Christianity,  Politics

Evaluating the Consequentialist Case for Legalizing Pot

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?]


  • Doug Hess

    One thing that I think has been lost in all of this is the distinction between judging whether smoking marijuana is sinful and whether it should be outlawed by the government. Requiring a case to be made to “legalize” something rests on a presupposition that everything should be outlawed unless a case can be made for legalization. I think the opposite is true. The government should have to make a case for restricting or outlawing an activity, and without a strong justification for such action should default to liberty. I think that the arguments for abstaining from using pot are legion, and as a Christian I think there is a strong argument to be made that it’s recreational use is in fact sinful. There are many sinful activities, however, that cannot and should not be outlawed, because the consequences of government action are worse that those of the act being outlawed. I think there is a strong case to be made that marijuana is one of those cases.

    • buddyglass

      +1. Though I’m not entirely convinced marijuana use always and necessarily induces intoxication that rises to sinful levels. There’s a difference between one hit on a joint and getting totally blasted.

      • Jeff Downs


        Do you know anyone who smokes marijuana, who takes one hit off a joint or a bowl? I’ve never done such a things, never heard of such a thing, and never seen such a thing. Unless it was some one hit weed.

        • buddyglass

          No, but I don’t know many folks who have one sip of wine either.

          To your question: I wasn’t there at the time, but I know some coworkers of mine have, on occasion, smoked outside our office during lunch then come back in and worked the rest of the day. I’m assuming they didn’t smoke so much as to render themselves incoherent. If I were a regular user who smoked after work to relax I can’t imagine overdoing it on a regular basis.

          My point in the “one hit vs. blasted” comment is that, just like with alcohol, there are varying levels of use that induce varying levels of intoxication. You can drink until you’re buzzed or you can continue until you pass out. You can smoke until you’re relaxed or you can continue until you’re a giggling, incoherent mess.

  • Ian Shaw

    Though I do believe the war on drugs has been pretty unsuccessful and cost millions if not billions of dollars and disproportionally put minorities in jail, I don’t think this should be legalized. Like Denny I don’t think their argument holds.

    Hey, did you get hacked Denny? Site was down for a few hours!

    • buddyglass

      Side question: given you don’t believe pot should be legalized, do you support a federal ban or do you take the federalist view that it should be up to each state? If the former, what do you see as the constitutional basis for a federal ban? Welfare clause? Commerce clause? If its one of these, how does that jive with the standard conservative complaint that these clauses should be interpreted “narrowly” and have instead been abused to grant the federal govt. regulatory powers it ought not have?

  • Mitch

    “There is something intrinsically evil about giving oneself over to recreational intoxication”
    Heavy sigh on this one. Denny my friend, you’ve ranted and raved so long that you’re now after me and the rest of the secular vermin who, after slaving our way into a tax bracket that starts with a 3, would like a little “recreational intoxication” thank you very much. I don’t use drugs but I have been known to hit a happy hour on frequent occasion which is nothing if not recreational intoxication. Put simply, we are no more “intrinsically evil” than you are with your high-handed and condescending moral judgments. Those clearly intoxicate you and, with that said, aren’t we just talking about a different source that does the same thing for you it does for the dope smokers? Let’s not get too preachy, ok?

      • Mitch Dean

        Sorry Brett, there was a typo in the second to last sentence. It should read “Those clearly intoxicate you and, with that said, aren’t we just talking about a different source that does the same thing for you that pot does for the dope smokers?”

  • Denny Burk

    Well, Mitch. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one too.

    While there is still some disagreement among Christians about the alcohol issue, there is much unity as well. A minority of Christian denominations/groups are still teetotalers, but there are also a number of Christian groups (including many evangelicals) who are definitely not teetotalers.

    That difference aside, the one area upon which all agree is that intoxication by alcohol and other drugs is a sin. This is the plain teaching of the Bible, and virtually all Christians everywhere who acknowledge the authority of scripture agree. For all their differences, even Protestants and Catholics agree with one another in their moral assessment of intoxication/drunkenness (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2290-2291).

    So what does the scripture say along these lines? Just a sampling:

    Ephesians 5:18 — “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, . . .”

    Galatians 5:21 — “Envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

    1 Peter 5:8 — “Be sober-minded; be watchful.”

    1 Corinthians 6:10 — “Nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

    Proverbs 23:20-21 — “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.”

    Proverbs 23:29-35 — “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things.”

    Isaiah 5:11 — “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them!”

    Hosea 4:11 — “Whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding.”

    1 Corinthians 5:11 — “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”

    Isaiah 28:7 — “These also reel with wine and stagger with strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are swallowed by wine, they stagger with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgment.”

    Matthew 24:48-49 — “But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards . . .”

    Why is it a sin? I think the Ephesians text above is helpful: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” This text commands us to be “filled” with the Spirit—which means to be controlled by the Spirit of God. When our minds our controlled or intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, they are not under the direction of the Spirit. Following Christ requires sober-mindedness, and that is the issue.

    So this is why I’m arguing that Christians cannot simply be consequentialists in their moral evaluation of intoxication. We may differ in our opinions about public policy and drug laws. These kinds of issues require prudential judgments in the application of scripture to public life. But Christians may not differ in our fundamental evaluation of drunkenness/intoxication itself. It is a sin.

    As I said, we may have to agree to disagree on this one. But this is why Christians agree with one another that intoxication is a sin to be avoided.


    • Mitch Dean

      You’re right, we’ll never agree and that’s fine. With that said, I want to be clear that I’m not championing a life of staying wasted day and night (hell, I have to hold down a full time job to pay for the wine that is necessary for my sinful recreational intoxication). Something I find really interesting about this that I’d like your comment on is the difficulty of defining “intoxication.” That is something that has been controversial in secular law so I’m not sure why it should be less so for christian legalists? Even if you’re only talking about one person, when is that person intoxicated enough to be sinning? Let’s say you have a non teetotaling but otherwise “good christian” (whatever that means) who meets up with friends for some food and fellowship on a Saturday night and drinks enough to feel the alcohol but isn’t falling down drunk. If he or she takes public transportation or is riding with friends and decides, over the course of the evening, to have a second, third and/or fourth drink, he or she will definitely feel the alcohol more but it’s hard to say the person is “wasted” on 2, 3 or even 4 drinks. So when do you cross the sin line? Which buzz is the bad buzz? It’s just kind of a slippery concept. You advance a lot of support for your argument that intoxication is sin but I’m not sure how useful that conclusion is if we can’t offer some guidance to our well-intentioned friend on how to avoid the sin on his or her Saturday night excursion.

    • buddyglass

      I certainly wouldn’t argue against the idea that intoxication is forbidden; there’s plenty of biblical support showing that it is. My arguments would be these:

      1. Many Christians tend to use a double-standard when comparing marijuana and alcohol in the context of “intoxication”. In my opinion Joe Carter does this when he argues there exists a level of alcohol consumption that doesn’t “intoxicate” but no corresponding level of marijuana consumption.

      2. Regardless of when intoxication occurs, there are other pragmatic concerns that should inform decisions about how a substance is regulated. Things like:

      a. How likely is use of the substance likely to result in addiction?

      b. How strong is the typical addiction? Are we talking “coffee” or “heroin”?

      c. How negatively does regular use affect the user’s health and well-being?

      d. How dangerous to the user is acute intoxication? How likely is a deadly overdose?

      e. How dangerous to others is acute intoxication intoxication? Does intoxication cause erratic and potentially violent behavior?

      f. How significant are the negative effects of prohibition?

      g. How effective is prohibition?

      i. How much does prohibition cost in terms of: i) direct expenditures, ii) lost tax revenue, and iii) societal damage in the form of higher incarceration rates, etc.

      One can make a cogent “case for legalizing pot” while agreeing with the biblical statements against intoxication.

  • Patrick Guevara

    While I generally agree with your reasoning regarding the moral issues involved. However, you appear to be assuming secular law ought to correspond directly with morality. As with most, if not all, academic disciplines, jurisprudence (specifically the theory of the basis of law) is not that simple. I recall from studying in law school at a few distinct theories of law: natural law, positivist, realist, critical studies (which I recall being very radical and incoherent), and a combination of these. From my brief read of the article, the author’s argument appears to be based on either a positivist (no connection between morality and law) or realist (probably the jurisprudential equivalent of the “consequentialist” moral theory you critique) theory of law. It seems to me that before there can meaningful discussion on whether proposed marijuana legalization laws are consistent with sound Biblical doctrine, a thorough discussion of jurisprudence from a Biblical perspective is in order, particularly verses such as Matt 22:21 (“render unto Caesar…”) and Jn 18:36 (“My Kingdom is not of this world”). Personally, I think these verses support a more realist view of jurisprudence. However, I would have to rely on others’ Biblical studies expertise, such as yourself, for a deeper understanding of such scriptures before I could take a more reasoned position from the jurisprudential side.

  • Ian Shaw


    I know it’s now what people want to hear, but the APA has included in the DSM-V that people can suffer from marijuana withdrawl syndrome. That pretty much destroys the walls that it’s not addictive from all the critics screaming that it wasn’t for years doesn’t it?

    Personally, I would stand by the claim from Joe Carter regarding levels of intoxication from alcohol compared to marijuana. The body absorbs the two substances differently and someone drinking a 12oz beer will have less physical/psychological altering effects than someone that inhales once from marijuana.

    A substory to this issue is how to deal with people that operate vehicles while high. If it is legalized on a federal level, it should be treated the same as drunk driving in my opinion. But many pro-marijuana legalization supporters will tell you that people that are high don’t drive. Sinful experiences in my youth prove it’s a fallacy.

    • buddyglass

      Anything can be addictive. Video games can be addictive. It’s a matter of how frequently addiction occurs (vs. use in moderation) and how severe the addiction is. Quitting marijuana causes less severe withdrawal than, say, quitting heroin. Or heavy alcohol use, for that matter.

      Re: Carter and intoxication. This would need to be quantified. Personally I find it unlikely that one hit on a joint is more intoxicating than a 12oz beer, but that’s certainly possible. Maybe one hit = two beers. Two beers is still moderate use. If one hit = two beers then exists a level of marijuana consumption that is “moderate” and non-intoxicating.

      Re: driving while high: If being high impairs ones ability to drive similarly to being drunk does then I agree it should be regulated the same. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t; we’d have to research the topic. For instance, my understanding is that being “really high” doesn’t cause the same dizziness and loss of motor control as being “really drunk” does, so maybe driving high is “less bad” than driving drunk. Maybe. But, like I said, any such claims would have to be backed up by objective research.

  • Ian Shaw

    Pretty certain that being high on pot slows your reaction time. That’s a problem when driving.

    I’m sure someone has the research out there with someone getting an MRI on their brain while drinking and smoking marijuana. I’s got to be out there.

  • Ron Smith

    ” It does not promote healthy communities or human flourishing to ignore the good, the right, and the true. “==> Is this not the “consequentialist mode of ethical reasoning” which, I agree, is morally bankrupt?

    If you’re going to take away from the opposition the “moral judgments on the consequences that result from human actions”, then you necessarily strip yourself of the same ability to judge the consequences of the sinful action. I don’t think that’s what you’re aiming for here, but that’s the pitfall of the argument. You’re left with “God Said So” as a reason and you can’t say “it’s what’s best” except that “God Said So”.

    While I agree with you that “giving oneself over to recreational intoxication” is sin, the question is then “What role should government play or what punishment is appropriate?”. I don’t see the morality in multiple year felony incarcerations for having a piece of glass in one’s home or vehicle. I don’t accept that SWAT raids are a moral reaction to possession of intoxicants (many household items qualify).

  • Curt Day

    Even if you are going to keep all possession and the use of pot illegal, something has to be done to stop putting in the same prison those who are guilty of mere possession with violent criminals.

  • R.A. Jameson

    Does it concern you Denny, that God in his infinite wisdom did not criminalize cannabis? He created 613 laws, and not one of them calls for the the criminal punishment of those that consume plants. Well, maybe the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But other than that, neither Torah, nor Christ, nor the Apostles advocated for the criminalization of cannabis or any plant.

    Is it morally problematic? Very much so. Very much like alcohol in that sense. But criminal, not according to the Bible.

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