What is the Morality of Abetting Legal Addictions?

One of the following scenarios happened to me yesterday, and my confoundment at what to do inspired all that follows. Where, if anywhere, do you draw the line in assisting someone in their self-destruction? Are you, in fact, your brother’s keeper – or should you strictly respect your brother’s right as an adult to do any damn thing he pleases?

Set up: You live in an apartment building, are on the ‘casually friendly acquaintance’ level of relations with the man in the next apartment. You know that he is currently having great difficulties getting out and around, for reasons that will be explained in each case. There’s a nasty snowstorm going on, but despite that you are going out to run a bunch of errands. Being a basically kind hearted sort, you pop across the hall, and say, “I’m heading to the stores. Can I pick up anything for you?”
Scenario 1: Bill looks up at you in relief. “Yes!” He fishes a bill out of his pocket. “Get me a six pack of Budweiser, will you? I’m all out.”

Background info: You know Bill is an extremely heavy drinker. He denies being an alcoholic though he admits he’d joined AA several times over the past few years – said he did it only to placate the girlfriend of the moment that he was ‘doing something’ about his drinking. The reason he’s having trouble getting about right now is that last week he wrapped his car around a telephone pole. No one else was hurt, but his car’s still being worked on and he’s got a cast on a broken leg.
Scenario 2: Steve looks up at you with relief on his face. “Yes!” He fishes a bill out of his pocket. “Get me a pack of Camels, will you? I’m all out.”

Background info: Steve has emphysema (I hope I’m spelling that)and a never ending smoker’s cough. In the past he’s confided in you that his doctor has told his his choice is to stop smoking or get his will in order. Despite that, you can’t remember ever having seen the guy without a enveloping cloud of smoke. The reason he’s having trouble getting around right now is that he must keep an oxygen cylinder nearby at all times, and wheeling it through slush and snow is too taxing for him to even try.
Scenario 3: Fred looks up at you with relief on his face. “Yes!” He fishes a bill out of his pocket. “Get me a half-gallon of ice cream, will you? Breyer’s Forbidden Chocolate if they have it.”

Background info: Fred is massively, morbidly obese. Somewhere approaching 400 pounds, or maybe even past it. He’s bitched to you often about all the assorted health problems his weight is causing him – arthritis, heart problems, gall bladder problems, sleep apnea, on and on. Despite that, he continues to pack away massive meals that barely allow time for fitting in snack breaks between them. The reason he’s having trouble getting around right now is that he has to use one of those motorized scooters, and the small wheels cannot handle the snow on the ground.
Scenario 4: George looks up at you with relief on his face. “Yes!” He fishes a bill out of his pocket, picks up a pile of much used lottery betting slips. “Get my numbers entered for me, will you? I just know that today’s the day one of them is going to be a million dollar winner.”

Background info: George lives to gamble, on anything or everything. He used to have a nice job, until he spent too many ‘sick days’ at the race track. He’s lost at least three progressively less well paid jobs since then, each time because he was caught emptying the petty cash or dipping into the till. His wife split with the kids when their house was foreclosed on since he gambled away the mortgage money. He owes child support of course, but he’s more worried about the unspecified sum he owes for sports bets. The reason he’s having trouble getting around right now is that one of his legs got broken last week in some mysterious fashion…

So. What do you do? Is it the same in each case? If not, which of them (Bill the Boozer, Steve the Smoker, Fred the Fatty, George the Gambler) will you buy for, which of them do you refuse, and what distinctions are you drawing?

See what happens when you offer to help people? That was your first mistake.

I think, once you’ve made the offer, you should buy the goods. The only exception I would make is in the case of the alcohol, if he had an operational vehicle. He has already demonstrated himself to be a danger to others and I wouldn’t feel right about fueling the possibility that he would go out and injure someone who didn’t have a choice in the matter. My interest in stopping him starts with his gaining the ability to harm others.

maybe the question you should ask initially “is there anything you NEED?” then when the drunk asks for alcohol or the blimp asks for ice cream you would be able to casually say, “c’mon, you know you don’t NEED that! how are you fixed for milk, bread and paper towels?” the average person would be offended, but if these people are in the extreme states you describe they would probably recognize your point. depending on your own habits, you might also say “i don’t buy booze/cigarettes/lottery tickets for myself, i can’t get them for somebody else.” on the other hand, they are not asking you to rob a bank. getting them what they would get for themselves except for the snow probably isn’t morally any different from the store clerk selling it to them. in the circumstances you describe i would probably get them what they asked for and then never offer them that kind of help again.

I don’t think one answer suffices for all those hypotheticals. You have to take it case by case.

Bill the Boozer: If he were just getting smashed at home, I might react differently, but he’s driving drunk. He wants to kill himself, fine, but if he gets behind the wheel, he might kill someone I care about. Like me. Bill gets no booze.

Steve the Smoker: This is a little more difficult. if Steve hadn’t told you his doctor’s diagnosis, it’d be none of your business. Buy him his coffin nails. But he’s confided his medical history in you. He’s either done it because he needs your support (moral support, if nothing else), or because he wants your pity. If it’s for the first reason, you’re morally obligated to help him out. If it’s the second reason, he can either have my pity or his cigarettes, not both. Either way, the correct response is, “Fuck no! You want to die, you idiot? No cigarettes. You needs eggs or bread or anything?”

George the Gambler: Fuck 'em. There’s no gambling gene, there’s no gambling chemical that makes you irresistably crave gambling. Buy him his lottery ticket. He’s made his own bed, let him lie in it.

Fred the Fatty: I am Fred the Fatty. What are you doing standing here arguing morality? Get me my ice cream, bitch!

And a bag of Cheesy Poofs!

I would bring him what he wants in all the scenarios. My refusing to do so will not make any difference whatsoever in the longer term and would only make me a pompous ass. It’s his life, he’s not breaking the law (he can’t drive with a broken leg and no car) so good luck to him.

My friend does this to me in real life. She is okay (just) with me smoking but she refuses to get them from the shop for me, even if she is going there anyway. Rer rationale is that what I do is my business but she doesn’t want to be implicated in killing me. I’m in two minds about this; I can see her point , but then again, I’m only going to go to the shop myself ten minutes later so it does not make any difference.

Interestingly the friend in question is from Virginia and her family’s tobacco farm has fed her, put her through college etc.

That’s how I felt too, at the beginning, and then wondered what I was basing it on. Because in each case you could argue that the ‘additional damage’ due to whatever amount you supplied was trivial in the overall picture…and yet it would be doing damage.

In my case, what I was asked to buy was cigarettes. I think I would have refused to buy them after reflection, but as it happened I refused instantly and automatically. You see, on my 14th birthday my father offered to pay my college expenses in full – tuition, fees, room & board, books, the whole load – but I had to earn it by not smoking, on a year by year basis. As in, if I didn’t touch a cigarette my entire 14th year, freshman year was paid for. If I made it through all the way to my eighteenth birthday, that would be four years of college. Which, he pointed out, might amount to $60 thou, depending on my school choice. If I smoked, even a single cigarette and he found out, I’d get nada. As he put it, if I smoked, I could claw and scrape to barely earn my way through Mother Hubbard’s School of Cranberry Preserving and he wouldn’t give me a token for bus fare.

You’d have to know my father, but I knew he’d carry it out, every word. And it worked – I was always a mercenary little thing. There was no way I’d give up all that money just to smoke. Clearly I’m long past 18, but I’ve an ingrained ‘get that the hell away from me’ reaction to the mere thought of having cigarettes in my hands. Sorry, Steve, but I can’t do it.
For the others:

Bill would get his beer. The guy wasn’t on the wagon or in AA currently, so it wasn’t like I’d be encouraging a lapse, and with him tied down without a car, I wouldn’t be endangering anyone else.

George would get the tickets, I think, but I’m not completely sure. In the overall scheme, what difference would $10-20 bucks in his pocket make? It wouldn’t pay off his debts or child support…unless the number hit, of course. OTOH…perhaps missing the one day and seeing it made no difference (as in, he didn’t play his numbers and he didn’t win the lottery which he also wouldn’t have if he gotten the tickets but this way he’s got more money in hand…I don’t know, maybe breaking the string would help in future. This is the one I’m torn over.

Fred gets his ice cream, no hassles. Because Fred’s addiction is the only one where going cold turkey isn’t an option. The guy has to eat. For all I know, he’s begun an ‘eat only ice cream’ diet and has already lost ten pounds on it – hey, it would be weird, but no more so than other diets I’ve heard of.