Walter White’s double life in Breaking Bad is recounted as a sort of Jekyll and Hyde story, acclaimed for forcing its fans to “re-construct … the lines between good and evil”. However, the show’s theme of guilt forces to the surface far deeper implications for morality, rights, and the role of government that go beyond this crude distinction between good and evil.
Following the meth-producing duo, we see two very different sets of values. Walt feels guilty for breaking the law, which is encouraged by his wife and in-laws. Meanwhile, Jesse is haunted by the things he has done to people to maintain the duo’s position in the market. Their perspectives provide a contrast that raises an interesting question: Is it wrong to sell drugs?
It is a theme throughout the show that Walt should and does feel a responsibility for the fate of his customers. In the third season, Walt burns his drug money in a barbeque after learning of a plane crash caused by an air-traffic controller, who had recently lost his daughter to drug overdose. Among other incidents, this speaks to Walt’s underlying feeling of guilt for choosing to participate in the market.
On the surface, the obvious answer is that the drug trade is highly immoral and so Walt’s family is right that it is wrong to sell drugs. The black market is certainly full of human rights abuses –homicide, theft, threats, and worse– and it tears apart families and communities through violence and addiction. But that description does not separate the transaction from the circumstances in which they are made, and that is a crucial distinction.
At the core, drug dealing is a mutually-beneficial exchange between two consenting adults, which does not violate anyone’s rights. If there is a question of whether or not the exchange is mutually-beneficial, one need only to consider that the individuals involved –the dealer and the consumer– wouldn’t participate in the exchange if they didn’t think it would benefit them. Thus, there is no reason for this sort of exchange to be illegal. It is a personal choice to sell private property, and it is a personal choice to get high. Most importantly, it is personal responsibility to deal with the consequences of those choices. When a man high on bath salts chewed off the face of a poor homeless man last summer, it wasn’t the bath salt company’s fault — it was the junkie’s fault. Ultimately, the responsibility of any actions made while on high a drug falls upon the shoulders of the user himself, who took that drug in full knowledge of the risks to his perception and decision-making faculties. There is nothing inherently immoral about getting high, as it only directly affects the junkie. What is immoral is abuse of other individuals. Though these abuses may be encouraged by the drug flowing through the bloodstream, responsibility for actions always falls upon the shoulders of the offender. Saying that a drug dealer is responsible for the actions of his customers is the same thing as suggesting that Corona is responsible for its customers’ DUIs or that Benadryl manufacturers are responsible for a student sleeping through his 9 AM class.
Taking a step back, we can see that it isn’t the transaction in and of itself which leads to abuse of human rights or even sleeping in too late. If an adult wants to spend his Friday night boozed out, stoned, or tweaking on his couch, power to him. It doesn’t hurt anyone but perhaps his own health, and liberty is the freedom to make bad choices as well as good ones. The issue lies in the way he allows his choices to affect others. If he spends all of his money on drugs instead of feeding his kid, that is child abuse. If he attacks a fast-food server because McDonalds doesn’t serve McNuggets before 10:30am, that is assault. Ultimately, these choices are made by the individual, not the drug dealer. As a drug dealer, Walt has no responsibility for the consequences of his customers’ choices. Rather, he should take Jesse’s view that what their customers do with their product is not their concern. It should not be illegal to sell drugs; it is not the role of government to help people make good life choices but rather to protect people’s rights from the self-interest of others.
This article first appeared in the Stanford Daily.