The Rise of the New Puritanism

Posted on November 10, 2010


Is smoking more harmful than LSD and Ecstasy?

What connects the Puritans and Professor David Nutt, the former government advisor who recently called for a radical rethink of state policy on drugs?  Not all that much, you might think, but read on.

Twenty-first century folk love new things.  We have the ‘new right’, New Labour, the ‘new atheists’, and ‘the new politics’.  Yet we also see increasingly the rise of another novel phenomenon – the new Puritanism.  Ironically, despite our country having become increasingly permissive in many areas, historically normal pastimes such as drinking and smoking, even when indulged in moderation, are increasingly demonised.
The puritans in the sixteenth century railed against the use of these same substances.  Yet, whilst the old puritanism was religious and spiritual in nature, characterised arguably by a suspicion of pleasures thought to divert man from higher things, the new puritanism is entirely materialistic, fearing anything which might carry even a slight risk of bodily harm.  The pastors of old who thundered from their pulpits against the iniquity of drinking and smoking have been replaced by bespectacled professors in laboratories compiling pie-charts for academic journals.  The pastors of old painted graphic pictures of hellfire.  Today’s scientists menacingly prophecy ‘increased pressures on the National Health Service’.
Common threads can be detected, namely tendencies to wish to strip people of their capacity to make moral decisions, and to claim that it is in their own interest to do so.  There are, of course, some things which are either per se evil or which have only evil uses.  The mistake of puritanism is to conflate such evils with things which are, in themselves, morally neutral.  Substances such as tobacco and alcohol can have strong effects on those who use them, and some restrictions on their use may be necessary for the common good, but puritanism goes further and suggests that even the possibility of making mild use of these things should be removed altogether, thus taking away from people the possibility of learning to exercise the virtue of temperance and to enjoy legitimate pleasure in moderation.
Strangely, whereas the old puritanism was frighteningly consistent in denouncing any and every type of pleasure, the new puritanism is alarmingly inconsistent, and seems swayed more by fashionable opinions and prevailing moral panic than by any rational considerations.  In this regard, we might recall the inconsistency of the same government which banned smoking in public places also legislating to lower the age of consent for homosexual relationships which – regardless of one’s moral standpoint – have well-documented medical risks. 

It should be noted that Professor Nutt himself has not suggested that alcohol or tobacco should be banned or further restrictions placed on their use.  On the contrary, alarmingly, he seems to see his conclusions as a pretext for relaxing restrictions on the possession of other drugs.  Yet, as well as being seized upon by those crusading for the legalisation of narcotics, his study is equally likely to be seized upon by the new puritans, who will draw the opposite conclusion.  In both cases, it might be argued, a little common sense would not go astray.  Indeed, perhaps it is precisely a lack of common sense in addressing the question of restrictions on alcohol and tobacco which provides the connection between the two camps.
The radically differing conclusions capable of being drawn from this study does, finally, provide a sobering illustration of why we should be very careful not to allow self-appointed scientific experts to begin dictating public policy, much less morality.  The natural sciences provide us with important information.  We should value the work of scientists.  But telling us the causes and effects of things does not tell us which things are good or bad, to be done or avoided, to be prohibited or tolerated.  This requires considerations of a more holistic and philosophical nature.  Our politicians are not experts and have proved that they are capable of making bad decisions, but at least they are accountable to us for those decisions.