Marijuana, moral agnosticism, and Lincoln

(CCU Faculty) This week, The Centennial Institute hosted a debate on the question of whether, and to what degree, marijuana should be legalized in the state of Colorado. This is obviously a very important issue and extremely relevant. The Colorado legislature is currently attempting to deal with the continuing issue of how best to administer its current medicinal marijuana law.

During the Centennial Institute debate, the libertarian position favoring the easing of restrictions and possibly outright full legalization continued to surface. At the root of this argument is a belief that people should be able to make choices for themselves, without government restriction.

While respect for liberty is indeed a fine thing, liberty itself is not unlimited. The approach of most libertarians typically seeks a liberty unchecked. None of the participants at the Centennial Institute debate expressed a personal desire for to have access to marijuana, and all expressed personal reservations for themselves and their family members concerning its use. What this position amounts to is the following: its wrong for me but you can do whatever you want.

During the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, Senator Douglas explained how slavery had existed in his home state of Illinois for a time, but when the people of his state decided that it no longer worked for them, they voted to end it. In contrast to this, Kentucky, Illinois’ southern neighbor, had slavery and continued to have it. In Douglas’ mind, they continued to have legal slavery, as it worked for them. Douglas’ opinion of this discrepancy between Illinois and Kentucky concerning the legality of chattel slavery was an attitude of indifference. It was not right for some, but was for others.

Abraham Lincoln responded to Douglas’ indifference to slavery in the last of their seven debates, held in Alton, Illinois: [Douglas] says he “don’t care whether it is voted up or voted down” in the Territories…. Any man can say that who does not see anything wrong in slavery; but no man can logically say it who does see a wrong in it, because no man can logically say he does not care whether a wrong is voted up or down….

Lincoln correctly questions the logic of Douglas. If something is wrong, how can we not care whether it is legal? If there is something wrong with marijuana, how can we “not care” whether or not it is legal? The panelists all seemed to agree that for them, marijuana wasn’t a good thing. Is this merely a personal preference or it there something inherently wrong with it, which explains why they don’t want to use it, nor do they want their children to?

This is in no way an attempt to equate slavery with marijuana usage. What is similar is the argument that was put forth by Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858 concerning slavery and the argument put forth by most libertarians concerning marijuana and most other morals laws that exist in the United States.

There are indeed obvious and significant differences between slavery and marijuana. What needs to be acknowledged is that the libertarian argument shares the same “don’t care” indifference of Senator Douglas. If we recognize that something is indeed wrong, how can we not insist on laws prohibiting it?

This attitude toward law and governance is enormously important, not simply in the debate over marijuana. The other, more significant example of this indifference and its tragic consequences is our current laws on abortion. Again, the libertarian position is often one of: I wouldn’t do it, but that doesn’t mean we should prevent others from making this choice. If we know something is morally wrong, how can we argue that we “don’t care” whether it is voted up or down?

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