The editors of National Review have penned a recent editorial calling for the legalization of marijuana. They argue that the consequentialist case for legalizing pot is powerful. According to them, marijuana is a benign intoxicant that the state has no business regulating. Individual liberty means that the government needs to get its nose out of prohibiting the use of this drug. According to them, regulating marijuana has led to a failed and expensive war on drugs. Furthermore, laws against marijuana usage only end up making ordinary citizens into criminals. And what’s the use of that?
I think that this is one column that the editors ought to be ashamed of. There are many problems with their argument, but perhaps the key issue is their ethical mode of reasoning. In short, they are making a “consequentialist” case for legalizing pot usage. What is wrong with consequentialism?
Consequentialist ethics bases moral judgments on the consequences that result from human actions. This way of determining ethical behavior does not see any action as inherently good or evil. The consequences of an action determine which acts are good and which acts are evil. Thus human actions are not to be judged by their intrinsic moral worth, but by whether they have a favorable result. On this theory, if telling a little lie produces a good result, then lying in that case would be good. Likewise, if helping people to become potheads promotes individual liberty and human happiness, then of course we should legalize marijuana use.
But the consequentialist mode of ethical reasoning is morally bankrupt, and this fact ought to be especially clear to Christians. This approach means that there is no intrinsic value in any human action. Obeying the Sermon on the Mount has no intrinsic value unless you can also calculate what good results might flow from that obedience. If you can’t foresee a good result in not lusting (Matt. 5:28), then don’t worry about not lusting. In other words, consequentialism gives a higher authority to our estimation of consequences than it does to what Jesus commands us to do. As Richard Hays has it, “How strikingly indifferent is the New Testament… to consequentialist ethical reasoning. The New Testament teaches us to approach ethical issues not by asking ‘What will happen if I do x?’ but rather by asking ‘What is the will of God?'” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 455).
There is something intrinsically evil about giving oneself over to recreational intoxication (Isa. 5:11; Eph. 5:18). It is a moral evil quite apart from our calculation of consequences that flow from it (as Joe Carter has recently and effectively pointed out). But even so, I think the editors have undersold the real consequences of recreational intoxication. They’ve overlooked the degree and intensity of smoking marijuana, compared against, for example, alcohol, which usually requires overconsumption before intoxication occurs. Such is not the case for marijuana, which is designed for intoxication even in “moderate” amounts. For that reason, their consequentialist case falls short on its own terms.
It does not promote healthy communities or human flourishing to ignore the good, the right, and the true. The editors at National Review have plainly missed that fact, but Christians must not.
[For more on modes of ethical reasoning, see pages 26-34 of What Is the Meaning of Sex?]