Sunday, July 11, 2021

Objecting instead of invoking morality is the right thing to do

A longtime reader of the column from North Carolina we’re calling Paul wrote to tell me that about seven years ago he developed peripheral neuropathy, a condition caused by damage to the nerves that often results in pain and difficulty in using your hands or feet. Paul, who experiences occasional pain, has had to rely on hand controls to drive his car for the past five years, but he notes that he is “one of the relatively fortunate ones” because several members of his support group endure unrelenting pain.

Paul wrote to tell me that several members of his group rely on medical marijuana for pain relief that no other prescription or nonprescription remedies provided. In an effort led by Republican lawmakers, the state legislature in North Carolina has taken up the issue of legalizing the use of medical marijuana.

Although marijuana use is still against federal law, the majority of states have legalized the use of medical marijuana. (A regularly updated list appears here.) In late June, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature held a hearing where they listened to those for and against the state’s legalization of medical marijuana use.

Will Doran of “The News & Observer” in Raleigh reported that “politicians, health professionals, veterans and Christian activists” all weighed in. Bill Rabon, a Republican state senator, sponsored the bill. In the hearing, he referenced his own battles as a cancer survivor and the pain he experienced while undergoing chemotherapy. Of Rabon’s effort to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina (albeit with far more restrictive parameters than other states), Doran reports that Rabon said: “I owe it to my fellow man. And I think you do, too.”

What got to reader Paul, however, was when some of those expressing opinions at the hearing used “morality” as a reason to thwart the legalization. According to Doran, another Republican state senator at the hearing said, “I do have a number of concerns, morally and otherwise.” Paul said he believed that “relief from severe, nonstop pain trumps the ethical concerns expressed by those opposed” to the bill.

Although it seemed fair for those in attendance to present evidence to support their stance for or against legalizing medical marijuana, Paul does raise a strong and valid point about determining the greater good, which is often a basis for making an ethical choice.

But Paul’s note is also a reminder of how, far too often, people fall back on labeling something “immoral” or “unethical” rather than simply acknowledging they don’t agree with it. In her 1965 essay “On Morality,” Joan Didion observed that “when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something” but that it is a “moral imperative that we have it,” that is when “we join the fashionable madmen” and that “is when we are in bad trouble.”

For those supporting the legalization of medical marijuana, the right thing is to express their support for it. For those objecting to it, the right thing is to object. About a week after the late June hearing Paul wrote to tell me that a key state senate committee almost unanimously approved the bill. If the bill makes its way through a few more committees in the state Senate, it would then have to pass the state House.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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