Taylor Marshall on Drinking and Marijuana

(Cross-posted at theologyofthebottle.blogspot.com)

At his blog, Thomistic scholar Taylor Marshall argues that smoking pot is immoral/unnatural because it’s analogous to drunkenness, which dulls a man’s powers of reason and therefore is a sin. Marshall, who likes his single malt, says a little bit of drinking is fine, but there’s a line between being “merry at heart” and being “drunk as a skunk.” And that line is where drinking starts to diminish your rational capacities.

Nothing against weed, but since it’s not the thrust of this blog, I want to focus on the argument Marshall makes regarding alcohol.

Marshall writes:

 

Humans use logic. We are rational. We have an intellect. Humans play chess. Humans follow the rules of grammar. Humans build suspension bridges. Humans paint images. Humans travel to the moon and back. Humans write novels. This is what makes humans like God and the angels. Our logical, rational, intellect is the greatest gift that God granted our species.

Then he goes on, “Drunkenness is evil because it blurs and muddies our highest faculty – rationality. Think about it. When a person is drunk, he resorts to how animals act. Drunk people act irrationally.”

Here’s his first mistake. Drunk people don’t act like animals. True, animals aren’t rational, but their actions are almost always rationally explainable in relation to a few simple urges: self-preservation, reproduction, etc. Drunk people are, um, less predictable. Which is why the next morning for them sometimes looks like this:

G.K. Chesterton gets this. In “Wine When It Is Red,” Chesterton writes: “The real case against drunkenness is not that it calls up the beast, but that it calls up the Devil. It does not call up the beast, and if it did it would not matter much, as a rule; the beast is a harmless and rather amiable creature, as anybody can see by watching cattle.”

Cattle don’t generally wake up in hotel rooms with tigers and strippers and human babies.

Marshall’s second mistake is thinking he can draw a bright line between being “merry” and being “drunk,” and that that line comes with the diminishment of rationality. All drinking diminishes our rationality—that’s the deal you make when you slug back that shot.  What Marshall really means is that proper drinking doesn’t diminish our rationality too much.

Which is fine to say, but a difficult guide in practice. Especially since the act of drinking itself makes it harder to reason about whether or not the next drink is a good idea. After all, most people who end up “drunk” startedout aiming to get “merry.”

Besides, I think Marshall kind of misses the point. You can’t drink well if you’re always worried about drinking sensibly, because drinking well sometimes means letting go of being sensible.

Chesterton agrees. “Certainly,” he writes, “the safest way to drink is to drink carelessly.”

In a 1969 interview with the Paris Review, the poet Robert Graves said that “The academic never goes to sleep logically, he always stays awake. By doing so, he deprives himself of sleep. And he misses the whole thing, you see.”

That’s part of what Chesterton’s getting at. Drinking, at its best, is a shrugging off of responsibility, of care, of the need for logic. That’s the joy of a happy hour at the end of a workday, or of a few glasses of champagne at a wedding. It’s a way of saying Let’s be useless for a while.

And this is a good thing. Look again at Marshall’s list of things that mark us as human: writing novels, painting images, traveling to the moon and back. Marshall’s right, we wouldn’t do those things if we were animals. But we also wouldn’t do them if we were totally logical, if we only focused on doing what was useful or what made logical sense.

The trick is to do these things so that they call up the angels and not the devil. I’m not saying that’s easy, or that there’s no risk involved. “All the human things are more dangerous than anything that affects the beasts,” says Chesterton. But when it comes to drinking (or anything useless) the risk is mixed up with the good. And what you can’t do—what I think Marshall is trying to do—is seal off one from the other.

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2 thoughts on “Taylor Marshall on Drinking and Marijuana

  1. I read Taylor Marshall’s article and I find it to be fairly balanced. Taylor is obviously writing about a “drunkenness” which is that incapacitation to the point where inhibitions are lost and where a person begins to function like, well, a wild animal. He is not writing about the situation where a person has had 2 beers (the average person does not get drunk on 2 beers, and he does not lose his ability to be rational) or where a person has been properly and reasonably medicated by competent authorities. He even supports the medicinal use of marijuana.

    What Taylor does not do well in his article in my opinion (and this is a very basic moral theology teaching) is that he does not specify that it is the act which can be immoral and not the creation (naturally-created thing being used or acted upon) which is immoral. It is not made clear, and that would set the tone nicely if he had stated that up front.

  2. Hi, Francis Philip. Thanks for visiting and commenting! I agree, Marshall’s argument is balanced and well-reasoned, if you accept all of his premises. I just think that talking about rationality is trickier than he acknowledges when we’re talking about how to “rationally” engage in an activity that diminishes our rationality.

    And you’re right–the average person doesn’t get drunk on two beers, but nor does the average person get “merry” on two beers, at least not in the way that forges bonds, which is what (elsewhere) Marshall says is the good of drinking.You forge bonds by doing things that are slightly dumb, right? By dancing, by singing, by telling stories you wouldn’t tell sober. All of that happens because alcohol lowers our inhibitions–but those inhibitions are in place for solid, rational reasons.

    Anyway, welcome, and again thanks for stopping by. You’re my first commenter!

    Best,
    Frank

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