David Brooks Smoked Weed So You Didn’t Have To

David Brooks put down his bong a long time ago:

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I smoked marijuana. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships. But then we all sort of moved away from it.

This was not a decision made lightly:

We didn’t give it up for the obvious health reasons …. I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Stoned people do stupid things … most of us developed higher pleasures….I think we had a vague sense that smoking weed was not exactly something you were proud of yourself for. It’s not something people admire …. So, like the vast majority of people who try drugs, we aged out. We left marijuana behind.

Well, that’s not too bad. You did some weed, as did your friends; you went on to “higher pleasures” (no pun intended, right? Right?). No one seemed to have been harmed; heck, some of you became columnists for The New York Times. There are no stories of stoned assaults on significant others, overdoses, or even bouts of violent retching or hangovers induced by marijuana. The narrative arc of this little bildungsroman that Brooks has deigned to share with us is disappointingly slight and bland: young men indulge in lower pleasures, then move on to higher ones—some opera, some good food, some ballet, perhaps?—the salaried life and a comfortable middle-class existence. It’s not a particularly enlightening stort, and one might be mystified by why a highly-paid writer for the nation’s most prominent newspaper thought this was a story worth sharing with his readers.

Illegality had nothing to do with his decision to stop smoking weed. 

Well, apparently, the dangers seen on this scenic road to enlightenment were enough for Brooks to want to warn off everyone from ever traveling on it. Whatever the lessons learned on it, one of them didn’t include enough respect for individual self-determination or choices or the consideration of the possibility that others—like Brooks and his cohort—might possess the capacity for arriving at a host of idiosyncratic decisions about how their lives should be lived. Humans are interesting; they just aren’t interesting enough to be left to their own devices.

So:

I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being stoned is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.

How so discouraged? Apparently, by keeping marijuana illegal, and continuing an expensive, racist “war on drugs,” a moral, economic and legal catastrophe whose full cost has still not been reckoned with:

Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government … subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

Funnily enough, I hadn’t thought that illegality amounted to “subtle discouragement.” And interestingly enough, another lesson Brooks learned while aging out—a peculiar one given his avowed insistence that laws do not change behavior as much as social norms, expectations and customs do—is that we cannot rely on them to adequately discourage marijuana use.

This isn’t the moral I would have derived from Brooks’ little tale of how his youthful indulgence in marijuana waned, where its continued illegality had nothing to do with his decision to stop consuming. Instead, Brooks, along with his other friends, managed to figure out, miraculously enough, that marijuana didn’t fit into the life he wanted.

And so Brooks made his choice. But the freedom to arrive at such decisions on their own is not one he can trust members of this society with. Perhaps his cohort was a moral and rational singularity in a universe of blindly hedonistic, amoral original sinners who need protection from themselves. Thus, leaving to them the choice of how to live their lives is in fact, inhibiting them from self-realization:

In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are … nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

Mostly, columnists reveal their internal incoherence of thought in their corpus of writings. It takes a rare talent to do so as comprehensively as Brooks does in the space of just some 700 words.


Samir Chopra is a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College. His most recent book is Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket. He blogs at samirchopra.com.