Of Opiates and of Liberty: Thoughts on Dreamland by Sam Quinones

Recently I finished a book about the opioid crisis in the US: Dreamland by Sam Quinones. I found it pretty much unputdownable, and while it’s certainly essential reading for anyone interested in its subject matter, I also found that it provoked thoughts on larger matters, on which I have blogged recently. I’m going to try to give a brief account of those thoughts here.

First, an overview of the book. The problems with opiates started back in the 80’s, when a movement in medicine set out to turn back what was thought an irrational prejudice against prescribing painkillers. Before this, doctors had been taught that patients could easily become addicted to these drugs, and were accordingly quite reluctant to give them out. In the course of the 90’s, however, this reluctance was overcome, thanks not only to the genuine desire of many doctors to help people in pain, but also to a certain laziness in reading the research (more on this below) and funding from drug companies. The result was that doctors came to believe that the addiction risk was not so great as had previously been thought, and began to prescribe opiates on a considerable scale. Unfortunately, the pills actually were quite addictive. Worse yet, they turned out to be an ideal gateway to heroin – OxyContin, the prescription drug with the biggest role in this story, “contained a large whack of a drug virtually identical to heroin.”

Soon, thanks both to honest doctors and to those who ran “pill mills,” dolling out pain medication for a fee to anyone who asked for it, parts of America were awash in prescription pills, and thus in people addicted to painkillers (Quinones tells of how pain pills were so plentiful in Portsmouth Ohio that they actually became a currency with which anything could be bought). Enter the Mexicans. Families from a single town in Mexico called Xalisco began to develop novel heroin-delivery networks across America that brought small amounts of the drug virtually to customers’ doors in the manner of a pizza-delivery service. Eschewing violence, these new dealers avoided major cities where markets in illegal drugs were already controlled by gangs (they also avoided black people, for their prejudices had caused them to believe black people violent). Instead, they set out to develop new markets across the country in places where heroin had scarcely been seen, paying particular attention to those already caught up in the opioid crisis.

The result was an epidemic of addiction in places that had never seen such a thing, one that hit not only poor people in cities, but also rich – and largely white – people in rural settings. Quinones has many sad stories to tell, of the children of lawyers or police officers getting hooked and dying, of college students who can’t kick the habit, of people stealing from their children or even from their dying parents to maintain their addiction. But the epidemic is not only remarkable in claiming victims from such a wide variety of backgrounds, but also in its sheer scale: “the number of Ohioans dead from drug overdoses between 2003 and 2008 was 50 percent higher than the number of U.S. soldiers who died in the entire Iraq War. Three times as many people died of prescription pill overdoses between 1999 and 2008 as died in the eight peak years of the crack cocaine epidemic.”

This, then, is the shape of the story Quinones has to tell. There is a lot to think about here, but I found myself returning to one thought in particular: its connection with Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, which I wrote about a last month. In that post, I discussed the peculiar conception of freedom that defines what Deneen calls ‘liberalism,’ and this included (and implied) a notion of mastery in modern science, a mastery of the natural world. In that post, I reflected a bit on how this striving for mastery played itself out in environmental concerns (inter alia), but the very same concern with mastery seems to me to lie at the heart of the opioid crisis.

For consider: the decision in medical circles to start taking a different approach to opiates is clearly a decisive moment in the whole story. (At one point, we here of a doctor who suddenly found himself confronted by “what was unthinkable a few years before: rural, white heroin junkies. ‘I’ve yet to find one who didn’t start with OxyContin,’ he said. ‘They wouldn’t be selling this quantity of heroin on the street right now if they hadn’t made these decisions in the boardroom.’”) But what was the motive force behind that decision? It might seem tempting to just hang the whole thing on the greed of drug companies – and that greed certainly is part of the story – but Quinones avoids such a simple and easy path, and tells a deeper story, one going back decades:

“World War I had … demonstrated to doctors the merciful painkilling benefits the morphine molecule provided. Fresh, too, in their memory were heroin’s first decades, which showed just as clearly that addiction too often bedeviled those who used opiates. Try as they might—with strategies as varied as farm work, group therapy, or prison—rehabilitation specialists never graduated much more than 10 percent of their addicts to true opiate freedom. The rest relapsed, slaves, it appeared, to the morphine molecule. This seemed a shame to scientists and physicians. Was mankind really doomed to not have it all? Couldn’t it have heaven without hell? Couldn’t the best scientists find a way of extracting the painkilling attributes from the molecule while discarding its miserable addictiveness?”

That is, the dream is of being able simply to escape pain, with no side-effects. This dream is a form of the striving after mastery I discussed in my post on Deneen, the aim of simply liberating ourselves from our natural limits. The story of the opioid crisis is a story of how the pursuit of this goal without sufficient attention to its risks leads to a new sort of hell: as Quinones says, “In heroin addicts, I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain.” This idea is not at all new, for one repeatedly encounters talk of enslavement to pleasure (or the appetites) in ancient philosophy. What is new is that in a premodern context, such talk can often seem counterintuitive, and usually needs some explanation or thought before it seems an appropriate way to speak; modern science, however, has produced drugs that make it immediately obvious that it is correct to speak of ‘enslavement.’ On this basis, Quinones makes a more general point about human nature: “man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain and the deprivation that temper his behaviour.” This would not be news to the ancients, and it is part of the problem that Deneen sees in certain ideas that have helped drive the West in the last 500 years or so.

Think about what Quinones says about “man’s decay” for a moment, in the context of pain. What is being said is that we need pain. Certainly this is true in a superficial sense – e.g., pain tells us when something is going wrong with our body, and without that we might easily die of internal injuries or by failing to learn to avoid excessive risks, etc. But there is a deeper point here: Quinones speaks of man’s decay and debasement: human dignity disappears as people become enslaved to the escape from pain. That is, the need for pain is not simply instrumental. Our nature as creatures with a certain dignity does not seem to endure a total release from pain. To the extent that we’re capable of liberating ourselves from pain, we seem to become reduced to that attempt at liberation. In describing the search for a non-addictive painkiller, Quinones repeatedly speaks of the “Holy Grail,” a deeply appropriate term in that it suggests a quest for something beyond what is possible for humans.

Of course, the striving after the Holy Grail, the attempt to push beyond what is possible, is remarkable not only for the harm that it directly produces, but also for the humbler, less dangerous pursuit it discourages: Quinones explains how a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to pain, one that would not have produced an opiate crisis, was pushed aside and abandoned for decades because people thought these pills were a straightforward fix.

In the context of all this, I found myself seeing a wisdom in the old “just say no” slogan: not many of us are likely to be stronger than heroin – anyone who uses it a few times is likely to find himself unable to stop, enslaved to it [ed. I’m told it takes more like a month]. However, there is one way that anyone can attain a sort of mastery over heroin, simply by realising that here is something stronger than one’s will, and that one should therefore avoid it. Heroin has no power over such a person: real mastery, real freedom, involves recognising one’s limits and acting within them.

Quinones’ account includes a simply magnificent example of a sort of motivated reasoning (or at least motivated intellectual sloth), which I mention here because it seems to be driven by the striving towards mastery I described above. Those who led the movement to make prescribing painkillers more permissible beginning in the 80’s didn’t have as much evidence as they thought they did. One particularly influential piece of work was known as ‘Porter & Jick,’ which was cited and re-cited in papers and presentations until it seems to have attained a sort of legendary status, in which it bore considerable weight as an argument against the addictive potential of opiates. “Medical professionals,” Quinones tells us, “assumed everyone else had read it,” and it was referred to as “an extensive study” or “a landmark report.” In fact, it was a single paragraph letter to a medical journal, published in 1980; it seems that scarcely anyone had actually bothered to read it. One can imagine that if it had said something unpopular, something that people didn’t want to believe, many would have found time to read it, and read it critically. But of course, everyone wanted to believe that the Holy Grail had been found, that a simple liberation from pain was at hand with no side-effects to worry about – and so Porter and Jick remained unread even as its authority grew.

From the opiate crisis, then, we have another perspective from which to contemplate a truth introduced in my post on Deneen: the striving for a mastery of nature can be a very dangerous matter indeed. There is a need for a moment of acceptance, or perhaps of resignation, a recognition that we are not entirely in control. I’m reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now at the moment (a review will follow in some weeks/months as time permits), and one of my main problems with the book is that it seems to lack precisely this moment of acceptance.

And finally, since my last post was about the great English essayist, Theodore Dalrymple, here’s a short piece of his from a few days ago on the opioid crisis.


Theodore Dalrymple: An Appreciation

It is impossible to know what writing from our own time will survive hundreds of years from now, to take its place among the representative artifacts by which later eras get to know us. No doubt some work of real quality survives by accident (as several books of Livy survived only in one southern Italian monastery for nine centuries), while other work never receives the fame it deserves. Still, if I were allowed to choose what writing from our time would be saved and read far into the future, shining a light for posterity upon our contemporary situation, I would have to include many essays by Theodore Dalrymple.

A former doctor at a prison and an inner-city hospital, his original claim to fame seems to have been the essays he published anonymously (“Theodore Dalrymple” is in fact a pen name; his real name is Anthony Daniels), describing the situation of those living in what he calls the ‘underclass’ of England. These give a view of the sort of life led by so many of the poorest people in English society. Dalrymple’s perspective here is unusual: his theme is the devastating impact that left-wing policies and thinking have had on the poor. The point is not that left-wing policies fail to provide the poorest people with enough to eat or with adequate shelter, but rather that the culture created by left-wing thinking has dissolved restraints upon individual whim, and that this creates a uniquely brutal and miserable world. Having spent years working in Africa (inter alia), Dalrymple is able to compare conditions in England to his experiences there: “nothing I saw – neither the poverty nor the overt oppression – ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England… the worst poverty is in England – and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.”

This is one central idea that runs through a portion of his work, and I have begun with it because it brought about a shift in my thinking of a sort I have only known on one other occasion (in the course of my undergraduate education). Before reading Dalrymple, I was inclined towards the same view of the motivations behind conservatism as many on the left: it was a matter of not caring about other people, for example, by supporting right-wing economic policies as the result of greed. Such ad hominem arguments are difficult to apply to Dalrymple, since he has devoted more time and energy to the poor that most people, and as a doctor could easily have made more money in more pleasant circumstances. But more importantly, Dalrymple shows in a particularly vivid manner that there are reasons behind many conservative positions, reasons that I (like most of those on the left) had never imagined before reading his work.

For example, before reading Dalrymple, I had never seen the interest or urgency in studying the family as an institution. However, as one reads about how the family has effectively evaporated at the bottom of society, and discovers what this means for children growing up there – well, the importance of the family as an institution begins to look rather more important. Perhaps the best way to express the view is by analogy to the left, for both left and right are focused on the adverse consequences of new forms of freedom (a theme I considered in a post a couple weeks ago on a new book by Patrick Deneen). People on the left are concerned with the effects that free markets can have upon the poor; those on the right are concerned with the effects that a freedom from social norms can have upon the poor. In the nineteenth century, Engels and Mayhew brought attention to the former problem, and Dalrymple has made implicit comparisons between these two and himself: just as they drew attention to the reality of the condition of the poor – a reality of which very many were no doubt aware, but which was kept out of public discussion partly because of a reluctance to acknowledge what was going on – so too does Dalrymple do something similar.

Adequate deliberation requires that people speak frankly about even the most difficult or distasteful matters. One of the many virtues of Dalrymple’s writing – and not only on poverty – is his readiness to bring clearly into focus realities that many would prefer not to see, and not to think about, at all. This is not a man to be restrained by the pieties of our age, and as a result, one finds repeatedly that he has had his eye on important issues long before most others. Some example of his bracing frankness can be found in this piece on the homeless, or this piece on Paris, which certainly accords with some of what I saw in my months in that city, though pretty much nobody else seems to have written about it back then, or this piece on the elder Le Pen, or this piece on the Ray Honeyford affair, or these reflections on Islam – and if you want an example of Dalrymple’s ability to drive a point home, read this piece on the case of Anna Climbie.

The place to start with Dalrymple is with Life at the Bottom, a collection of essays. Three other collections are the logical next step: Our Culture, What’s Left of It, Not With a Bang But a Whimper, and Anything Goes (many – perhaps all – of the essays in these volumes are available for free online, but these books are so good, you’ll want to own them); there are many other excellent titles, including Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, a full length book whose conclusion is alone worth the price. The collections of essays do include many pieces in which Dalrymple describes the condition of the English underclass, using examples from his practice as a doctor, but they include a great deal more. I would summarise Dalrymple’s work not as a chronicle of underclass life, but rather as a defense of the life of the mind. The failures of the intellectuals, he thinks, are a crucial cause of the grim lives of his lower-class patients, and with this view goes a focus on the importance of ideas in determining the course of human life. Accordingly, when we find Dalrymple writing about literature or architecture or art, it is not as complete a departure from his other subject matter as it might at first seem to be.

A number of his essays on high culture serve as a sort of appetizer, introductions that whet the appetite for more. Before reading this essay on Doctor Johnson, I had certainly heard of the man, but had little idea of what he was about, and certainly had never felt moved to read him, as I did after reading Dalrymple. Another essay introduces the Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who in 1843 wrote a work of real insight on Russia that Dalrymple compares to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Another compares the painting of Mary Cassatt to that of Joan Miro, and in doing so, seems to me to point to the heart of what happened to the West in the 20th century. Yet another is a sort of eulogy to his friend, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer who was hanged by the Nigerian government.

Not all of Dalrymple’s essay are appreciative, however. Sometimes he turns a critical eye upon certain of the best-regarded intellectuals of our time, and the criticism tends to be devastating. A favourite of mine is a piece in which Dalrymple brings his experience as a prison doctor to bear on Stephen Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct. We are not only given good reason to deny the truth of the book’s central theory (why doesn’t Pinker practise what he preaches in his own book?), but we are also presented with a criticism on another, perhaps deeper, level, for Dalrymple considers a likely reason for the popularity of Pinker’s theory: it provides for its adherents a feel-good solidarity with the downtrodden. This, too, Dalrymple undermines, for he shows how the consequences of Pinker in practice are regressive, keeping those at the bottom in their place – indeed, imprisoning them in the world into which they were born. (Pinker has apparently tried to answer Dalrymple, though I can’t seem to find this answer online. Anyone?) Dalrymple’s criticism of Virginia Woolf is also well worth reading, as is his piece on Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a devastating essay written two years before criticising Coates suddenly became cool. Also excellent is Dalrymple’s take on the New Atheists – though not himself religious, he nevertheless writes with sympathy about religion (Sam Harris wrote a brief response to Dalrymple, though it seems to me ineffective as regards the main issue). And speaking of religion, I found this book review by Dalrymple particularly thought-provoking in its reflection on the enthusiasm of so many left-wing intellectuals for murderous dictators.

Dalrymple has also written a number of travel books. The best of these, in my opinion, impinges on politics: in The Wilder Shores of Marx, Dalrymple travels to Albania, North Korea, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The result is a valuable series of pictures of, and reflections on, life under Marxism, including a number of memorable (and chilling) scenes. Dalrymple’s father was a Marxist, but it seems that the son failed to inherit from his father an enthusiasm for that most notorious philosopher of the left. From time to time, Marx pops up elsewhere in Dalrymple’s writing, as this or that aspect of Marxist dogma is shown to founder on the rocks of real life. Apart from the travel book, this essay is perhaps his most sustained reflection on Marx.

Dalrymple’s other travel books include Zanzibar to Timbuktu, in which he travels across Africa using only transport available to the locals; Coups and Cocaine, his first book, which covers travels in South America (I’m still reading this one as I write); Fool or Physician, a memoir of his early career in such places as Rhodesia, South Africa, London and the Gilbert Islands; and Monrovia, Mon Amour, about Liberia. This last book contains a scene that sticks out in my memory, when Dalrymple visits the local warlord Prince Johnson. He takes care to do so in the morning, for in the morning Johnson tends not to be so drunk as later on, and is thus less likely to kill people. (“The weekend before I visited him, I was told he had killed seven people; I met someone whose brother had been killed by him on a night when he shot sixteen others; and I heard about his biggest bag, as it were, thirty-two in a night. He was an insomniac, and prowled the darkness with his AK-47.”) All these books are well worth a read, sometimes for the insight one view one gets on some aspect of, say, Africa, or of life on remote Pacific islands, and sometimes for the simple pleasure of reading Dalrymple.

For however great may be the insight he gives on this matter or that, still he writes so well, and so often with such sparkling humour, that I often find myself returning to essays I digested long ago, simply for the pleasure of reading them again. Dalrymple is a master of that ironic wit that seems to be peculiar to England; my favourite examples come when he plays on the well-known words of others. I believe it is in The Wilder Shores of Marx that he observes that in the late 80’s, a spectre was haunting Eastern Europe – the spectre of liberty. Elsewhere, we find a piece titled “Nasty, British and Short,” and I never forgot his comments on Tony Blair’s resignation speech: “he asked his audience to believe that he had always done what he thought was right. He would have been nearer the mark had he said that he always thought that what was right was whatever he had done.”

Dalrymple’s writing can also be magnificently concise. Go read this three-paragraph blog post on Jeremy Corbyn from two-and-a-half years ago. Not a sentence is wasted – scarcely a word – and we repeatedly find thought-provoking, double-edged formulations. For example: “he is a man of grinding and unnerving integrity;” “I think that he is a man of such probity that he would let the heavens fall so long as his version of social justice was done. Unfortunately, the heavens could fall, and they would fall on all of us…;” “he does not appear to be a man of erudition, culture or literary talent. That, of course, is a point in his favour, electorally-speaking…” I find more insight into the Corbyn situation in these brief paragraphs than in most much longer editorials (and note that back then Dalrymple was already denying that Corbyn was unelectable, a position held by few others at the time, though today few would say with confidence today that Corbyn will not be the next Prime Minister).

I have linked to many excellent essays in this post, but there are so many more, and at a certain point, one simply has to stop. However, I cannot resist including a few Dalrymple quotes, some to showcase his humour, some, his insight – and a couple just because he writes so well. I have limited myself to nine:

  • “I appear on Q & A with, inter alia, Germaine Greer. She is now notorious for having said that transsexual women are not the same as women, which seems to me a fairly innocuous proposition, but in our peculiar times the self-evident is dynamite in the way that satire is prophecy. ” (In “Diary” in the Spectator)
  • “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it: For the greater political correctness’ violation of common sense, the better—at least if its goal is power over men’s minds and conduct. In this sense it is like Communist propaganda of old: The greater the disparity between the claims of that propaganda and the everyday experience of those at whom it was directed, the greater the humiliation suffered by the latter, especially when they were obliged to repeat it, thus destroying their ability to resist, even in the secret corners of their heart.” (In “Two Forms of Mass Hysteria”)
  • “I caught an early flight recently and therefore stayed overnight at the airport hotel. Catching the lift to leave in the morning, the doors opened to reveal two beached human whales within. They gave the lie to the lift’s warning notice that it could fit eight people…. Across the male whale’s T-shirt was emblazoned a single word, ENGLAND, a superfluous message if ever there were one.” (In “Beached Whales in Bermuda Shorts”)
  • “The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel. Well-stocked shops do not supply meaning or purpose.“ (In “The Specters Haunting Dresden” – as someone who has spent years in Germany, I can say what an insightful essay this is, in which Dalrymple’s eye for the telling detail or anecdote is on display)
  • “The sceptical, it turns out, are certainly not immune from the siren song of credulity. It is as if, exhausted by the mental effort of taking nothing on trust, they suddenly throw in the sponge and believe the most implausible nonsense that would not take in someone half as educated as they.” (In “Don’t Believe In Miracles”)
  • “Such is the fragility of the modern ego… of countless people brought up in our modern culture of ineffable self-importance, in which an insult is understood not as an inevitable human annoyance but as a wound that outweighs all the rest of one’s experience.” (In “The Suicide Bombers Among Us”)
  • “Nadine Gordimer had a voice whose timbre would have penetrated the best artillery-proof armor plating. On one occasion at the conference she condescendingly addressed a Ghanaian lady as ‘my sister Susan.’ ‘Actually, my name’s Gloria,’ said her sister Susan, but the great writer ignored this manifestation of pedantry and continued with what she was saying.” (In “The African Scene”)
  • “the rule of law requires a common cultural understanding, not -merely the means of repression to enforce a legal code. Once that basic cultural understanding is lost, all that remains is repression, effective or ineffective as the case may be, and experienced by many as alien and unjust. Nothing remains but conflict or surrender.” (In “Why Borders Matter”)
  • “I have talked to a lot of young Muslim critics of Western society, living in the West, and few of them were aware of the philosophical basis of Western achievement, which they believed to be merely materialist and founded on crude plunder, never having heard any other viewpoint.” (In “The Terrorists Among Us”)

Whether you’re on the left and want a better understanding of conservatism, or want better to understand the world we live in, or just want a good read, the essays of Theodore Dalrymple are indispensable – and they’re often not even 20 pages long. It is a rare writer who is willing to bring before his readers so much that others pass over in pious silence, and rarer still is the writer who can also provide the sort of original insight that we find in so many of Dalrymple’s essays. But someone who can do all this at the same time as producing writing that is a pleasure in itself to read – and often hilarious to boot – must be accounted a truly great writer. Dalrymple is certainly among the greatest essayists in the English language today, perhaps the very greatest.

A Quick Thought on Faith

The last 4-5 years have seen my views on many things change dramatically. I used to be well to the left on even the Canadian political spectrum, and now I find myself becoming more conservative, to the point that I could even contemplate voting Republican (once they’re done with Trump). This has come about in response both to things I’ve read and to events (more posts to come about that). I’ve found that as my views change, I occasionally find myself struck, when I hear a view I now strongly reject, by the fact that I used to hold it as an obvious truth.

So it was as I heard Jerry Coyne, the author of a popular (and excellent) blog (Why Evolution is True), talk about religion on the Rubin Report. (watch here and here) At one point (I forget where exactly), Coyne suggests that religious faith is problematic beyond the specific content of any particular religious doctrine, because it gets people in the habit of simply believing things without evidence. That is, there is something inherently harmful about the fact of faith in itself: it is a bad intellectual habit. A good intellectual habit, on this view, would seem to be to get as far from faith as you can, basing your views, as much as possible, on evidence.

Wow – I used to believe that, with some vehemence. And wow: I sure don’t believe it any more. Not at all.

I can think of two kinds of faith that we need and use on a constant basis. Without both, our lives would simply not be possible. The first is central to the possibility of a scientific understanding of the world – that is, the sort of understanding that Coyne would hold up as an alternative to religion. The second deals with our relationship with other people; I wonder if this second kind of faith doesn’t lead on to religion.

The first kind of faith is suggested in an article by Theodore Dalrymple, in which he responds – convincingly, I thought – to the “new atheists.” He makes the point succinctly: “if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove.” Of course, the point can be generalised to include the whole of science. I believe global warming is a major problem, but if a well-educated climate science denier were to debate me, I would be reduced to appeals to authority very quickly indeed. The same would happen to almost all scientists aside from the climate specialists (although almost all real scientists would last longer than me in such arguments). The same will be true of any other field of knowledge: specialists might hold their own, but non-specialists must follow the lead of authorities.

Of course, it is probably true for most of what is understood about the world today that if we investigated any particular matter, we could eliminate most of our faith on the matter. However, for all actual people, the reality is that most of what we understand about the world is in fact a matter of faith. Modern science allows us to put our faith in sound authorities, but we do need that authority. The idea of eliminating faith and replacing it with reason is utopian, and like most utopian ideals, when it is forced upon the real world, it becomes a source of harm as well as benefit (in this case, the utopian ideal of eliminating faith obscures from us the reality of what is actually going on, for a start).

There is a second sort of faith, and this one has to do with people: we cannot live without trust. That is, faith in other people is necessary to a genuinely human life. If you couldn’t trust anyone else, you couldn’t even walk down the street – after all, you might get stabbed. More than that, a great deal of what gives depth and meaning to life comes from trusting other people. Imagine if your interactions with other people consisted of the absolute minimum necessary to sustain your life: you would trust other people enough to walk down the street, to work, and to conduct basic economic transactions. Nothing more. No pleasures of conversation, in which you might reveal something of yourself, no substantial or lasting relationships with others. Most people would find life intolerable without substantial (and thus trusting) relationships with other people, and I don’t think it is reasonable to see in such a life the pinnacle of human flourishing. A life worth living requires faith in other people – indeed, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that life is more worth living to the extent that we can rightly make use of such faith.

Accordingly, as in understanding the world, so too in our dealings with other people: the trick is not to eliminate faith, but rather to learn where it is appropriate and where not. And it is not hard to see how the matter of faith in other people might lead on to religion: our ability to have faith in other people doesn’t merely increase our chances of survival, but makes life far richer, far worthier of living, than it otherwise might be. What if religious faith is like that? What if we who are not religious are in a situation similar to that of people who miss out on so much of what life has to offer because they never trust anyone else, and thus never have any substantial relationships with other people?

I’m not religious, but sometimes I wonder if I should be.


Some Thoughts on the Use of Statistics in Ethical Matters

Some months ago, I was discussing Donald Trump’s election chances with a couple of friends, and I happened to mention a voter I had read about somewhere, a young man in California, who described himself as a feminist. He was concerned about the power of false rape allegations to destroy the lives of men, and was on that account leaning towards a vote for Trump. I said that while I didn’t sympathise with the vote, I certainly understood and sympathised with the concern behind it. One friend responded that such false accusations were surely statistically far less significant than real cases of the crime itself that go unpunished. The other friend agreed, and that seemed to settle the matter, at least for the two of them.

For me, well, it got me thinking. I have since found myself noticing how arguments that proceed by means of statistics are often used as though they provide a sort of final knock-down in ethical matters, unanswerable and definitive – and yet this is something they can almost never provide.

To see why, let’s indulge for a moment in a bit of philosophy. Most undergraduates who have done a philosophy course should have some idea about what utilitarianism is. We can define it as the principle that the greatest good should be done for the greatest number of people possible. Our undergraduates should also have some idea of a potential problem with utilitarianism: it is compatible with an acceptance of radical evil, provided, of course, that the evil is done to a minority. You could literally exterminate people while achieving the greatest good for the greatest number. (The responses of major utilitarian philosophers to this problem is something we can leave aside here.)

Now here’s why I bring this up: it seems to me that the sort of claims you can make with statistics are precisely the sort made by utilitarianism. Statistics give us a coarse overview of a subject; they tell us that something is the case on the whole, and for the most part. And to the extent that we confine ourselves to this view, we open up the possibility of radical evil, so long as it is done to a relatively small number of people. So if we’re going to commit ourselves to statistical state of affairs as a desirable aim of policy or activity, we should think quite clearly about what we’re actually advocating.

In the case I began with, we are indeed dealing with a readiness to do real evil to innocent people in the name of achieving what is taken to be a statistically desirable result. Feminist activists often speak as if the purpose of the justice system is to bring about a certain proportion of convictions relative to the number of complaints made. That is, they claim that only a very small fraction of rape accusations result in convictions, and that this small proportion indicates a failure on the part of the justice system. The implicit aim is a system that produces convictions in some much larger proportion, say, 50% or 98% (though I have never seen an actual number given). There is no room in such calculations for the possibility that the lives of innocents might be utterly destroyed by baseless accusations. Indeed, that a callous indifference to the possibility of crushing innocent people is in fact at work here is confirmed by such well-known cases as the Duke lacrosse team rape trial, or the travesty of reporting about another such supposed crime that Rolling Stone committed. If we were to follow the statistical point of view to its logical endpoint, the proper question to ask is not about the guilt or innocence of the accused at all, but simply whether or not the appropriate number of guilty verdicts have been delivered so far relative to the overall number of accusations.

The purpose of a justice system worthy of the name, however, is not to produce a statistical result, but rather to answer a specific question: what is the truth of the matter in this particular case? Such an approach is not likely to produce the most pleasing proportion of guilty and innocent verdicts, and is likely to fall short of its goal regularly, but it allows the rights of accuser and accused to be balanced against one another. Perhaps most importantly, it keeps the justice system, as much as possible, from the active commission of injustice. The words primum nil nocere – “first, do no harm” – are supposed to apply to doctors, but they should be a principle of the justice system no less.

Certainly statistics might inform and guide us in subsidiary ways, but only to the extent that we observe the more important principle of a system that does not itself do active harm to the innocent. When discussing ethical matters, then, we should always be cautious when confronted by arguments that proceed only on the basis of statistics.

Statistics are dangerous in other ways, too. They can give a seductive, but misleading impression of being simply factual; they can seem to clothe a particular view in the robes of science, giving it an apparently insuperable status in comparison with non-statistical arguments. (I’m reading a book right now that seems to suffer from this very failing; a blog post reviewing it will probably follow in the weeks to come.)

Of course, statistics can be massaged, and where crime is concerned it is clear that they often are massaged. Consider Rainer Wendt, federal head of the German Police Union: “if I, as a senior officer, want narcotics-related crime to go down in my city, then I send the officers responsible for it out to police [vehicle] traffic infringements. Then I promise you, that narcotics crime will go down – at least statistically.”

In fact, things may be far worse than Wendt’s words suggest. There is reason to believe that the arrival of statistics-based crime fighting has corrupted our justice system in a most fundamental manner. Here I will allow Theodore Dalrymple to speak, as he relates his wife’s attempt to report a crime:

She noticed some youths setting fire to the contents of a dumpster just outside our house, a fire that could easily have spread to cars parked nearby. She called the police.

“What do you expect us to do about it?” they asked.

“I expect you to come and arrest them,” she said.

The police regarded this as a bizarre and unreasonable expectation. They refused point-blank to send anyone. Of course, if they had promised to make every effort to come quickly but had arrived too late, or even not at all, my wife would have understood and been satisfied. But she was not satisfied with the idea that youths could set dangerous fires without arousing even the minimal interest of the police. Surely, some or all of the youths would conclude that they could do anything they liked, and move on to more serious crimes.

My wife then insisted that the police should at least place the crime on their records. Again, they refused. She remonstrated with them at length, and at considerable cost to her equanimity. At last, and with the greatest reluctance, they recorded the crime and gave her a reference number for it.

This was not the end of the matter. About 15 minutes later, a more senior policeman telephoned to upbraid her and tell her she had been wasting police time with her insistence on satisfaction in so trivial a matter. The police, apparently, had more important things to do than suppress arson. …

It is not difficult to guess the reason for the senior policeman’s anger. My wife had forced his men to record a crime that they had no intention whatever of even trying to solve (though, with due expedition, it was eminently soluble), and this record in turn meant the introduction of an unwanted breath of reality into the bogus statistics, the manufacture of which is now every British senior policeman’s principal task.

Once the job of the police is to fight crime statistics rather than crime, the possibility of almost infinite corruption has been opened up – indeed, a motivation for corruption has been provided.

As one reads other Dalrymple essays, one encounters similar episodes: police refusing to respond to crime, or even to record it – or, alternately, responding to minor infractions, committed by individuals likely to respond to the authority of the police, rather than to violent crimes committed by people likely to respond in a violent manner (e.g., here or here or here).

Statistics, then, will not only fail in most cases to provide a decisive argument when considering ethical matters, they can also be the cause of great harm. Any insight they provide has to be balanced against direct contact with the problem in question. Localism – taking power away form massive bureaucracies and putting it in the hands of smaller communities – would no doubt be helpful. The more I read Dalrymple, and the more I read of the views of police officers in England, America and in Germany, the more I think that policy on criminal matters should never be allowed to be made on the basis of statistics alone, and that there should be a requirement that people who deal directly with crime are given some substantive power in the production of that policy.

And while I’m dreaming, I’d also like a private jet.