A few weeks ago, while writing some less-than-kind words about local businessman Jim Carlson, I used the epithet that he “is the sort of man for whom legality defines morality.” I’ve used that line before in places other than this blog, and I think it deserves a deeper explanation.
At the time, Mr. Carlson was trying to justify his shop’s sales of synthetic marijuana, and claimed that the city of Duluth’s plan to regulate his product amounted to an admission that he hadn’t been doing anything wrong. It isn’t a totally implausible stance, at least to the extent that one considers the law the arbiter of whether something is right or not. Mr. Carlson also has some defenders who don’t necessarily like his product, but fear the city government is being too heavy-handed in its attack on the Last Place on Earth (LPOE); I respect that concern, and the wrongness of Mr. Carlson’s actions does not give his opponents free reign to bring him down by any means they choose.
However, far too often, people such as Mr. Carlson use the law as a shelter from the need to exercise any moral reckoning. If something is legal, the theory goes, then who is anyone to judge them? I suppose it is possible for him to uphold a libertarian form of morality that claims he simply sells what people demand, and that it’s up to them to reap the consequences. And, in a legal sense, this is true: we cannot rob the agency from the people who line up outside of his store to buy his incredibly harmful product. (This isn’t regular marijuana we’re talking about here: it involves countless chemical additives that can be as damaging as cocaine.)
Lost in that worldview, however, is any notion of interconnectivity. Synthetic drug use doesn’t just affect the users. It is a burden for the community on a number of levels, from increasing crime and the need for added police to public health issues to driving away the clientele of neighboring businesses. Drug abuse tears apart families, and it’s not uncommon to see people standing in line at the LPOE with toting children in strollers with them. (Childhood never really jells well with strict libertine arguments.) And with drug manufacturers doing everything in their power to stay ahead of the law by constantly changing the chemical compounds in their product, it is rather obvious that the motive here is the maintenance of legality at all costs. It is a cynical scheme whose only defense appears to be an attack on those who oppose them instead of an attempt to articulate why they do what they do.
Partisans will throw the blame for this loss of moral language in any number of directions. The left will attack the market, and the profit motive that pushes people to forget their morals in the pursuit of cash flow. (Mr. Carlson has made untold millions off his synthetic drugs.) The right will attack individual moral failings and, on a more intellectual plane, the overuse of the language of “rights” in political discourse. We see it around us every day: people religiously defend their right to bear arms, their right to free speech, their right to marry whomever they would like. Many of these rights are hard-won, and emerged out of historical cases of oppression that would seem to justify a legal reaction. Still, the possession of a right does not make it right to exercise it. Amidst our pushes for liberation, it seems that some people have lost track of any sense of prudence. (How often does one even hear words like “prudence” anymore?)
It isn’t surprising, really. Rights have the convenience of being black-or-white: either you have a right or you don’t, and it is spelled out in law. Prudence, on the other hand, requires near-constant discernment, and while other people can influence it, at the end of the day, that burden falls on each individual. Moral agency is a legitimate burden that can—and, really, should—be very difficult to manage. Thankfully, there are some guideposts to fall back on. Maybe this means a religious or communal or familial code; maybe this means a sort of liberal humanism whose precepts you don’t feel the need to question. If you don’t have one of those you feel comfortable with, maybe it means spending your waking hours trying to write through it all in fiction or on a blog when you should be out doing things with your life. (Guilty, your honor.) There’s no guarantee of easy answers, but one can find some measure of peace without too much pain.
This isn’t necessarily an argument against government action—in fact, the LPOE case is a perfect example of one in which a coherent response requires at least some measure of a response from an authority. Clearly, there are cases in which oppression is so overwhelming that it would be naïve to tell people to forget about the laws and get on with living virtuously, and there are many rights worth fighting for. It only becomes a problem when the rights become ends to themselves, instead of means to a broader end; unfortunately, this way of thinking has leached so deeply into contemporary American thought processes that it sometimes seems like people sacrifice their moral agency to the state. This is especially curious given the general wariness of state intervention in so many other spheres of life. Legalism, we might say, emerges from the bizarre civic religion of American freedom: in some circles, the mystique of the Constitution or some other interpretation of the nation’s founding principles seem to have replaced the exercise of moral inquiry.
Assuming legality defines morality isn’t the worst sin on earth. I’d rather live in a society where most people accept legal definitions of morality than one in which there is no morality at all. But forming one’s worldview with respect to what is legal is an impoverished view. On a fundamental level, no one’s moral reason for not doing something should be “because it’s illegal.” (I emphasize the word “moral” here because there are, obviously, practical reasons to do or not do things that have little to do with morality.) In many cases laws are based on perfectly rational precepts that practically no one would dispute, and it’s not worth expending much thought on them. But laws do not bear any moral weight in and of themselves; they simply convey the moral judgment of the governing body that produced them. They can be a starting point for moral thought, but never the end. That task lies with each of us, including Mr. Carlson.