Saturday, June 19, 2010

Societal Stamp of Approval

I've been thinking recently about what it means for society to "approve" of something. It came up in the context of the arguments about legalizing marijuana. One argument for keeping it illegal, which I am somewhat partial to, is that legalizing it would essentially give our societal "stamp of approval" for recreational marijuana use, whereas now we are officially "against" it. This argument is often used when it's pointed out how ineffective (from a monetary standpoint) it is to wage a war on pot; even if that's true, "stampers" would argue, it's still something we should pursue on principle.

Like I said, I see some merit in that argument. (Perhaps it appeals to my idealistic side--pragmatism be damned, let's strive to live by higher principles!) But then I considered turning that argument around and using it in other situations. Is it moral to earn billions of dollars and not give any away to charities? I think most people would answer no, to hoard every penny you gain when you're richer than God and spend it all on luxury items for yourself and keep the rest locked up is simply immoral. But have we given our societal "stamp of approval" to that? We don't have any laws against it, it's 100% legal. What about saying unkind and hurtful things? Also legal. And if I had to choose between banning tobacco cigarettes or joints, I'd choose the Marlboros in a heartbeat.

You might argue that these examples don't hurt anyone, at least not actively (meaning yes, withholding millions you could donate to children's hospitals does harm, but only indirectly). Well, if that is the case, why is there then so much uproar over proposals to ban trans fats? The research on marijuana, as far as my extremely limited understanding goes, is pretty inconclusive about actual physical harm it causes. Even in the worst case, I think you'd be hard-pressed to argue that they're more harmful than really bad junk food that any 9 year old can buy at McDonald's or 7-11. Well maybe you could argue that junk food, while harmful, at least does something positive by feeding you, something necessary to live and function. It's getting pretty arbitrary by this point, though.

So my question is, what does it mean for society to approve of something? How should that approval be enacted into law? In what cases is it rational to withhold our mystical "stamp of approval" from certain activities while giving it to others that are arguable worse? And is it possible to not give societal approval to something but still allow it to be legal? Pornography might fit into this niche; while it's filthy and there should be social pressure to abstain from it, I don't think making it unlawful is productive or right. Could marijuana use fall into that category too? In the end, I'm just not very convinced by this stamp of approval idea. It seems like an arbitrary way to restrict freedoms in cases where we traditionally don't like an idea without having to provide solid arguments.


  1. Thought-provoking post. It is a complex issue and I think that society abstaining from "putting its stamp of approval" on certain behaviors is important, even essential and that we have to take care to preserve basic values which should include not doing drugs, BUT, you make a great point about how fast foods and other harmful "foods" are legal and can be even more harmful. What do we legislate and what do we leave up to the individual? It's tough and I'll be grateful the day that God takes over!

  2. Yeah, I'm definitely looking forward to finding out how government will work in the millenium!

    Also, for anyone reading comments, I probably would have included this persuasive (if only because of the catchy music!) youtube video arguing for drug legalization.