Why are drugs illegal anyway?


I want to preface this post by stating that I don’t actually use recreational drugs, nor would I have any plans to, even if they were legal. That said, I actually don’t understand why there is prohibition of marijuana and other recreational drugs.

This is supposed to be more of a question regarding political philosophy than a polemic against prohibition, so try to read it in that light. The purpose of most laws I can fairly easily trace back to reasonably acceptable premisses. For example, in Canada, I’m pretty sure there’s a law against murder. The reason for that is because we don’t want to allow a person to be able to harm another person in that way. Similarly with theft, speeding, assault, etc.

The justification is (more or less) that as many people should be as free as is feasible. Put another way, everyone should be free to swing his fist, unless that’s where another person’s nose is.

So let’s assume for the moment that the use of recreational drugs actually does harm to the person using the drug. (This is true for some of them, probably not true for marijuana, but for the sake of argument, let’s concede this point.) That itself can’t be the reason for prohibition, because we allow alcohol, which causes many health problems. We also allow the use of tobacco, which causes other health problems. You might argue that tobacco and alcohol use are both restricted—there are certain times and places they can’t be used—but the reason for that isn’t concern for the smoker or the drinker’s health. The reason that someone can’t smoke within 9 metres of the hospital or school doors is for the benefit of other people, not the smoker. It’s because people who don’t want to smoke shouldn’t be harmed by those who do. Same thing with the drinker who wants to drive.

Similarly, access to other drugs is (rightly) restricted. For example, you can’t just go to the pharmacy and buy penicillin. It has to be prescribed to you by a doctor. But again, this is not because of some harm you might cause yourself, but because the unrestricted use of antibiotics would create more resistant strains of bacteria, which would be harmful to everyone.

Even if the use of recreational drugs was exactly as bad as the worst fear-mongers would have you believe, I’m not sure that’s a good reason for prohibition. The philosophy that we take toward alcohol, tobacco, TV consumption, or high-fat/high-sodium diets is the same. We allow anyone over 21 to buy cigarettes and drain money out of our healthcare system when they need treatment for emphysema. We allow anyone to buy potato chips, and the healthcare system pays for their treatment when they have a myocardial infarct. The position that we have taken as a society is, As long as you’re not hurting someone else, who are we to tell you to stop?

So here’s my question: Why do we think differently about recreational drugs?

This is a serious question. Can someone tell me what the reasoning is behind prohibition? Have I missed something? Is there some justification beyond paternalism?

Free online game theory course


So a few months ago I signed up for a free online course in Game Theory, taught by two professors at Stanford. I like Stanford. Ever since I discovered the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy as an undergrad (the one website that philosophy profs will allow you to cite in your papers), I had a profound respect for this institution’s free online offerings.

The course isn’t for credit at all—there’s just video lectures, and “quizzes” integrated into the videos. I guess I’m sort of interested in it because it relates to my thesis subject. Ever since I wrote my thesis on it, I find the whole idea of collaborative enterprises fascinating, and I would love to be able to more rigorously analyse what regulations would make a complex system with multiple stakeholders work best.

The course was supposed to start in “late February 2012,” so I waited until today—I was going to send the professors an email, since February 29th is about as late in February as you can get. So I opened up the site for the course to find a contact email address, and found the following message:

Regarding the start-date of the Game Theory Online course: The University is still finalizing policies to cover its new online courses, and so there has been some delay in the launching of the courses. We anticipate being able to launch the course soon, and will keep you informed of any news on the starting date. Matt and Yoav

I’ll let you know if anything interesting comes of this. Let me know if you sign up for the course yourself. :)

Necessary and sufficient conditions for a person to be in pain


"Pain Rating" from xkcd.com

"Pain Rating" from xkcd.com

“If a person feels pain, she is in pain.”

If you’re like me, this statement will seem to be true on first examination. In fact, for nurses, this is the current orthodoxy on pain: namely, that a person’s subjective experience of pain is the necessary and sufficient condition for that person to have a pain.

If you read the second panel of the comic attached to this post, you’ll see an example of the way that nurses are actually instructed to assess a patient’s level of pain. We ask a patient to rate her pain on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is almost no pain and 10 is the worst pain imaginable, and the level of pain reported is taken to be the level of pain that the patient is experiencing. For a nurse, there is no conception of pain outside of the patient’s subjective experience of it.

The attached comic brings up one of the major problems with this system for rating pain. The point of the comic is that because the scale is entirely subjective, there is a kind of incommensurability built in to the scale from the outset. Imagine two people who have exactly the same subjective experience of pain. If one of them has a better imagination for painful experiences, she will rate her pain much lower than her counterpart who is having the same objective experience of pain.

Nurses, however, are not worried by this definition in the slightest. In fact, it is heartily accepted and defended vehemently. At our skills lab a couple weeks ago, this definition of pain was defended roughly as follows: If you ignore a patient-client’s claim that she is in pain and withhold pain medication, you are torturing her.

Is subjective experience of pain a sufficient condition?

I completely agree with a desire to avoid putting a patient through unnecessary pain. Further, I think I would want health professionals to adopt a policy where a person’s subjective experience of pain is considered to be a sufficient condition for that person to be in pain.

The only candidate case that I can think of for a pain that is unreal but felt would be a pain in a phantom limb. In some cases of people who have had limbs amputated, they still feel sensations or pains in the limbs even though they have been removed, and the person cannot be experiencing pain in that limb.

But even this case isn’t a very convincing counter-example to the sufficiency of a person’s subjective experience as a criterion for pain. I still want to say that a person with a pain in her phantom limb is experiencing a genuine pain, even though there is no limb to be feeling the pain.

And because the pain may be distressing to the patient, of course I would want health professionals to adopt a policy where such pain is treated like a genuine pain, and steps to alleviate it are taken.

Is subjective experience of pain a necessary condition?

But is it a necessary condition? That is, could a person be in pain, even though that person is not having a subjective experience of it? David Palmer wrote a moderately famous article called Unfelt Pains, in which he argues that this might be the case.

What would an “unfelt pain” look like? Palmer gives the example of a headache that goes unnoticed.

If a distraction makes me forget my headache does it make my head stop aching, or does it only stop me feeling it aching? (Analysis, vol. 14 [1953–54], p. 51 ff.)

Intuitions on this will differ, and I won’t recapitulate Palmer’s argument in its entirety here. (It’s worth looking over though.) But let’s imagine that it is the case that being distracted from a headache doesn’t stop the head from aching—rather, being distracted from a headache only stops one from feeling it aching.

If that is the case, then we have an example of an unfelt pain—an ache that is (at least for a time) unfelt.

Why does this matter?

This is more than just an academic concern. If unfelt pains exist, then this might impact a nurse’s practice in certain cases.

Let’s take distraction from pain as an exemplar case. Imagine that a person was having a pain, but has been distracted. The patient is not having a subjective experience of pain, due to the distraction. If we take the orthodox nursing position on the matter, this means that the person does not have a pain while she is distracted. If we side with Palmer, it means that the person is still in pain, but she is distracted.

Another good example to consider might be the case of a person who is in constant pain, but who has fallen into a dreamless (but unfortunately restless) asleep, in which she is having no subjective experience of pain.

If you are a nurse in charge of patient pain medication, do you discontinue pain medication in these examples? Depending on whether you think the pain still exists even though it is unnoticed, the answer may differ.

Good decisions and bad decisions


A decision is a good one or a bad one ex ante, regardless of what can be said about the results of the decision ex post. By ex ante, I mean, “as evaluated prospectively.” By ex post, I mean, “as evaluated retrospectively.”

I will give some examples to clarify what I mean.


Troi in "Disaster"

Troi in "Disaster"

You are Deanna Troi (yes, from Star Trek: The Next Generation—don’t pretend you don’t remember this episode!) and the Enterprise suffers a terrible accident. It is about to explode. For some reason, you’re actually in command of the ship, despite the fact that you don’t wear a proper uniform. Against the advice of Ensign Ro, you decide to stick around to wait and see if someone downstairs fixes the ship before it explodes, even though you have the opportunity to escape. You have no reason to believe that anyone else is alive, but if you leave, there will be no power for anyone to fix the ship and save themselves. Fortunately for everyone, Riker and Data’s head go to engineering and save the day just in time.

Superbowl bet

You are a fan of American football, and on the night of the Superbowl, you make a bet with your friend on who will win the big game. You bet $100 on the underdog, knowing full well that they stand little chance of winning. Fortunately for you, the quarterback for the favoured team falls ill and throws up over the rest of the team. As a result, the entire team spends the next several hours projectile vomiting, and they have to forfeit the game. Your friend admits defeat and pays up the $100.

Drunk driver

You are drinking heavily, and you get into your car and drive yourself home, despite your friends’ protests and attempts to stop you. Fortunately for everyone, the streets are empty of both people and other cars, and you manage to bring yourself and your car home completely safe.

In all of these cases, ex post, you made the right decision—by that, I mean, there was an optimal result, if you consider the decision from the perspective of hindsight. Ex ante, however, in all of these cases, you made the wrong decision.

I put these examples in the order that I did because I think that readers will be most sympathetic to the decision in the first example, and least sympathetic to the decision in the last example.

In Disaster, an unreflecting analysis would say that of course Troi made the right decision—it’s the Enterprise, for Pete’s sake! They have to be all right. In Superbowl bet, you might even imagine your friend begrudgingly admitting after the fact that you made the right call (although he might say that it was “just luck,” and for some of us, our intuitions might differ). In Drunk driver, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say that you made the right decision.

Decision trees

Decision trees

All of these cases have the same form, which I have diagrammed to the left. You can make one of two decisions—choice A or choice B. If you make choice A, you are likely to experience a very bad result, but there is a small chance that you will experience a good result. If you make choice B, you are certain to experience a mediocre result (one that has more utility than the very bad result, but less utility than the good result).

If all of these scenarios have the same form, we should give the same answer to the question as to what should be done in each situation, on pain of acting irrationally.

So even though you won $100 in Superbowl bet, you made the wrong decision. You should have declined to bet. Similarly, even though Troi saved the Enterprise in Disaster, she should have condemned Riker and Data’s head to death.

Why is this important?

Humans are really bad at judging probabilities and systematically make certain sorts of errors. In particular, humans are easily swayed by trying to place experiences into the context of a narrative.

For example, after being told a story about a young woman who participates in feminism rallies and studies math in college, there is a non-zero percentage of people who will say that it is more likely that she will end up as a feminist banker than as a banker, which is logically impossible. (This is the “conjunction fallacy”—all feminist bankers are bankers, after all.)

You may have won bets that were long shots in the past, out of sheer luck. In fact, if you are a betting man, likely those are the bets you remember, to the exclusion of the ones with the same odds that you lost. The point is that you shouldn’t model your future decisions after such mistakes.

Also, if someone is trying to sway your decisions through an anecdote regarding his or her own success in an endeavour that is unlikely to succeed, it is also irrational to take that as evidence on which to base your decision-making process. If the story includes the line, “and against all odds, everything turned out all right,” or something like it, you should interpret that as meaning, “I made the wrong decision, but I was lucky this time,” and treat it as a cautionary tale.

The moral of the story is that you should model your thinking after Ensign Ro, and not after Troi.

A scary email to receive less than a week before the thesis submission deadline


I bet you thought I was done posting about my thesis. Last Friday (6 days ago), I received this email after I had the pleasure of submitting my thesis electronically.

[Your supervisor] approved your e-thesis on September 23, 2011 at 11:51.

If your thesis has been accepted by all your supervisor(s), it has been sent to GPSO for processing.

If your thesis has been rejected, please make the changes requested by your supervisor(s) to your original document*, and create a new pdf, delete the file on the server, and upload the new file.

You can track the progress of your thesis on Minerva.

Hooray! It was good news to receive this email, and I tweeted about it immediately, of course.

Then, this morning, I received the following email.

Dear Benjamin, … We [at the philosophy department] have been told that you haven’t submitted your thesis electronically, and this is one of the graduation conditions. Can you do this immediately? The conditions have to be met by Tuesday, 4 October. Best wishes.

October 4th is on Tuesday (5 days from now). I’m pretty sure that my thesis has been submitted electronically. Here is my evidence:

  • Minerva lists my thesis as being uploaded and approved
  • I received the aforementioned email from the e-thesis computer

So I really don’t know what this fuss from the philosophy department is all about, but now I’m nervous that something’s messed up.

Moral dilemmas generated by a nurse’s professional obligations


In loose and general terms, a moral dilemma is what happens when someone is caught between two (or more) conflicting legitimate moral claims.

A resolvable moral dilemma, on the one hand, is one in which one moral claim on the agent in question is more important than the other. In such a case, the agent is in the position of having to choose between a greater and a lesser evil.

An irresolvable a moral dilemma, on the other hand, occurs when someone has to make a decision between two (or more) options, where morality gives absolutely no guidance regarding which decision to make.

I find moral dilemmas utterly fascinating, and one came up in class last week. We were talking about professionalism in nursing, and this case was never resolved in class (to my satisfaction, at least).

As a nurse, there are certain obligations that arise just by virtue of the fact that a nurse is a professional. For example, a nurse is bound by confidentiality, just because she is a nurse. (And not necessarily because she offers a promise of confidentiality to any particular client.) It would be severely unprofessional for a nurse to disclose the physical condition of one of her clients to someone who is not directly involved in the client’s care.

Conversely, a nurse sometimes has a duty to share certain pieces of information regardless of the wishes of the client for the information to be kept confidential, and this duty arises just because she is a nurse.

It’s really easy to see how these two professional obligations in particular could result in incompatible but legitimate moral claims on a nurse’s conduct. There are some examples where it’s clear what a nurse should do, but then there are a lot of cases where it’s not so clear. I’ll lay out a number of such examples to illustrate.

The child molester

In this case, a client is sexually molesting his nine-year-old niece, and he tells the nurse, but asks her to keep it a secret. Here, it is clear that regardless of the wishes of the client to keep his conduct secret, the nurse has a professional obligation to tell certain people (the niece’s parents, the police) about the molestation because of the degree of harm to the niece. I think it is non-controversial that we could characterise this as a classic resolvable dilemma—the nurse should break confidentiality, which is a legitimate moral constraint on her actions, but because the nurse also acts to prevent harm to the patient, she chooses the lesser evil.

This case is clear. The wrong of breaking confidentiality is clearly outweighed by preventing the wrong of further sexual exploitation. But what about cases that are otherwise parallel, but in which there is less harm to the child? Here’s a few other cases with decreasing harm to the niece.

The enabler

In this case, a client is saving his pain medication and giving it to his nine-year-old niece because she likes the way it makes her feel. He tells the nurse, in full expectation of confidentiality.


Here, the client reveals that he is buying cigarettes and giving them to his nine-year-old niece. He has not told the niece’s parents, and indicates that he wants the nurse to keep this quiet.


A client says that he is buying beer for his niece. The parents don’t know, and he indicates that he expects the nurse to respect confidentiality in this matter.

Lots of candy

This is the same situation as the previous, but instead of alcohol, the client is giving his niece an unhealthy amount of candy.

Bad TV shows

This is the same situation as the previous, but instead of candy, the worst thing that the client does that has an impact on his niece’s health is that sometimes he lets his niece watch cartoons on the television. He doesn’t want the nurse to tell his sister (the niece’s mother) because he is a somewhat insecure man and he is afraid that if his sister found out that he and his niece were bonding over Looney Tunes, he would be teased.

In the last case, Bad TV shows, I think most people would say that the nurse should respect the client’s wish to keep the matter secret, since the harm to the child is minimal. That is, if a nurse spoke to the niece’s parents, it might even be seen as an unprofessional breach of trust.

So at either extreme, it is very clear what the nurse should do. In The child molester, we think the nurse ought to say something and break confidence. In Bad TV shows, we think the nurse really doesn’t have good enough reason to break confidentiality. It’s the cases in between where there is some uncertainty. Where do we draw the line?

Probably The enabler is a case where confidence should be broken. To be honest, I’m not sure about Alcohol.

Here’s another consideration: for some moral dilemmas moral philosophers will say that they are only resolvable “with remainder.” That is, even if the moral agent correctly identifies and takes the horn of the dilemma that is the lesser evil, the option that is not taken still retains some of its moral force, and requires something on the part of the moral agent to resolve it, like remorse, regret or apology.

In a case like The child molester, if the nurse breaks confidentiality to tell the parents and the police about the exploitation, most people won’t think that anything (like an apology) is owed to the molester. In the less extreme cases, this becomes less clear, I think, and especially if we don’t make the assumption that the client in question is doing something that she knows to be wrong.

I don’t have answers to the questions here. I’m not even sure if this “balancing” of interests is the best way to conceive of the problem.

The “correct” answer that we were given in class is that before the client offers us a secret, we should disclose to the client that, depending on what the secret is, we might have to tell someone. The problem with that answer is that a nurse does not just come by incompatible moral obligations by virtue of poorly thought-through promises she makes. Confidentiality and concern for the well-being of others are obligations that bear on nurses regardless of whether they say that they will keep a secret or not, and so a more fine-grained and nuanced approach to this problem is needed.

Catch-22: the final test of my master’s degree


In order to graduate, I must submit my thesis.

To submit my thesis, I have to hand in my Nomination of Examiners Form, available from Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies as a fillable PDF. In the top-left corner, it reads, “this form must be typed.”

If you look at the fillable PDF, you’ll notice that I can’t fill in the form completely until I know who my internal reader is.

I spoke to the Philosophy Department, and they told me that they would inquire as to which professors would be able to serve as my internal reader after I hand in the Thesis Submission form and the Nomination of Examiners Form. I’m not allowed to contact professors myself to ask them to be my internal readers.

This is my final test.

Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal


Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal

Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal

This Wednesday night, I went to the Quirks and Quarks roadshow at Concordia University here in Montréal. It was their question-and-answer programme, so they had scientists answer listeners’ questions. Questions prepared in advance, that is. One wasn’t allowed to stand up an ask a random question. It was a very pleasant evening. I actually got to see what Bob McDonald looks like (that was weird—he’s supposed to be a bodiless radio personality), the questions were interesting and the scientists were entertaining.

I brought my towel, because it was May 25. You would have thought that an event like that (a radio recording of something aimed at über-geeks) would have brought out more people with towels, but nope. You’d be wrong.

I left to get some food because I was hungry after the recording, but I was strongly tempted to stay and heckle Bob McDonald for one of the questions.

One of the listeners asked how it is that we know that what he sees as red is the same thing as what anyone else sees as red. This is a classic problem in philosophy. It is a problem of philosophy of mind, and one that touches on issues of qualia, naturalism, the hard problem of experience, and our phenomenal experience of the world as distinct from our brains’ and our eyes’ mechanism for discerning colour.

I was excited when I heard the question.

Then they had an ophthalmologist answer the question. She totally missed the point! She did not answer the question. She talked about rods and cones. She talked about optic nerves. Those things are interesting in their own right, but you can’t use them to prove anything about whether my phenomenal experience of the colour red is the same as yours.

Bob McDonald: Don’t bring in a scientist to do a philosopher’s job! I think I’ll email Paul Kennedy (host of CBC’s Ideas) and tell him that you’re encroaching on his territory!

I’m glad I went though. They also had free cookies. Well, they were unguarded cookies. I assumed they were free.

If you want to hear this broadcast, it will be on CBC Radio 1 at 12h on Saturday afternoon.

Philosophy of science—falsification


Imagine you have some hypothesis. We’ll call it H.

Now imagine you have come up with some experiment to prove that H is false. So if you get a positive result for the experiment, (P) then we know that H is false. In logical notation, we would write this as the following:


It may help to have an example. Imagine that your hypothesis is that air has a refractive index of 1. So what you do is you build a machine that shoots a laser through a sample of air and then measures the laser beam as it comes out the other side to see if it was refracted at all. If there is refraction, we would say that you got a positive result, P, and so your hypothesis H is false.

Now imagine you do the experiment. You gather air samples from all over the world, and for all but one of them, you get a negative result. In one case, you get a major and significant departure from an index of refraction of 1.

Here’s the problem: Can you actually conclude that your hypothesis is incorrect?

It might be the case that by the time you got to the last measurement, the equipment was having problems, or maybe the sample case wasn’t clean, or you gathered a sample that had a lot of pollution.

There are a whole bunch of secondary assumptions that you make when you do an experiment. You assume that the equipment is clean and functioning properly; you assume that the sample is pure; etc. If any of these is not true, it might still be the case that the hypothesis is true, even though you got a result of P.

So if {T1, T2, T3, …} are the set of all the background assumptions that go into the experiment described above, the logical notation for the refutation of H would be something more like the following:


It becomes really hard to devise a way to logically separate the H from all the T’s when you think about it.

This is a problem not only for philosophers of science, but also for other sorts of intellectual pursuits. Consider doomsday prophets like Harold Camping.

Imagine that the hypothesis you’re trying to test is that numerology is a good way to discover knowledge about the future. An experiment to test this would be to find a prediction made through numerology, and if the prediction isn’t accurate, then you can be satisfied that numerology is false. Easy right?

The problem here is the same as in philosophy of science. You’d think that Camping himself would have learned by now that numerology isn’t going to produce any true knowledge of the future. When there was not a literal physical earthquake, Camping changed his story, but only very slightly. He claimed that the hypothesis was true (beginning of the end of the world on May 21) but that one of the supporting secondary assumptions was false (it was a spiritual judgement, not a physical one).

Camping has been interviewed, and he almost apologises on television. Now he says that the apocalypse is happening for sure on October 21.

There should be a fine for doing things like this, and I don’t think such a measure would do violence to a person’s right to free speech, or to the liberty of people to spend their finances in the way they want: In the same way that there are legal repercussions for yelling “fire” in a crowded building if there is no fire, maybe there should be legal repercussions for yelling “apocalypse” on a crowded planet if there is no rapture.

You can yell “fire” if you want and even pull the alarm, but if there is no fire, you should be ready to pay a hefty fine, and you should be ashamed of yourself. The firefighters could have been saving other people while they came to save you. People have been crushed in the panic caused by false fire alarms. Similarly, the money spent by this doomsday cult could have been used to actually save people’s lives, if given to charity or science, and many people’s lives were destroyed by Camping’s false prediction.

On the upside, no one euthanised their children or killed themselves in this doomsday craze (that I know of), but I bet that a bunch of dogs and cats were put down. (I realise this will hold little moral weight among Christians, who do not see animals as moral patients.) Further, millions of dollars were wasted, and perhaps most sadly, there were millions of people who honestly thought they were going to heaven, who even made plans for it, and who were disappointed. Harold Camping’s actions were, and continue to be irresponsible to the point of cruelty.

Edit (11.05.27): http://www.livescience.com/14295-failed-doomsday-rapture-suicides.html

Contemporary Moral Issues at McGill


I’m one of the TA’s for the Contemporary Moral Issues course at McGill this semester, and I really appreciate Dr. Reisner, the professor for the course. He gives me a lot of freedom in which to conduct my conferences, provides good structure, and never micro-manages. Further, he often anticipates things that will go wrong.

For example, at the beginning of this semester, he had me take the entire first conference of the year to give an open-book “course syllabus quiz.” Basically, I stood up at the front of the conference and explained to everyone all the potentially troublesome sorts of course details regarding cheating and unacceptable conduct so that later on in the course, they couldn’t say things like, “But I didn’t know it was mandatory to attend every conference!”

Not only that, but when problems happen, like catching students cheating or when they want an excuse from doing required work, I can just send them to Dr. Reisner, and he deals with them.

While I can’t tell you any of the details about what happened this week, it has been very eventful, and I’m very thankful for the forethought of Dr. Reisner.


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