Follow me on Twitter

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Should equestrians ride horses or get high?

The case of the senior scientist sacked for straying into the moral debate on drugs policy goes to the heart of the conflict between science and morality. It also shows how moral discussions can be hijacked by bad arguments.

Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, sacked Alan Nutt, Professor of Pharmacology and chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, for overstepping the line between advising about the comparative dangers of ecstasy and government policy on its prohibition.

The case prompts us to consider whether we should draw normative moral conclusions regarding how we should live from objective statements of fact.

In the case of the disagreement between Nutt and Johnson, the argument is roughly as follows:

Nutt: ‘The health dangers caused by widespread use of ecstasy and cannabis are less than the dangers associated with riding a horse. The government should take this into account when weighing its drug prohibition policy.’

Johnson: ‘Prof Nutt’s assertion about horse riding being more dangerous than ecstasy is a political rather than a scientific point. There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction.’

Why horse riding is more dangerous than ecstasy

First, let’s consider Professor Nutt’s position. His role was to provide scientific advice to the government on the relative dangers of drugs and to recommend how they should be classified. In this role he has one foot wholly inside the empirical, fact-based world of scientific discourse. But his other foot appears to have clumsily landed on the uneven terrain of the moral world with its attendant obstacles of beliefs, values, validity and sincerity.
The delineation between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ in this case corresponds to Prof Nutt’s view of his role in highlighting sound evidence about the relative safety of ecstasy in comparison to horse riding, and using that evidence as a rational basis for a wider moral discussion of what the relevant prohibitions ‘ought’ to be.

The link between horse riding and ecstasy is established in a paper published by Prof Nutt in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. He says that around 10 people die annually after falling from a horse and that the long term health effects of ‘equasy’, his term to describe addiction to horse riding, include: brain damage; memory loss; irritability; and personality change. Among the social costs of ‘equasy’ are approximately 100 road traffic accidents per year; and public order problems at organised hunts in which riders participate. Based on this evidence, he argues that ‘equasy’ could be banned by the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (1)

Prof Nutt concedes that there are moral and social reasons why ecstasy is banned and horse riding remains legal. His point is that moral deliberations about ecstasy use could benefit from recourse to comparative evidence to the dangers associated with other hobbies. On this basis he concludes that we have as much to fear from horse riding as we do from ecstasy (2).
He wants the government to use facts about the comparative harm of drugs in moral deliberations about prohibition. But he is also aware of the barriers politicians face in sincerely addressing the health and social costs of consuming certain drugs relative to other (legal) hobbies or pursuits. In some interviews he has argued that scientists are better placed than politicians to encourage a non-hysterical, reflective attitude among the general public about the risks of different drugs(3).
Nonetheless, in attempting to derive a normative position about what we ‘should’ do about drugs from an empirical ‘is’ position about the relative harm drugs cause, he gets into trouble.

How many kids in West Hull ride horses?

Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s argument seems to be this: that to compare ecstasy use to horse riding is not a scientific, but a political (and therefore moral) point. In a letter to the Guardian he makes three points, including that:

• riding a horse is not more dangerous than taking ecstasy;
• few children ride horses in his constituency; but
• thousands are at risk of drug addiction.(4)

If drug use is a moral issue, how well does Mr Johnson conduct the moral argument? Firstly he adopts an evidence-skeptic position. He rules out a discussion based on reasons by objecting to Prof Nutt’s comparison of horse riding and ecstasy use. Horse riding is not even remotely comparable to ecstasy use never mind more dangerous, he says (5). So Prof Nutt has made a category error, horse riding is a hobby, taking ecstasy is not.
Now, let’s be clear, this is not an assertion backed by reasons. Mr Johnson offers no evidence to refute Prof Nutt’s findings, he contents himself with the assertion that there is no comparison between horse riding and ecstasy use. He does not explain why taking ecstasy is not a hobby and therefore of the same category as horse riding.
Nevertheless we cannot discount that Mr Johnson could, if necessary, supply evidence to prove that taking ecstasy is not a hobby, whilst horse riding is. So let’s award victory in this particular phase of the argument to Mr Johnson.
Prof Nutt 0-1 Mr Johnson.

Mr Johnson then moves to a second argument designed to show that horse riding is not a health or social problem. Let’s assume that his assertion that few ‘kids in [his] constituency [are] in danger of falling off a horse’ is empirically correct. Let’s also assume that the reason for this is that there are not that many kids who ride horses in West Hull. We have established that there are few horse riding kids in West Hull. Therefore, the risks to personal health and to society of falling off a horse in West Hull are negligible.
On the other hand, the health and social risks associated with taking ecstasy are not negligible. This we can infer from Mr Johnson’s remark that, whilst there are few young horse riders in West Hull, there are thousands at risk of a life of drug dependency.
The problem here is that Mr Johnson appears to be making the same category error as Prof Nutt. As we have seen, comparing horse riding with ecstasy use is a category error. Horse riding is a hobby, taking ecstasy is not. I think that by continuing with this line of argument Mr Johnson comes perilously close to a performative contradiction. In such a case we are entitled to ignore Mr Johnson’s argument.
The only fair thing to do is to stick with the ban on comparing the relative health and social harms of ecstasy and horse riding.
Prof Nutt 1–1 Mr Johnson

What should horse riders do?

To the crux of the matter. Until this case emerged, I doubt many horse riders thought their usually sedate hobby was more dangerous than taking ecstasy and dancing to techno. But now this Pandora’s box has been opened, what are they to do? Do we think it likely that many horse riders will cease riding in favour of getting mashed at all night raves? Will it convince safety conscious horse riders who already take drugs to hang up their saddles and stick to pills? Will it convince hedonistic horse riders to combine horse riding and ecstasy use? Probably not.

Prof Nutt has commented that it is the government’s job to have a moral debate about whether ecstasy ‘ought’ to be prohibited. But the moral debate about whether ecstasy ‘ought’ to be prohibited is a discussion that people have.
People have views on drugs though they may not be as well grounded as Prof Nutt would like them to be. People are entitled to make comparisons and to draw helpful analogies to decide what they should do about horse riding or ecstasy use, and some empirical context might help in deciding which of those comparisons are useful and which are category errors.
Ultimately the moral discussion about riding a horse while high on ecstasy is something best left to ordinary people.


(1) Nutt, J, Equasy: An overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms, Journal of Psychopharmacology, 23 (1) 2009 3-5.
(2) ibid
(3) Nutt, J, Interview on PM, BBC Radio 4, 30 Oct 09
(4) Johnson, A, letter to the Guardian newspaper, 02 Nov 09
(5) A similar point was made by the previous Home Secretary, Jackie Smith, in the House of Commons in February 09