Russell Taylor: In praise of judgement

I’m not sure how I feel about drug legalisation. The libertarian in me says it’s no one else’s business what I put in my body; the conservative is wary of unintended consequences. The pedant in me demands consistency (why are booze and fags legal but not marijuana?); the pragmatist says it’s sometimes better to be a hypocrite than to open Pandora’s box.

Whatever the pros and cons of legalisation, I have a nagging unease about it that no amount of rational thinking will mollify. This probably comes from the parent in me. I wouldn’t want my daughter taking drugs, so I’m reluctant to see them legalised. I do realise, however, that this isn’t a sound argument. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be a porn star, either, but I would never support a law stopping her from becoming one. So why should I have a problem when it comes to drugs?

If I felt drug use would retain a strong social stigma after legalisation, I would probably be more relaxed about it, but I think this is unlikely to be the case. As a society, we are increasingly incapable of discerning between useful and destructive behaviour, leaving the state as our sole moral arbiter and the statute book as our moral compass. The idea that something might be legal yet worthy of disapproval is becoming lost on us.

We would all like to live as we please, free from criticism or consequence, but it’s a fact of human nature that our interests are not always compatible. My neighbour’s wish to play his music at full blast, for instance, is not compatible with my desire for peace and quiet. This is why we have traditionally observed social conventions that seek to maintain some semblance of order and compromise.

These conventions can either be conceived and imposed by the powers-that-be, or they can evolve from tried-and-tested experience, and operate through the power of social stigma. To anyone interested in freedom, the latter system is obviously preferable. As much as possible, it enables individuals to follow their own path, but encourages behaviour that the rest of society has deemed acceptable. It urges us to tolerate behaviour we don’t necessarily approve of so that our own preferences might be tolerated in return. It creates a fear of adverse judgment that deters us from doing things that are beyond the pale.

Any system that grades human activity will inevitably lead to inequality, since not everyone is able or willing to conform to the standards of society. As one might expect, this has incurred the wrath of egalitarians, who have long recognised the source of inequality as exposure to the judgment of others. Over the years, they have succeeded in putting beyond reproach behaviour and qualities that once attracted criticism. If anything, they have turned things upside-down, to present what was once considered bad as pure and authentic, and what was considered good as bogus and corrupt.

The relativism that was once confined to academic circles is now all around us, publicly expressed through the language of political correctness and the pervasive notion that nothing is better or worse than anything else. Non-judgmentalism is now the official credo of our schools, universities, public sector and much of the media. Even our criminal justice system, the very purpose of which is to express judgment, is loath to do so, preferring to demonstrate its caring credentials. Virtually the only thing that can be described as unseemly is a willingness to be judgmental.

If all judgment is prejudice and anything goes, all that’s left off-limits is that which is prohibited by law. Right and wrong are no longer a matter of personal preference or collective desire; they are question of government decree. Under such a system, there can be no compromise or tolerance, no blind-eye turned or accommodation reached. There is just the word of the state, which must be obeyed on pain of punishment.

When values are imposed from on high, they inevitably reflect the fads of the metropolitan elite, with everything that entails: self-righteousness, dogmatism and a naïve belief in theoretical perfection. It is the triumph of this new moral order that has witnessed illiberal legislation like the bans on smoking and hunting, and the introduction of hate crimes. Perhaps you favour this legislation, but if so you must be prepared for what happens when the other shoe drops – when the things you hold dear come under the disapproving gaze of the moral authorities.

That is the irony of non-judgmentalism: it leads to intolerance. Or rather, it leads to tolerance only of those values that do nothing to uphold a society worth living in.


3 comments on “Russell Taylor: In praise of judgement

  1. Brian the Rhetor
    March 7, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    Thank you. You’ve articulated very coherently a worry that has been bothering many (probably) of us.

  2. jazz606
    March 8, 2013 at 9:46 am #

    We all suffer by the activities of addicts (drug & alcohol). Unfortunately it’s all got a bit out of hand, to the extent that things cannot be dealt with by enforcement. The draconian measures necessary are neither politically nor practically possible.
    Legalisation together with education is the only way of getting the problem under some sort of control. The current non enforcement of existing laws is the worst of all worlds – Peter Hitchens has that right.
    As far as alcohol is concerned, ban all advertising, branding and sponsorship and permit its sale only in off licences and pubs. IOW don’t penalise drinkers, but don’t encourage them either.

  3. Jon caunce
    March 11, 2013 at 9:53 pm #

    Education is essential but unbiased education is nigh on impossible politically. Drugs can provide peace and compassion but can also cause tension and conflict. Drugs and alcohol must certainly be given respect and anyone using drugs ultimately use them for relief and pleasure but they must be used in a responsible manner the biggest problem is not the drugs but people’s morality and sense of self worth and social responsibility

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