The axeman comethby Nigel Warburton / November 18, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
What’s wrong with an independent scientific adviser telling the truth about the comparative dangerousness of drugs? Thanks to David Nutt, this question has been everywhere in the media. Truth can be inconvenient. But no scientist with integrity ever knowingly distorts it. At the point where scientific advisers match evidence-based views to political agendas, they cease to be scientists.
Philosophy can be a demanding discipline too. Kant, for example, took a hard line on truth-telling. If a crazed axeman comes to the door asking where your best friend is, Kant argued that you should tell him. For Kant, your duty to tell the truth in all circumstances is a “categorical imperative”: it is absolute and non-negotiable. Even when your partner twists round while looking in the mirror to ask you that famously difficult question, there are no white lies.
It is unlikely that Kant dabbled in drug-taking in the way Jean-Paul Sartre did. Early experiments with mescalin left the existentialist convinced that he was being pursued by giant crustaceans, and his book the Critique of Dialectical Reason was noticeably fuelled by amphetamines. But in philosophical matters Sartre did take a Kantian line, arguing that the choices you make in life paint a picture of how everyone should live. “In fashioning myself, I fashion humanity,” he wrote. Go around suppressing the truth, and you imply that everyone should do likewise.