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December 22, 2005

Violating Laws You Approve Of?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Canada's Supreme Court has ruled that swingers' clubs are legal. Since the ruling is considered a major rewrite of Canada's definition of indecency, the news should be prompting me to have deep thoughts on the topic of indecency. Instead what I find myself pondering is a series of questions, namely:

  • When is it necessary to pass laws against things we disapprove of?
  • How do we distinguish between those things we disapprove of but can live with in a legal sense, and those things we both disapprove of and are convinced actual sanctions are needed against?
  • If and when we do pass such laws -- and even if we think they're good laws -- do we always have to obey them? I don't mean this in a general, legal sense. I mean it in a personal sense. For example: Perhaps I think recreational drugs should be illegal. Perhaps I enjoy toking up now and then anyway.

Another for-instance is pornography. I'm not at all convinced it should be legal. In my view, pornography should at the very least be tightly regulated. (Not that there's a chance of this happening in the age of the Web ...) It's psychologically-explosive stuff, after all. At the same time, such laws or regulations wouldn't stop me from enjoying erotically-charged material. Rightly or wrongly, I consider myself capable of handling it.

For many reasons -- among them a complete unfamiliarity with Canada's laws -- I have no idea where I stand on the Canadian group-sex ruling. I do know, though, that I'm less likely than many people I know to think that, just because I like something myself, it ought to be legal.

Do you see any problem with combining an approval of official censure with a willingness to indulge privately? My stance could be called hypocritical, I suppose -- but what's wrong with a measure of hypocrisy? In any case, my general reaction is to shrug my shoulders and say, "La vie est comme ca."



posted by Michael at December 22, 2005


Do you see any problem with combining an approval of official censure with a willingness to indulge privately?

Not at all. It's perfectly in accord with my brand of highly consequentialist moderate libertarianism. A healthy criminal statute may very well be one for which detection (or triggering a police department's attention) is easily avoided by a reasonably mature person. Take jaywalking, for example. Theoretically, in many jurisdictions, you could be busted for walking across an entirely empty street at 2 am, but what people are really busted for most of the time is behaving like jackasses and potentially causing accidents. A law against "creating potential for a vehicular accident as a pedestrian" is obviously much harder to enforce than a law against crossing the street other than at certain places, so we're better off with the law as it stands, tempered by reasonable officers with no chip on their shoulders, and by the discretion of frequent jaywalkers like myself.

With drugs, and with providing alcohol to those under 21, things are trickier. Partly, this is because there are enough absolutist moralists out there such that a charge against a clearly benign violation is not likely to be met with public outrage against the authority. But mainly, it's the unpredictability of enforcement that makes me so profoundly dissatisfied with drug prohibition. One minute, you're doing something that everybody in your circle tolerates and most explicitly approve -- and the next minute you're a felon, with your career, education, and/or bank balance destroyed. This is not a problem for laws against serious crimes with clear victims, nor for crimes with small punishments and no social stigma. The huge social costs are borne by our having in-between crimes, actions which are both fairly ordinary parts of a civilized existence, and also carry the legal potential to turn lives upside-down.

Posted by: J. Goard on December 22, 2005 7:05 AM

My first reactions is that it is extremely arrogant.

Let me see if I understand: You think something should be illegal for everyone else but that you give yourself the liberty to do it anyway?

Sounds pretty weird to me. I don't get it. I assume at least that you wouldn't complain if you were arrested for your intentional violations. Right?

Am I not getting this post? Is there some dark humor which escapes me?

Posted by: David Sucher on December 22, 2005 10:20 AM

Laws can be consistent without being overbroad. A violation of law should only be prosecuted if there is a proven likelihood of real physical violence. That's the justification for alcohol laws - a real link exists between alcohol and violence. And that's the problem with most drug laws. Marijuana does not cause violent behavior - quite the opposite. Some drugs like PCP and steroids may cause violence. The line can be drawn clearly, on rational grounds. But unfortunately it's easier just to condemn everything, which is why tobacco will soon be illegal, on no rational grounds whatever.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on December 22, 2005 11:46 AM

Makes two of us, David.
(either you turn libertarian not even noticing it, like Alan said, or Michael turns facist - in Village sense)

Posted by: Tatyana on December 22, 2005 11:56 AM

Some say the Canadian national remark is "Tsk, tsk, tsk!"

Beyond that, the subject of public sanctions is very large. My old boss at animal control, a salty old cop, used to say that human behavior is on a continuum.

Most people will do the right thing because it's simply obvious. Others will do the right thing if they can figure it out. Still others will do it if they are scolded, others will need punishment, some will need really drastic punishment, and a few are predators who are wired wrong and need to be removed for the protection of everyone else.

The trick is to figure out how to get enough people to move into the "right thing" zone to keep from tearing society apart, but with the minimum of coercion.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 22, 2005 12:15 PM

I don't think that porn can be tightly regulated. The cat is out of the bag. Technology will defeat any attempt to regulate such material.

I have no idea what should or should not be legal. Interestingly, Canada has gone nuts over domestic violence, expelling men from their homes and turning their property over to women even in the absence of a complaint from the alleged victim.

I haven't been to Canada in a while, but news reports paint a picture of a society that has become heterophobic and hostile to traditional family and marriage to an almost comic extreme, while it simultaneously endorses homosexuality and perversion.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 22, 2005 12:15 PM

Daniel Davies takes this position, under the name "Atheistic Antinomianism."

Posted by: L on December 22, 2005 12:21 PM

J. Goard -- I like your jaywalking example. And yeah, personally I have trouble with at least some of the drug laws too. Pot especially strikes me as a silly thing for society to get upset about, for instance. On the other hand, heroin? LSD? Meth? Maybe some lines need to be drawn.

David, Tatyana -- So you've never sped, jaywalked, or smoked pot? You never had an alcoholic drink before you were of legal age? Or, if you did do any of these things, you did so thinking, "Y'know, the law I'm violating ought to be changed, because after all I'm OK with this"? Heavens. I'm trying to make a distinction between what one endorses in a public-policy sense and what one chooses to do as an individual. I'm not sure to what extent they need to conform to each other. One's sense of "which guidelines are best or at least pretty good for society at large" and "how I choose to lead my own life" seem to me to be worth dealing with as two different questions, at least sometimes. And I'm often surprised by how many people get stuck on the "what we should do" topic and neglect the "how we actually live" one, without which the conversation strikes me as incomplete. But I wonder if we think of laws differently. To me they're guidlines, and a society can't function without guidelines, of various degrees of seriousness. (And they probably need to be rooted in history and in some sense of the good life.) But we're all as individuals able to choose how to interact with those guidelines. I think most of us make a lot of such calls every day. Do I drive 70 instead of 55 mph? Maybe I kind of roll through this intersection instead of coming to a complete halt. We give the guideline a respectful nod (or not), then deal with it as we deem appropriate and/or appealing. Etc, etc.

Robert -- Consistency's a great topic. To what extent should laws be consistent with each other? To what degree should we allow them to *not* be consistent? And how fervent should we be about it? My offhand feeling is that it's good to be wary of too much fanaticism about rationalizing things. Life's a patchwork, and quirkiness can be preferable to consistency. On the other hand, sense occasionally needs to be made ... Hmm. Can guidelines for handling such questions be spelled out? Or does it come down to taste and instinct? Assuming any of it's up to us in the first place ...

Mary -- Getting people to do the right thing is a toughie. God knows that sometimes getting myself to do the right thing is a toughie. And who gets to decide what the right thing is? That's a funny joke about Canadians. They'd probably laugh at it too.

Stephen -- Porn is *so* out of the bag ... It's almost too bad. I mean, what ever happened to the thrill of the forbidden? I guess that's now semi-officially a thing of the past. EZ access (to many goods) can be great -- what a relief it can be. But it can also so demystify everything that you find yourself getting fat and stupid and wondering what it's all about. I don't know quite what to make of Canada. Circa 1970-1985, I really loved spending time there. Quieter, more spacious, a nice combo of Denmark and Wyoming. And for a while Toronto seemed like urban multicultural heaven, which has a strong appeal, at least for me. But I haven't been back much in recent years, and recent legal developments sound unpromising. On the other hand, maybe the quality of life there hasn't changed that much. Have kooky legal developments there killed what was lovely about the place?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 22, 2005 12:39 PM

Michael, you misunderstood.

It goes without much rapsodizing (sp?) that I'm against prohibition and monitoring people's behaviour if it doesn't hurt others: anti-drugs, anti-alcohol, anti-smoking-in-bars, etc. It's not MTA's fucking business if I crave coffee in the morning and the only time I have for it s my 1hr ride in their dirty tiny passages no garbage disposal' cars.

But I would never say drinking coffee (or vodka from 1-serving bottle without, o horror, stupid brown bag, for that matter) should be against the law - for irresponsible masses, you understand and I'm not one of them so I'm the exception.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 22, 2005 12:53 PM

Robert -

It remains unproven whether steroid use actually causes violence ("'roid rage"). It may not be that steroids cause otherwise-peaceful people to become violent, but rather that people who _already_ have a propensity toward violent behavoir are the ones most likely to gravitate toward steroid use.

In any event, laws against steroids may be the sort of okay-to-break laws that Michael had in mind in the original posting. Like many people who are serious about lifting, I've considered trying steroids. For a variety of reasons, including cost, side effects (some of which clearly exist even if 'roid rage doesn't) and yes, the illegality factor, I've decided against doing so. But it's not difficult to imagine my coming to the opposite decision.
Even so, I do not believe steroids should be legal. It is not easy to use them in ways that maximize the benefits while minimizing the side effects. Doing so requires periodic cycling of dosages, occasional "clean" spells, careful monitoring for side effects, in some cases the use of other drugs (most notably the breast cancer drug tamoxifen) to stop side effects that begin to develop, and regular blood tests to look for changes in liver function and other conditions.
All this takes some self-discipline and maturity, two characteristics notably lacking in many of the teens and young people who want to "get big." Making steroids freely available almost certainly would lead to a major increase in usage among people who simply can't handle the responsibility. For that reason, I do not like the idea of legalization even though I'm not opposed to steroid use _per se_.
Note: while making steroids available by prescription to persons without specific medical needs, who simply want to gain strength and size, might seem like a reasonable compromise, it probably wouldn't work well in practice given the effort required on the users' part, not to mention their frequent and aforementioned lack of mature responsibility.

Posted by: Peter on December 22, 2005 1:05 PM

Clicking too soon, sorry.

I don't see reasons for separating public policy (or guidlines, if you prefer more relaxed version) with behavior of the individual.

Why not pot or other lethal drugs should be legal? Why not the guns and rock'n'roll? Knock yourself down with 11hr porn marathon if you're so inclined - it's a free country (or it should have been).

Not all people are comfortable leading morally dualistic life, Michael. Not everyone is content with having 2 faces: one , smiling wholesomely, politically-and -legally-correct face turned towards uniformed authority; the other, smirking in anticipation of forbidden fruit in privacy of very own 4 walls.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 22, 2005 1:07 PM

"I'm trying to make a distinction between what one endorses in a public-policy sense and what one chooses to do as an individual. I'm not sure to what extent they need to conform to each other. "

I don't get it. Sure I speed sometimes, especially if the road is designed for a higher speed than marked, but I would by no means expect to be let off from a ticket if I am caught. I really don't understand where you are going with this as I personally don't support laws which I am not willing to obey.

But maybe so long as you won't complain if you get sanctioned/arrested, I guess it's your choice. There is still something funny about it. You approve of the law but you think that it is OK for you to violate it. Maybe someone else can help me understand how that is good citizenship.

I can see that if you think a law is dumb, immoral, unwise, unfair etc then one _might_ have a clear moral conscience about engaging in what is civil disobedience around it....but to approve of it and then violate it? I'm lost.

Posted by: David Sucher on December 22, 2005 3:01 PM

I hearya. Maybe it finally comes down to temperament: Which approach are you comfiest with? I find the "aligning my notions of what's best for society with my own private behavior and religion/ethics/morality" approach very un-comfy. It seems to entail a lot of jiggering and anguish (or at least it would for me). On the other hand, splitting the public and the private apart and seeing them as two different realms, each with its own structure and raison d'etre, suits me like a custom-fitted suit. I wonder if questions like this can be decided or just discussed. Still: fun comparing notes.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 22, 2005 3:02 PM

But Michael, you are not suggesting, so far as I understand, that you don't feel bad about violating a law you don't like. You are saying that you may like a particular law for society in general, everyone else but you leave yourself room to ignore it. No?

For example, let's take handling explosives. I believe that we have laws in most states which restrict the sale and use to specially-licensed people. Let's assume that you agree with that law; people with no training should not be able to just go in and buy dynamite. But it turns out that you are an ex-military demolitions expert someone who has the training to easily qualify for a license. But you decide that you don't need to obtain the license because YOU know that you are qualified. And you feel fully-justified in ignoring the law not because it is a stupid law but because YOU have decided that you don't need to follow it. Is that a good example?

Posted by: David Sucher on December 22, 2005 3:26 PM

I'm saying that I find it agreeable and acceptable to 1) approve of a certain law (in the sense of "society benefits from having this law, and from taking it fairly seriously) , and 2) to choose for myself how and whether to take such a law into account.

I don't have any trouble with such a stance. Never have had, which is why I take all this to be a matter of temperament (and maybe some training too). And I tend -- for whatever it's worth -- to be surprised when I encounter people who do have trouble with such a stance. They often seem to me, rightly or wrongly, to be in search of some sort of meta-morality that could account for both 1) and 2), and that could line them both up on some sort of meta-axis. I'm not sure such a thing exists, except possibly in the most deep-background/super-cosmic/"Pattern Language"/Vedic kind of sense, about which I'm not capable of speaking much anyway.

I think your example of speeding is a good one, at least if I understand your presentation of it, which I may not. I take you to be saying that 1) You approve of there being a speed limit in place, and 2) you sometimes speed anyway, presumably because it suits you to do so for whatever reason. If it works out OK, I'm not going to worry about it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 22, 2005 4:18 PM

Michael: "I'm less likely than many people I know to think that, just because I like something myself, it ought to be legal."

I'm less likely than many people I know to think that, just because I don't like (or see the merit of) something myself, it ought to be illegal. People should generally be allowed to do even things that I think are really bad ideas unless the externalities are grossly problematic.

Michael: "I'm trying to make a distinction between what one endorses in a public-policy sense and what one chooses to do as an individual."

Broadly, I don't trust your judgement, my judgement, or (especially) the legislature's judgement about restrictions on individual freedoms.

As to selective enforcement of laws, I find this pretty deeply offensive. When there is a wide selection of sporadically enforced laws, this gives far too much power to tyrannous governments. An unscrupulous prosecutor can choose to prosecute or not prosecute nearly anyone at his whim. I consider the negative externalities of that situation far worse than the externalities of nearly any controversial law.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on December 22, 2005 4:21 PM


For me, personal exceptionalism is not at issue. I don't believe that I am right to do things which a similar person in a similar context would be wrong to do. But note those qualifications. The violations of law we've been discussing are those where a reasonable individual can use discretion in context. The letter of the law cannot possibly make all of these contextual distinctions, and would incur tremendous costs if it attempted to come close. With drugs, porn, guns, _Mein Kampf_, or what have you, some people are properly adjusted to handle them well, and other people aren't. Especially if you think the latter group is a large majority in a particular case, criminalization is given some reasonable support. Since the law cannot possibly encompass every reasonable exception (e.g., "a 17-year-old who has always been a good student and never in trouble with the law may be provided with champagne at his sister's wedding, but not Scotch, and not if he's 13, and probably should be cut off if he sucks the first one down like water"), the best situation may very well be one where reasonable people regularly break the letter of a neccessarily broad law. I don't see this position as any reason not to complain about bee-in-bonnet moralists who get people punished for harmless cases.

Posted by: J. Goard on December 22, 2005 4:47 PM

I remember Francis was all for legalizing pot.
Speaking of strip clubs, here's a flaky ad I just got (God knows how) on my email:

Thursday, December 29th

fRINGE Magazine's Dee Dee Vega has teamed up with party wunderkind Carmine A. Potenza of Miami's Revolver to bring to all of you naughty New York boys and girls a bash dedicated to "nasty music for the dirty generation."

Come dirty and leave dirtier for this year-end party!

FILTHY DJs Carmine Potenza, Justin Strauss and Bryan Mette spin a raunchy blend of electro-house, tech-rock and acid on the main dance floor at Happy Valley. With live performances by Miss Saturn and Pistol Thin, gyrating flesh videos and tons of silly string.

The smart and sexy photography of fRINGE Art Star ELIZABETH HENDLER will also heat up the night.

$15, or $10 before midnight. Doors at 10:30
Happy Valley is located at 14 East 27th Street (btw 5th Ave and Madison Ave.)

RSVP with your name and number of guests to to be on the
FRINGE GUEST LIST FOR FILTHY for a reduced cover!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on December 22, 2005 5:16 PM

Yes, I do see a problem with this attitude. That's especially true given that no one really has a problem with age limits for use of things like steroids or illegal drugs; the differences in judgement between adolescents and adults can be handled without banning something altogether. Same thing for irresponsible uses like drunken driving.

In the real world legal bans on widely used substances have all kinds of pernicious effects. Unequal enforcement: college kids can use drugs just about consequence-free, while kids in the much more heavily policed urban ghettoes have their lives ruined when caught with the stuff. Big economic incentives to sell the product, as illegality drives up the price. The resulting illegal drug markets are regulated using violence. Illegal substances tend to be used in much more harmful and less moderate ways than illegal ones are, since they are not as often seen in everyday social settings where there is pressure to use in a way compatible with ordinary sociability. Potency of the drug goes up and so does "addictive" antisocial use. (Coca in the Andes was a moderate drug compatible with everyday functioning; in the U.S. it morphed into cocaine, then crack, becoming more harmful at each step).

The Dutch have worked out an interesting set of compromises on this. Pot is not actually completely legal in Amsterdam, but it is obviously tolerated with no problem. But the cops have the law in their back pockets to use in case a "coffee shop" becomes a funnel for hard drug sales or a center for crime. Because of the potential threat coffee shop owners police themselves quite effectively.

Posted by: MQ on December 22, 2005 6:14 PM

Actually, a perhaps better statement of my point: there is a legitimate social concern with "moderating" the use of potentially intoxicating substances and minimizing the harm that results from them. But leaving those substances legal and allowing their use to be moderated by informal social constraints is very often a more effective and much less harmful way of moderating their use then making them illegal and exiling them to the fringes of society. Once they are illegal social constraints against overuse are greatly weakened, economic incentives to get involved with them increase greatly, and the punishment for their illegality often does more damage than the substance itself. One can ban the most harmful uses (drunken driving) without banning the substance.

Sorry to take up so much comment space.

Posted by: MQ on December 22, 2005 6:27 PM

The "tsk, tsk, tsk" comment was made to me by a Canadian. The other joke is that Canadians can make love in a canoe without overturning it. This is double-edged: it is because of their skill or because there's not much of a commotion?

There are three problems I see with laws:

1. The economic dimension. It is required by law in Montana to have car insurance. GREAT for the car insurance industry -- a real money maker. People still drive without insurance, without licenses, etc. Some states require all dead people to be embalmed. The justification used to be to make sure they were dead (if they weren't before, they were after). Now it's another good money maker. (Though I agree that embalming is a good idea if disposal is not prompt.)

I think the whole drug question has much more to do with economics than with morality. Someone is making an enormous amount of money from the status quo and I think we can figure out who. The "legal" drug situation is not much better than the illegal crops. Fascinating to watch the Venezuelan Coca revolution play out!

A social problem we all saw coming was cohabitation without legal licenses, which means that no one can be held accountable for children (genetic testing has helped with this) or property. The courts struggle with vagueness and the kids fall through. People drift from one relationship to another, leaving a trail of debts, hurt, and unwanted babies.

2. The impaired judgment problem. The trouble with drunks is that as soon as they're a little drunk, they don't see anything wrong with it until the next morning. Lots of things can impair your judgment besides just drugs. Emotion. Worry. Peer pressure. Greed.

3. The opinion of others when not everyone in the community agrees. You can pay a high price in lost jobs or blackmail.

It's a mistake to see Canada as a monolith, by the way. The only truly obscene nude dancing I've seen was in Lethbridge, a nexus of dissipation since it was founded on illegal whiskey trade with the Indians. Anyway, each province is quite different and each province is quite layered and niched. I'm sure there are people in Lethbridge who would never even imagine nude dancing. It's also a mistake to think that porn or anything else is "out of the bottle." All it would take would be a notorious case or two for public outrage to turn on a dime and slam the lid tight. If China can suppress the Internet, so can another country. Everything goes through what many call the "Big Bird in the Sky" and that, as we're finding out, can monitor every phone call, every internet message, etc.

More on porn: When I worked at animal control, we had an occasional case of bxstxalxty which I spell this way so I won't get another wave of photos I don't really want to look at. I made the mistake of spelling it properly in a previous email, which triggered a lot of spam. When I was a kid, I just ITCHED to know what it was all about but now I'm beginning to feel as though it's possible to know too much.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 22, 2005 6:58 PM

Do you see any problem with combining an approval of official censure with a willingness to indulge privately?


Unless an activity is so clearly harmful to others that an overwhelming consensus of responsible adults thinks it's harmful and won't do it, maybe that activity shouldn't be illegal.

Posted by: Jonathan on December 22, 2005 7:13 PM

J. Goard,
I hope you do NOT present your ideas on who is subject to the law to a judge overseeing your criminal case, should you be so unlucky as to get caught being "reasonable."

You write:

"With drugs, porn, guns, _Mein Kampf_, or what have you, some people are properly adjusted to handle them well, and other people aren't. Especially if you think the latter group is a large majority in a particular case, criminalization is given some reasonable support. Since the law cannot possibly encompass every reasonable exception (e.g., "a 17-year-old who has always been a good student and never in trouble with the law may be provided with champagne at his sister's wedding, but not Scotch, and not if he's 13, and probably should be cut off if he sucks the first one down like water"), the best situation may very well be one where reasonable people regularly break the letter of a neccessarily broad law."

..."best situation may very well be one where reasonable people regularly break the letter of a neccessarily broad law."

For your sake, I hope the judge is extremely lenient when it comes to people who put themselves above the law.

Posted by: David Sucher on December 22, 2005 9:50 PM

An old saying: "Take what you like and pay for it, says God." So speed, but when you get caught, don't bitch. If you think the speeding laws are absurd, make an issue of it with the politicians who represent you. This is, as someone has remarked, a free country, and unpopular laws can be changed.

My opinion of drug legislation is prejudiced, as I lost a nephew from them. His funeral was one of the saddest days in my life. Drugs affect the whole family. The innocent suffer as much as the guilty, but they can't medicate their pain away as the addict does.

Posted by: miriam on December 23, 2005 8:23 AM

The law is an ass!

It's full of so many contradictions. Take "grass" for instance a controlled substance, I used to cultivate the beautiful plant and puff away a couple of ounces a week. A change in circumstances and I have not had a joint in ten years, no decision not too, it was just circumstances.

I used to drink and drive, my most famous night (which I now still proudly recount, most of you will dissagree) was 16 pints of beer and nearly a full bottle of Taquila, I'm not joking, after which I drove approx 150 miles to visit friends, fortunately after creaming a cat (before doing the same to a human being) I parked the car in a forest and went to sleep.

After going to university at the grand old age of 29 I saw my felow students indulging in the same accesses I had done, yes I was lucky to get away with it. Some of them were not so lucky.

Should there be more laws requiring a age limit, I don't tink so, it would be to hard to police.

Those of us who are greying a little are savy enough, know how we can controvine the law without endagering others.

Smoke grass, drink a beer, have a girlie sat on my lap, while I drive the car, Not! I'm too mature for that!

The laws are in place to protect and guide those less informed.

I thank legislators that
there were enough laws in place to let me be getting grey hairs.

By now you should be wise enough to make a informed discission, if you are not, you deserved to be penilised.

Oh and I didn't tell you about the story of mountaineering on the 22nd floor of a building, it still scares me today, that's maturity

The law is an ass, no, it's there to protect those who are vunerable and protect them from thereselves.

Best, Gregg H.K.

Drink hard, play hard, but don't infringe on others

Posted by: Gregg on December 23, 2005 12:06 PM

Anyone who thinks urban ghettos have less drug abuse than colleges because they're "more heavily policed" has a reality problem. Neither is true. And ghetto residents have a lot less to lose than college students from draconian drug laws.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on December 23, 2005 1:33 PM


Get off my subway with your coffee! Show some class and discipline and get to work early and have your coffee while wasting time on the internet like the rest of us!

Posted by: OnThe4or5 on December 23, 2005 3:12 PM

"For your sake, I hope the judge is extremely lenient when it comes to people who put themselves above the law."


What good would it do me with the aforementioned judge to take a universalist position against the law?

I should think it obvious that, as a consequentialist who thinks that there are plenty of reasonably responsible occasions to break otherwise helpful laws, I consider due avoidance of such authorities to be an important part of what makes those occasions responsible ones. Moreover, when up against a moral absolutist with power, what makes you think that a consequentialist would be honest about his ethical principles? I'll readily tell someone, with a perfectly straight face, that I've never ever ever jaywalked, given alcohol to a minor, lied, or committed adultery in my heart -- if that bastard is gonna throw me in the clink just because the letter of the law goes against what it means to be a normal (well-adjusted, sympathetic, functionally slippery) member of 21st Century Western society.

Posted by: J. Goard on December 23, 2005 6:55 PM

Onthe4or5: are you a Coffee Nazi? Careful, or I just might accidentally spill some on you next time.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 23, 2005 7:05 PM

J. Goard.
I am lost when I hear terms like "universalist" or "consequentialist" I have no idea what you are talking about, so I can't really respond.
But it sounds like you have a fancy way of saying that you can envision laws which everyone else should follow except you. Do I get it right?

Posted by: David Sucher on December 23, 2005 7:13 PM

Tatyana -
New York's subway is one of the relatively few such system that does not forbid eating and drinking. The DC Metro is famously tough in that regard, with people regularly fined merely for chewing gum.

Posted by: Peter on December 23, 2005 8:20 PM

Peter, you're behind the times.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 23, 2005 9:33 PM

"But it sounds like you have a fancy way of saying that you can envision laws which everyone else should follow except you. Do I get it right?"

No. If you thought I meant that, I can understand your horror.

Wherever I feel justified in breaking a law, I certainly feel that an equally responsible (or more responsible) person in a similar situation would be at least as justified. However, in practice, laws usually ought to be written broadly, and cannot satisfactorily distinguish between the people and the instances which are such that a rule ought to be either followed or broken. So it's okay, on my view, that we have some catchall laws that I and many others break in harmless ways, so long as the many other others who are breaking those laws in harm*ful* ways are generally the ones against whom the law is enforced.

As far as this goes, we seem to be in a fairly reasonable equilibrium for providing alcohol to a minor. I don't know of anyone who's been busted for letting their teenager drink wine at dinner, or having a beer or two with a not-quite-legal significant other. The people who are busted have usually behaved recklessly. It works extremely well for jaywalking, as I mentioned before. It doesn't work nearly as well for illegal drugs, where a lot of harmless users are being busted along with the harmful users. And that's part of why drug laws need reform.

What I mean by "consequentialism" in this case basically amounts to judging the legal status quo by whether it is causing more harm or more good in society. Sometimes, having a law to catch irresponsible people, and effectively letting lots of people break it responsibly, does more good than harm. Sometimes it doesn't. But, to be an absolutist (who thinks that any breaking of a good law must be wrong) cannot distinguish between those cases and is sometimes a harmful force in thinking about law and justice.

Posted by: J. Goard on December 24, 2005 2:14 AM

David -- So, when you drive and exceed the speed limit, it's only because you either 1) think you're above the law, or 2) think the law's a stupid one? It seems to me there are at least a few other reasons why a driver might exceed the speed limit, for example: 1) he's in a hurry, and 2) he feels like it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 24, 2005 10:23 AM

J. Goard and Michael Blowhard.
I am still confused actually that's a polite way of saying I don't want to believe what I am hearing from you folks.

For an example, let's take handling explosives.

I believe that we have laws in most states which restrict the sale and use to specially-licensed people. Let's assume that you agree with that law; people with no training should not be able to just go in and buy dynamite. But it turns out that you are an ex-military demolitions expert someone who has the training to easily qualify for a license. But you decide that you don't need to obtain the license because YOU know that you are qualified.

And you feel fully-justified in ignoring the law not because it is a stupid law but because YOU have decided that you don't need to follow it.

Is that a fair example of how you are think?

Posted by: David Sucher on December 24, 2005 11:44 AM


Thanks for making my point: I already see you and your coffee as a spill threat.

Posted by: Onthe4or5 on December 24, 2005 5:17 PM

You're welcome. I feel charitable, for the holidays.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 24, 2005 6:35 PM

Michael Blowhard,

Speed limits are posted to let drivers know what a safe MAXIMUM (sometimes minimum too) operating speed is for the roadway with good driving conditions. Judgements about issuing tickets are left to cops on the basis of whether or not a particular driver is a hazard to others on the roadway. Since this is in fact what happens, the courts see it this way as well. You'll notice cops will issue tickets for people operating under the "speed limit", but still driving excessively fast for rainy or snowy conditions (yes it happens).

I know this because I am a transportation engineer and I design highways for a living. What the speed limit example has to do with you fondness for pot, I don't know. Please choose a more appropriate example. Our drug laws have more to do with creating a way to test and certify legal drugs than trying to put a damper on your fun. I suggest you do some reasearch as to why such laws were enacted in the first place (shysters selling "cures" laced with opium to addict vulnerable people to their product, or outright deaths occuring). Who would develop a drug today with all the potential liability if no process were approved to mitigate this? The drug laws have been ENORMOUSLY successful in creating LEGAL drugs for MEDICINAL purposes. Lest you think that your pot (a mild hallucinogenic), heroin, cocaine, etc., all of which are addictive to varying degrees, should be certified as legal, please prove some sort of medicinal use. Otherwise, please refrain from ridiculous claims of equivalence of addictive pschoactive drugs to theraputic medications.

Also, note that if all drugs were legalized, you would would not reduce crime. On the contrary, you would create the largest surge of violent crime this country has ever seen. All the low- skill, stupid, high school dropout gangbangers, ex-cons, and hustlers would not be able to extract money from willing buyers, and would have to turn to robbery to "make a living".

Posted by: BTM on December 24, 2005 8:19 PM

David -- Since I'm not going to play your game and you're clearly not going to play mine, maybe the time has come to move on to the next posting?

BTM -- Heavens, I think you have me confused with someone who wants to debate drug policies. I'm not sure where you get that from.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 25, 2005 1:11 AM

I believe that if drugs were legalized we would see even more transportation engineering that looks like this.

Posted by: Jonathan on December 26, 2005 11:39 PM

Honestly Michael, if I could figure out what your game is, I'd be happy to play it.

Posted by: David Sucher on December 27, 2005 12:15 AM

After reading this post and subsequent comments (some very astute, I might add), I have come to the conclusion, once again, that as soon as the last chick has flown the nest, my equal half and I will be moving to the most desolatest area of Texas outback we can find and to hell with society. I shall leave the lawmakers and the great debaters of societal mores with all the rope they require.

Coyotes and roadrunners can be quite conversational, you know. And they never ponder group sex, drugs, or pornography. The discussion of water and how to get it is the most weighty topic of their day.

Just call me curmudgeonly, Michael.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on December 27, 2005 11:55 AM

I dunno---I just think "the cat is out of the bag" is a totally hilarious way to talk about porn.

I think it can (and should) be regulated by age, since teenage boy hormones can't be trusted to use any discretion, and they may well not understand the negative longer term consequences. I also thoroughly get the forbidden thrill of stealing "Playboy".

I'm kinda with Michael---I think society has a right and even responsibility to decide what kind of fare it chooses to make easy and "legal"---and yes, everybody's chosen to make a different personal choice, at different ages in their lives, about behavior to indulge in. I don't think stealing should be "legal." And, yes, I admit to stealing something (I don't even remember what!) from Kresge's five and dime when I was about 11 or 12 with a pal in forbidden thrill.

And making "swinger's clubs" legal as a national law in Canada, rather letting communities decide, just seems like an stupid way for the national government to be spending its time. What kind of lobbying effort did THAT take?

Posted by: annette on December 27, 2005 12:42 PM

There's legal sex clubs and legal pot in Canada?


I'm ready to forgive that whole Celine Dion nonsense and go north of the border. At least for a long lost weekend sponsored by Trojan and Bugle.

We all believe in the validity laws that we don't always obey. Anyone who says otherwise is simply prevaricating.

Posted by: chelsea girl on December 28, 2005 2:25 AM

Speak for yourself.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 28, 2005 7:42 AM

I think the word for your position is "hypocrisy".

Posted by: Dave F on December 29, 2005 4:44 AM

Chelsea Girl: "We all believe in the validity [of] laws that we don't always obey."

Perhaps she means: We all believe in the validity of Law, although we may not always obey the Law.

Which would be like: "Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue." --Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Posted by: Onthe4or5 on December 29, 2005 11:49 AM

Hey, it's all drugs and porn with you people, isn't it?

Seriously, the first example that came to mind of "law that I respect and endorse but would feel perfectly easy about breaking, or seeing broken by certain others" is law prohibiting euthansia. I have no moral compunction against euthanasia in certain circumstances, but have a profound suspicion that trying to legalize, codify, bureaucratize, sanitize and "expert-ize" the act is a really bad idea in the long run. Best to leave some things an untidy mess, where we mostly look the other way, but refrain from encouraging certain lamentable tendencies in human nature by giving an unambiguous green light to certain acts. In this case it is perhaps as mischievous to make a sometimes moral act explicitly legal as it is to make all immoral acts illegal.

Posted by: Moira Breen on December 29, 2005 1:17 PM

Dave F -- I think you're right, and "hypocrisy" is exactly the word. And is there a prob with incorporating some hypocrisy into life, and perhaps even (in some cases anyway) relishing/appreciating such an embrace?

Onthe4or5 - Rochefoucauld's a great choice: the French have always seeemd to have far less trouble with being two-faced (or three-faced, or six-faced) than we do, or at least with accepting such a thing as a basic fact of life. Many Americans seem to have a strong need or drive to line up their emotions with their feelings, and their personal preferences with their political convictions ... It's sweet, I suppose, but can be a little maddening too. Though God knows the French are also capable of showing how annoying being comfortable with hypocrisy can get too...

Moira -- Euthanasia's a much better example than drugs or porn, thanks. I'm with you on that. I'm very suspicious of attempts to settle the case out legally. How can a law take every aspect of such a topic into account? Yet in some cases I'd personally endorse mercy killing. I don't see this stance as a problem. It's not that I'm refusing to opt for A or B. It's that I'm choosing "A and B" as my option. Euthanasia probably ought to be against the law; yet in some cases it certainly makes sense. "Both together" strikes me as a nice way of addressing the question. Not all situations can be solved, after all, and perhaps "living with the quandary, however imperfectly" isn't a bad way to deal with 'em ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 29, 2005 1:41 PM

"I'm very suspicious of attempts to settle the case out legally."


If you are not going to settle such matters as euthanasia through legal means i.e. laws, how would you propose to do it? No law at all? Every person decides on their own?

But what happens is there is a law which strictly & simply prohibits euthanasia with no exceptions and the attendant legal process, and you aid in it. Is that murder? Is that an OK result in your mind?

(I hope my questions are within your "game.")

Posted by: David Sucher on December 29, 2005 3:03 PM

David -- So you think an issue like euthanasia is capable of being settled-out legally? Eager to hear your solution to it. And doesn't everyone choose for him/herself how to deal with the question in one way or another no matter what the law is?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 29, 2005 7:38 PM

Swingers clubs are not "good" for society...
You see, premarital promiscuity is not a danger to society, but adultery is.
As a doctor, I know that many women in these clubs admit they were coerced by their husbands...essentially a form of abuse...such coertion is not limited to this, of course, since many women object to certain kinky sex acts by their husbands (which is where hookers come in handy: to save women from sexual acts that they dislike).
And finally, promiscuous sex is a health hazard...Like the gay bath houses that fueled the HIV epidemic.
But a gay man with HIV is less of a threat to society than heterosexual HIV, such as we see with the sex partners of drug addicts and bisexuals in the African American you end up with children with HIV, with congenital syphillis, with Hepatitis B, with Herpes infection, with Chlamydial pneumonia etc....
OF course, such couples may merely abort any unplanned offspring...but few women take abortion casually...

Posted by: Tioedong on December 29, 2005 10:30 PM

Michael, I am not sure what you mean by "settled-out." Do I think that one law on euthanasia will satisfy every person of every philosophy? Or, more broadly, that any law can "solve" deep moral issues in some ultimate way? Of course not. No law on any subject does that; at best laws are simply reflections of our best guess about what is the proper way to behave. So the vaguenes of your language -- which must be deliberate as you are a master of written English? -- does not help to forward this discussion.

But do I think that we need law(s) to define if (ever). when and how we should allow us to commit a mercy killing? Of course I do. Don't you think that _some_ law is required? I recognize that you sometimes like to raise provocative issues just for a good discussion but the idea that we should have _no_ law at all concerning euithanasia is simply too bizarre to even consider. (The obvious problem is where do you draw the line between "euthanasia" and plain murder?)

Posted by: David Sucher on December 30, 2005 6:33 PM

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