t going to stop you. But the harms extend a lot further than the individual level and perhaps we just need to be a little bit more selfless and aware of the world around us. But then again, it’s your choice. It’s a free country.
[ Image Credit: Prateek Katyal ]