Legality as Morality

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.

Raising the Staff: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/15/13

The Duluth City Council was in a chipper mood on Monday night, and not without good reason. Mayor Don Ness informed the Council that the city had won a Local Government of the Year award within the state of Minnesota, and Councilor Krug was “just as happy as can be” to announce that the city’s anti-synthetic drug ordinance is now officially on the books. It went into effect last Thursday, a restraining order against the city sought by synthetic drug seller Jim Carlson was rejected by a judge earlier in the day, and police report that service calls are already down by one third in the area surrounding Mr. Carlson’s business. (No one bothered to mention that one of these calls was related to an assault upon Mr. Carlson himself, at the hands of a deranged customer.)

The city council chamber was quite full for the meeting; though it only lasted an hour and did not involve a single vote that was not unanimous, many speakers made their way to the podium. Councilors Krause and Larson were missing in action, and most of the Council was in a summery mood and wore white, though Councilor Fosle, as always, wore black.

The first group of speakers to come forward took a stand on the issue of a Native American eagle staff that was planted in front of City Hall in 2011. The city recently claimed it was an unauthorized memorial that did not belong on city property, and ordered its removal. The city’s Native American community was none too fond of this decision. Ricky DeFoe, the Chair of the Duluth Indigenous Commission, railed against the “white hegemony” that was “fatal to itself, morally and spiritually,” and to the “world as a whole.” He explained that the eagle staff is a “spatial-iconic metaphor” that connected the people to land, space, and place, and juxtaposed it against other city monuments that celebrate European figures, such as the Angel of Hope and a statue of Leif Erickson, a Viking explorer who never came within a thousand miles of Duluth whom Duluth likes to celebrate anyway. The removal of the staff, he continued, amounted to “systemic racism,” and he claimed that his attempts to get a hearing in front of the council have been ignored.

Three speakers followed Mr. DeFoe and expressed similar sentiments. Mr. Gabriel Peltier greeted the council in Anishinaabe, framed the staff as a civil rights issue, and requested a conversation in good faith. Both he and the next speaker, Ms. Rebecca Domagala of the Human Rights Commission, likened the staff to a flag in its symbolic power. Mr. Allen Richardson, the final speaker, claimed the city “failed to use basic listening skills” and pointed out that Duluth was founded on land that, according to U.S. law at the time, should have been preserved as a reservation. Mr. Richardson closed by blasting the “silence of indifference” to Native American affairs common in the city.

As there was no official business involving the eagle staff before the Council, the Councilors could not respond until the end of the meeting, when most of the Native Americans and their supporters had already left the hall. Councilor Gardner, though at pains to make it clear she wanted to find a constructive resolution to the issue, did voice a pair of concerns. First, she disputed the notion that the city had ignored the Indigenous Commission, and said neither she nor Councilor Hartman had been approached for a meeting while serving as Council President. Second, while she admitted the staff was more subtle than a simple religious sign, she also reminded her colleagues of an explosive controversy surrounding the presence of a Ten Commandments monument on city property some years back. The Council, she suggested, would be wise to hold its previous line on issues of church-state separation. Councilors Julsrud and Boyle expressed hope for eventually “finding peace” on the issue, and Councilor Fosle, while not entirely clear in his comments, seemed to be disappointed the Native American groups had not been content with the offer to place the staff on Spirit Mountain, a site of religious significance to the Ojibwe in Duluth.

Several other speakers came forward before the meeting continued. There was a second plea in as many meetings to enforce the city’s fireworks ordinance; one man complained about zoning and planning issues around an office tower planned for downtown Duluth; a man expressed worry about a derelict property alongside his house; and a representative of the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory clarified his group’s stance on possible development beneath the bird-watching area on the city’s east side.

After that, the Council cruised through most of its official agenda, the most significant action taken being the return of the long-tabled Pastoret Terrace project to the administration by a unanimous vote. Councilor Gardner explained that, after a meeting with the developer, the backers of the project decided not to pursue city-approved grant funding, but will instead move forward seeking other sources of funding for mixed-income and low-income housing at the site of the old Kozy Bar.

One last issue brought forth significant public input, as four citizens spoke on a pair of opposing resolutions; one which would make lower Piedmont Avenue an official truck route to receive state funding, and one to ban trucks from the same roadway. The speakers, all of whom live along Piedmont Avenue, begged the council to get rid of the trucks, which have drastically lowered the quality of life along that street as they go through countless shift points on their way up toward the mall. The trucks have “decimated” the neighborhood, with as many as sixty an hour climbing up what was supposed to be a residential street, causing excessive noise and vibrating one man’s deck away from his house. The Councilors rallied to their cause, with Councilor Fosle congratulating whoever had written the resolution for making exceptions for oversized windmill trucks that cannot use an alternate route. The truck ban passed, 7-0, rendering the second resolution academic.

In the closing comments unrelated to the eagle staff and synthetic drugs, the Councilors focused primarily on a street repair timeline. Council President Boyle introduced the timeline and suggested another open session for input was in order, while Councilor Fosle made it clear he opposed the process. Councilor Stauber had other issues with the timeline, which he and Council President Boyle appeared to resolve after a brief back-and-forth. Councilor Fosle expressed some incredulity over taxes levied on the sale of old bricks torn out of the recently repaved Superior Street, and Mayor Ness promised to look into the matter. Councilor Hartman wrapped things up by reminding the public that the filing deadline for the 2013 city elections is tomorrow, and the Council then adjourned to its three-week summer recess.