The ethical problem with shortcuts to pleasure.

In 1954, it was found that rats would push a lever for hours if certain regions of their brain were stimulated with electricity.  That area had to do with the ‘reward system’ that we humans also have.  Humans had thus set up a lab environment where rats got more pleasure than they ever would in the wild.
ratAndLeverHumans are also expert in creating vastly more pain for other humans than we would expect to encounter in the wild, but that is another story.
Humans also have found shortcuts to that reward system, such as cocaine and heroin.  It is interesting that both are illegal.  And the reason is not that some officious type doesn’t want us to feel good.  The reason is that there are bad consequences to these shortcuts.
An interesting finding with marijuana, supposedly a less serious drug, was that it is likely to make changes in the brain that lead to criminal behavior.   it was known that there was a big correlation between criminality and use of pot, but it wasn’t know whether the drug itself was responsible for the correlation, or perhaps it was just that criminals were more likely to take drugs. The study is not 100% conclusive (see sources), but it makes a good argument that the drug changes the brain and produces – criminals (of course not all users become criminals – there is a just an increased likelihood).
The Libertarian party in America believes that we should make all drugs legal, because it would end violent drug cartels, stop creating “crimes without victims”, and pose less of a threat to our freedoms.
One libertarian site argues that
We maybe have other reasons for rejecting legalized drugs and prostitution, but legalized drugs and prostitution are not on their face incompatible with individual responsibility and limited government”.
But this leaves a question, independent of what governments should or should not do.  What are those other reasons?
What are the ethics of taking short-cuts to your reward system?
Here is one cautionary  story:
As a freshman at Columbia University,  Maia Szalavitz, a smart Jewish girl from the Hudson River Valley, became a serious cocaine dealer and soon a heavy user. She was suspended from college, got arrested and ducked a 15-year prison sentence. She started injecting heroin, then shifted to methadone and tried rehab. At age 23 she quit drugs in a spasm of self-disgust, feeling “debased” when she found herself on the brink of seducing someone in exchange for drugs.
There is  depressing and revealing book by a sociology professor at Columbia University, Sudhir Venkatesh who went looking for the “underground economy” in New York.  He did manage to get into it, after initial difficulty, and he tells some cautionary stories.
One story is of Analise, “a woman I knew from the elite subculture of wealthy young New Yorkers, many recent graduates of Harvard and Yale…”
Annalise had confided to Sudhir that she had angered her parents by refusing to be a good socialite and get married and pursue a life of fashion and charity.  She preferred traveling and looking at art.
Then her life took a weird turn.  Sudhir found out she was managing some women friends who had decided to be — prostitutes.  She claimed that she
didn’t get started managing women like Brittany through planning or ambition.  It’s just that everyone else was so incompetent.  Brittany would offer to pay for the hotel room– at the St. Regis!  Her friends were worse.  They’d pay for town cars, they’d pay for dinner, even supply a little free cocaine.
In no time at all, Annalise had doubled their earnings.  Success attracted other clients, and one day Annalise woke up and realized she was running a business.
Sudhir heard this in a state of shock.
“I feel like I’m helping people” she added.  Sudhir would have none of that:
Those exact words I had heard many times before.  Criminals always try to frame their actions in some high-minded way.  Sex workers tell me they are “therapists” offering a quasi-medical service.  Drug dealers say they are taking money away from the bad elements in their community.
Sudhir tried to dissuade her.  “I don’t think you have any idea what you’re getting into, or how vulnerable you are.”
Sudhir tells us:
I had seen terrible things happen in this world.  Over and over, I’d seen people who were basically good acting savagely in the name of money and fear and respect.
He asked more questions of Annalise and then said this to her:
So you’re evading currency laws and tax laws and banking six figures and you’re telling me you’ve never even nudged any one of your five young employees to work extra or keep working–or what was it you told Brittany yesterday?  ‘So just drink’?”…”Have you had that conversation yet, the one where one of the women says she wants to stop?  You’d lose twenty thousand dollars a year.  Are you sure you won’t try to talk her into sticking it out just a little bit longer?  ‘Just one more time’?
I KNOW this shit, Analise.  One night something bad happens in some fucked-up hotel and they come crying to you and you talk them down.  You calm them.
Annalise tried saying she was helping people one more time, and then started to laugh.
Okay, no, I am not Mother Teresa.  I do like the thrill of it.  I do.  I like crime.
Sudhir met other ambiguous characters when he entered the underworld of New York.   He ended up knowing and liking a man who ran an “adult bookstore” who he later found out had gotten involved with some very dangerous people and under their pressure began forcing women from India to become prostitutes.
It’s not that surprising that if you commit “victimless crimes”, you end up committing “victim crimes”.  My feeling is that if you have left restraints that most of us have behind, you will find yourself in the company of criminals with no restraints at all.
Poverty pushes people into making money in illegal ways, but it is interesting that often the same people who work in the underground – whether in the drug trade, or the off-books labor world, or the sex trade, also can and do find jobs in the legal world.
The women who engage in prostitution to supplement their income can be aspiring artists, aspiring models, aspiring actors, or they can be paralegals, saleswomen, etc.
Personally, if I were to pay money to activate my reward system, I would like to follow the example of Etienne Theroux who says this:
Before I became a Backroads Trip Leader, a crazy project took me on a bicycle adventure along the spine of the Americas, from northern Canada to southern Argentina, chasing down the Rockies, the Sierra Madre and the Andes mountains. Here is what I consider to be the Top 10 Best Roads Segments from that trip. This list includes different sceneries, jaw-dropping sights and some of the places that made me shout out “wow” uncontrollably.
But I remember a relative of mine, at the time in his teens, now working at a really interesting and well-paying job, saying sarcastically to me that I just liked to pedal and rotate a bike wheel endlessly.  He had somewhat of a point.
Whatever our purpose in being on this earth, if there is one, it can’t be just to be that rat with the electrode and the lever.  It can’t be to commit victimless crimes that just somehow end up in much too close proximity to  victim crimes.

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