Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Matching the drinking age to morals

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(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

We hear it again and again from politicians and public officials: the United States is a land of law. No matter how we feel about certain situations, it is perpetually pressed upon us that the rules and regulations set by the government simply must be followed.

As argued by President Abraham Lincoln, ever a fierce advocate for legal rigidity, all citizens should learn a “reverence for the laws…breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap.” This reverence, it seems, would stem from a systematic indoctrination of the American citizenry. But, as even Lincoln admitted, there do exist certain “bad laws,” and in many cases Americans demonstrate their disapproval by blatantly ignoring them.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this on college campuses nationwide is widespread underage drinking. While police and administrators try to discourage minors from consumption, there can be no denying that alcohol, for better or for worse, is a major aspect of university culture among students of all ages.

So how do we examine a case like this where, in a “land of laws,” a large segment of the population shamelessly ignores rules that they have deemed not worth following? For me, the root of the problem lies in the discrepancies between the “institutional morality” demanded by the government and individuals’ personal feelings about what is right and wrong.

By insisting, as Lincoln did, that citizens “religiously observe” even bad laws, the government is asking individuals to bequeath their own sense of morality to the authorities. The question for the individual is meant to change from “Is it right?” to “Is it legal?” But as countless historical examples demonstrate, people often decide that their own sense of righteousness is capable of overriding what the government tells us to think.

And why shouldn’t they?  As the controversial American historian Howard Zinn noted, many human atrocities, perhaps most notably the Holocaust, have stemmed from people following rather than ignoring the authorities. Furthermore, the U.S. has a long history of the type of “civil disobedience” championed by Henry David Thoreau. American dissidents, from those who partook in the Boston Tea Party to the sympathetic homeowners who facilitated the Underground Railroad, had been breaking “bad laws” for decades before the famed transcendentalist developed his moral philosophy.

All of these historical actors refused to give up their own agency in determining the righteousness of their actions. They believed in a transcendent moral code developed from a natural understanding of how our behavior can help or harm other individuals. They realized that laws developed for the supposed benefit of society are not always worth following, and that in the realm of human existence, adherence to the laws of the land does not equate to what humans have long understood to be “right” in a spiritual or religious sense.

Perhaps less profoundly, the University of Massachusetts’ underage drinkers understand the same thing. Every time a 20-year-old has a beer, that person is displaying a rejection of the institutional morality that Americans are supposed to have developed. Every time a 21-year-old buys a 12-pack for his or her underage buddy, that individual is deciding that buying the beer to help out a friend outweighs the illegality of their actions.

There can be no denying that laws often serve an extremely useful purpose. If individuals were allowed to make their own judgments on all issues, they would sometimes err to the detriment of society. In cases like underage drinking, however, where such a large portion of society has decided to act according to their own sensibilities, the laws should be adjusted to more accurately reflect the will of the people. A society that aims at justice ought to seek a legal code in which the institutional morality demanded of its citizens matches as closely as possible the “natural” sense of morality developed by individuals reflecting on the harmfulness or helpfulness of their actions.

In the case of underage drinking, a simple solution seems obvious. If Americans are to be expected to “religiously” follow the laws of the land, then drinking regulations need to match the norms that have developed in American society. While 39 percent of high school students have reported drinking on a monthly basis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority still has not.

High school life is not meant to revolve around going out and socializing in an adult-like setting. For high-school graduates however, there is a different story.  Drinking has become an established centerpiece of adult social activity. Whether it be a lavish wedding or a night out with friends, it seems there is always plenty of booze around, with about two-thirds of Americans having on average four drinks a week. After leaving high school, young men and women enter into this adult world and understandably feel that there is no valid reason that they should not be allowed to fully participate.

It’s my opinion that at the very least, consumption of beer and wine should be legal at age 19. This would keep legal booze out of high school lockers, but allow young adults the place they deserve in society. In any case, one essential truth remains clear: the government cannot demand a rigid respect for the law while simultaneously enforcing rules that contradict the sound moral sentiments of the American people.

Benjamin Clabault can be reached at [email protected]

3 Comments

3 Responses to “Matching the drinking age to morals”

  1. boris on December 2nd, 2014 8:30 am

    great article

  2. Tom Alciere on December 2nd, 2014 9:44 am

    By definition, unalienable rights preempt the Rule of Law when the two things conflict with each other. Governments cannot exercise authority they do not have, and cannot, by manufacturing documents, acquire authority to violate the unalienable rights of outvoted discrimination victims. Enemies of liberty howl for respect for the laws, but what have they done to make the laws respectable?

    If your family is having a cook-out in your backyard and I march onto your property to seize you, to handcuff you and to force you into my car, you have an unalienable right to resist by whatever means I make necessary; and anybody present has an unalienable natural right to step in and help you. If I start winning and I am forcing you into my car, they have an unalienable natural right to shoot me dead. The only reason cops get away with seizing underage drinkers, handcuffing them, forcing them into vehicles and hauling them away is because good cop-killers are hard to find these days.

    Cops only have the same authority anybody else has, plus what authority their government delegated to them. Governments cannot delegate authority they do not have, and the only authority government have is authority delegated to them by persons. (There is no such thing as the will of the people. A people cannot think, only the persons who compose it can think. A people cannot consent, only the persons who compose it can consent.) Persons cannot delegate to a government any authority the persons do not have, such as the right to seize you, handcuff you and force you into a vehicle because they don’t like what you’re drinking.

    Gang rape is a democracy. Five persons say YES, one person says NO, and the majority rules, electing one of themselves to be the sheriff, who has the job of handcuffing the victim and forcing the victim into a vehicle. Voting is useless when you’re outnumbered by depraved, deranged crazies who don’t give a fire truck about your rights; and so is campaigning when they would only enjoy your helpless cries for mercy; but you have an absolute, unalienable right to resist physically by any necessary means. If they didn’t want their “sheriff” to get shot they shouldn’t have voted to sic him on an innocent person. He shouldn’t have accepted. Casket closed.

  3. Kelso on December 17th, 2014 11:48 pm

    Governmental bodies create laws and the cops are obligated to enforce those laws. That is their job. If individuals choose to disregard the authority of law enforcement and instead follow their own beliefs of right and wrong that is anarchy. When a group of individuals feels a certain way about an issue and acts in a violent and illegal manner the fact that the majority agrees with them does not make their behavior legally right.

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