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Question 172: May an automobile supply store sell items often used illegally?

I have an auto supply store in Washington, D.C. Not all my customers are from the metropolitan area, and during tourist season even people from foreign countries sometimes make purchases. I also get some telephone and mail orders.

I do a brisk business in several brands of radar detectors and in a bypass of the pollution control equipment. These items often are used illegally, but they also have lawful uses. Some states outlaw radar detectors, but others permit them. And I’ve heard that pollution control equipment is not required by law in some foreign countries, while in this country mechanics trying to diagnose certain problems legitimately use the bypass to find out where the trouble is.

I would not stock these items if the law prohibited it. But no federal or D.C. law tells me not to sell them. However, various organizations campaign against radar detectors, and an environmental group that thinks the bypass should not be sold to the public has organized a boycott of stores that sell it. Apparently giving in to pressure, a large, regional, auto supply chain has announced it no longer will stock either item.

Since my wife and I have eight children to raise, I need every bit of profit. These items will sell even better now that the chain is discontinuing them. Even if I did stop selling such items, many others would keep on. I would like to go on selling them as long as the law allows it. Can you give me any support for thinking there is nothing wrong with that?


This question concerns cooperation in morally questionable activities. The morality of selling something often used unlawfully depends on both the morality of using the item and the seller’s civic responsibility. Since radar detectors serve only to help in violating a law that should be obeyed, drivers should never use them. Since a pollution control bypass can serve a legitimate purpose, some people may permanently install it. Beyond complying with relevant laws, the owner of a business does not have a civic responsibility to refrain from supplying requested items often used unlawfully unless such self-regulation is likely to be effective in protecting or promoting the common good. These things presupposed, the norms regarding cooperation can be applied to answer the question. Promoting the use of radar detectors is excluded as formal cooperation in violating a law that should be obeyed, and even selling them to people who ask for them is, at best, morally questionable material cooperation. The questioner may promote the pollution control bypass only to people whose use of it is likely to be morally acceptable, but he may sell it to anyone who asks.

The reply could be along the following lines:

In my judgment, sound moral analysis provides no support for the view that selling radar detectors is permissible, but provides some limited support for selling the pollution control bypass, provided certain restrictions are observed.

I assume that you are right in saying no applicable law forbids or restricts the sale of the items in question. If that is not so, or if relevant new legislation is enacted, the law should be presumed just and almost certainly should be obeyed. Indeed, even if it were unjust, you almost certainly would be morally bound to conform to it in order to forestall the many bad effects of lawbreaking, including the risk of being punished (see LCL, 874–83).

Many legally permissible actions are morally wrong, and laws do not fully specify even the civic responsibilities of citizens. Thus, your question cannot be answered without first considering whether it can be morally right for anyone to use a radar detector or permanently install a pollution control bypass, and whether the common good calls for self-regulation in selling such items.

Radar detectors theoretically could have other uses, but in practice they are used to frustrate enforcement of speed limits. Drivers should accept the reasonable and common understanding of the intent of traffic laws, including speed limits, as a norm to be strictly observed (see LCL, 485–86, 876). Law enforcement officers generally cite only drivers who not only exceed the posted limits but clearly violate the norm flowing from the reasonable and common understanding of the law’s intent. So, drivers who use radar detectors are seeking impunity for violating a legal norm they ought to observe. That intention is immoral.

Someone might concede that radar detectors usually are used to violate speed laws with impunity, but claim that some law-abiding drivers use them merely to know when they are being monitored so that they can make sure not accidentally to exceed the speed limit. Even if such drivers do not speed intentionally, however, they would not need radar detectors if they were strictly observing the law, rightly understood. That means not only intending not to speed but attending to speed limits, glancing regularly at the speedometer, and constantly maintaining the appropriate speed, rather than carelessly exceeding it now and then unless specially warned. Moreover, though a conscientious driver could intend to use a radar detector only to reduce the likelihood of being penalized for accidental speeding, using the device surely would be an occasion of sins of negligence regarding speed limits and probably would lead to sins of intentional speeding.

Again, some people argue that using a radar detector not only is lawful in some jurisdictions but can be morally justifiable. On many stretches of heavily traveled highways, they point out, most vehicles, including most large trucks, often go significantly over the posted limits, which are enforced only sporadically. Under these conditions, the argument goes, drivers abiding by the law often are followed too closely and passed dangerously, so that it is safer for them to move with the traffic stream, especially if they are driving small cars. Yet police using radar sometimes stop and ticket such drivers while neglecting speeding trucks. So, the argument concludes, reluctant speeders are entitled to use radar detectors so that they can drive as safely as possible without becoming targets of arbitrary law enforcement.

This argument’s factual assumptions do not seem sound. On the one hand, at least when the traffic stream is not dense (and perhaps even when it is), observing the speed limit, as reasonably and commonly interpreted, is likely to be safer than speeding. On the other hand, police almost never stop drivers moving with a dense traffic stream in the less fast lane of a multilane highway or along a road with only one lane in each direction. Partly that is because, even if the traffic stream exceeds the posted speed limit, it may well be within the limit intended by legislators and enforced by traffic officers; partly it is because a dense traffic stream slows as soon as the police apply radar, since many deliberate, habitual speeders use detectors. So, in my judgment, someone reluctant to speed does not need a radar detector, and the money spent on such devices would probably suffice to pay the rare fines imposed on drivers proceeding as carefully as they can in a dense, fast-moving stream of traffic.

The pollution control bypass is a somewhat different matter. God has provided subhuman creation for the enjoyment and use of the entire human family, and the people of each generation owe it to one another and those of all future generations to preserve this gift (see LCL, 771–82). So, even where pollution control equipment is not required by law, people with the financial resources to help protect the environment should not use a bypass. But where the law permits, poor people who must use their vehicles to meet genuine needs and who cannot afford to use or repair pollution control equipment are morally justified in permanently installing a bypass. Where that is illegal, however, only poor people motivated by a need pressing and urgent enough to generate a conflicting duty can be morally justified in regarding the law as inapplicable to them and making an exception to it (see LCL, 878–79).

I now turn to your actual question. If the common good requires it, the law should prohibit or restrict selling radar detectors and pollution control bypasses. Where the law allows their sale, self-regulation by merchants might be their civic duty if it would serve the common good. As long as many merchants continue to sell these items, however, voluntary measures by a few will prevent hardly anyone from buying and using them. So, it would not serve the common good for you to abstain from selling these items to people determined to have them, and, therefore, your civic responsibility does not require you to do that.

Nevertheless, intending others’ wrongdoing always is wrong. Normally the owners of businesses intend the use of products they sell. Plainly, anyone who encourages another to do what is wrong intends that he or she do it—or, at least, plan to do it—and the owner of a business certainly encourages people to use for their intended purposes any items whose purchase the business promotes, that is, anything it advertises, recommends, or displays to potential buyers. Therefore, owners of businesses certainly may not advertise, recommend, or even display anything with the intention of gaining sales volume that they are morally certain cannot be achieved without purchases for immoral use. If the use also is contrary to law, promoting its sale also encourages law breaking, and so violates the common good.

Owners of businesses sometimes handle morally questionable merchandise without promoting it; the items are never displayed but are brought out or ordered only when someone requests them. If not morally certain such items will be used immorally, they need not share the buyer’s bad intention. Suppose they know such an item will be used immorally? Certainly, selling it involves intending its possession. But that need not involve intending its use, unless the seller either has chosen to do something to bring about that use or by means of that use achieves some end ulterior to that very sale. So, without intending the item’s use, merchants could sell it to people who ask for it.

If sellers do not intend the immoral use of what they sell, they facilitate buyers’ wrongdoing without necessarily sharing in their guilt. Still, doing something that facilitates others’ wrongdoing often is sinful, and, in my judgment, owners of businesses should not stock or sell any merchandise customers could want only for some objectively immoral use. To do so may tempt an owner or employees to intend wrongdoing by promoting the items’ use; it also will undercut the owner’s witness to relevant moral truths, and it may be unfair to anyone who suffers injustice from the wrongdoing.

In the light of the preceding norms, promoting the purchase of radar detectors involves both intending speeding and violating civic responsibility. You may not advertise or display radar detectors, and neither you nor your employees may do anything else to encourage their use. In my judgment, moreover, you should not even stock them. That is likely to tempt you and/or your employees to encourage their use, and will make less credible the witness you should bear to drivers’ responsibility to be careful and law abiding.

Since the pollution control bypass can have morally acceptable uses, it seems to me that you may stock and sell it to people who ask for it, without inquiring into their intentions. Often, proceeding in this way probably will contribute to buyers’ wrongdoing, but that contribution, in my judgment, can be justified. The alternative would be to forgo handling an item for which there is a legitimate need. You also may encourage people who would rightly use this item to buy it. But I think you should not advertise it to the public at large or display it in your store, since you can be morally certain that will encourage many people to use it immorally and unlawfully.383

383. The preceding analysis articulates the norms to be applied to other, more or less similar cases, not only by owners of a business like the questioner’s, but by owners of other sorts of business, including those that sell books and magazines, rent videos, and so forth (see q. 83, above).