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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume I - General Orientation

Chapter 3- Our Guiding Principles

Governance of the self

Historically, juridicity has often been equated with moral standards, or has tried to model itself on them. These standards could come from religion, from philosophy, from an ethic, or a universal theory of nature as in Plato. In every case, they tried to say what constituted the “good life”, how to conform one’s life with the immanent rules of life, ending the cycle of reincarnations, or avoiding eternal damnation. In every case as well, the good life corresponded more or less to “life” in the most abstract sense, that is to say the focus was not so much on the destiny of the individual, but on that of the community, the group, the clan.

It is only as of the second half of the second millennium, during what we refer to as the Age of Enlightenment, that individual life slowly began to register as a primary concern in the governance of the community. This major change resulted in what Taylor calls “ordinary life”, that of the “average sensual man”, at the heart of which we find his connection to the world and his manner of connecting with it through the agency of family and work, being suddenly recognized. Having had no means by which to participate in the development of juridicity in general until then, the “citizen” acquired some legal authority and right to active participation (to simplify things, we could give as an example the right to vote), not only as a member of the community but as a whole and unique individual. 

Up until that time, communities had a juridicity that was largely based on relationships with others, granting strong objective rights (the right to life: you shall not kill; the right to property: you shall not steal; etc.), with a weak cognitive component: while admitting that it continues (unfortunately one might add), to pose certain problems (take racial or sexual inequality) even throughout the twentieth century, - accepting respect for life as a universal norm has not met with great opposition. It is in this sense that we speak here, particularly following Pires’ work discussed in the following section, of norms with weak cognitive components. These fundamental norms, which certain philosophers of law have said are natural laws, do not require a strong empirical justification. The same cannot be said of other norms concerning conduct such as homosexuality, abortion… or taking drugs. These norms are an issue of what we might call subjective rights that relate to individual behaviours that express personal choices achieved through a consensual exchange and thus being of little or less direct concern to the community. This is why we could say this is an issue of norms with a strong cognitive component: in order to be imposed as negative laws, that is to say as constraints or prohibitions, these standards need an exogenous justification drawn from the external knowledge of juridicity itself. 

In this way, parallel to the process of legal formalization of the norms of governance in the community described in the preceding sub-section, the modern individual has acquired more and more room for governance of the self. This space is no longer, as in the past, entirely dictated by the determinations stemming from one’s birth in a given place, in a given family, with given genetic “baggage”. Except in some totalitarian regimes, neither is this space for the governance of the self entirely subjected to collective or religious rules. This space consists of a vast area of uncertainty that, in part, precisely explains why it is sometimes called “disenchantment with the world”, or more prosaically “loss of sense” or “lack of values”. In fact, we would say that neither comes into play, so much as a process of slow and hesitant reinvention of social life, in and through new ways of relating as individuals.


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