I’ve really enjoyed the ongoing discussion on last week’s post about abortion. This experiment is going great so far! I hope we can keep it up this week. I expect it will be less of an issue with today’s topic, but just in case: please remember to leave religion out of your arguments. This is a secular discussion of morality.
Most of the time, in a liberal democracy such as the United States, I think we have a moral duty to obey the law. Even if I think that a law is incorrect, I will generally defer to following it for two main reasons.
First, I recognize that I might be wrong. The laws we have are debated and eventually agreed upon by many people, and although I consider myself reasonably smart, I think that kind of consensus-building is more likely to lead to right answers than any one individual’s opinion. I’ll continue to investigate the reasoning behind and impact of a law I disagree with, and I’ll advocate for changes, but in the meantime I’ll follow the law as it stands.
Second, I think that in a democracy we have all effectively promised each other that we will abide by the outcomes of the democratic process. This is a large component of the concept usually referred to as the “social contract.” Legal restrictions on our actions are fair because everyone agrees to be bound by them. Of course, there’s no actual contract that we sign when we’re born, and there aren’t an infinite number of countries that we could move to offering all possible forms of government for us to choose from. But by continuing to live in this country, and reaping the benefits that the government offers (e.g. safety, education, other public services) we are agreeing to follow the rules, and reneging on that promise means doing a disservice to all the other members of society — who made similar promises under the assumption that you (and everyone else) were promising, too.
There is a practical consideration, as well. In order to preserve law and order, it’s important that there be an established norm of following the laws. If everyone felt entitled to break laws whenever they felt like it, there would be chaos, which would lead to a dangerous decrease in safety and general social stability. This principle extends to every law from “don’t murder” and “don’t steal” all the way to “don’t run a stop sign” and “don’t litter.” If we want to live in an orderly society, we owe it to ourselves and each other to preserve that norm. This ties in with my second reason, above, to some degree. However, I think that even if you could get away with breaking the law in a particular instance with no practical harms, you would still have this general moral obligation to keep your promises.
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t made these claims without exception. That’s because I do think that there are limited situations in which it is morally acceptable to break a law you think is wrong. My bar is pretty high, though. Even if I had no doubts that a particular law was incorrect, even detrimental, I would default to obeying it unless I thought the law was fundamentally unjust. I would vote for politicians who opposed the law, vote in referenda against it, and/or participate in protests or other activism to advocate for a change. But I recognize that part of living in a democracy is following some rules that the majority approves of even when I’m in the minority, so I’ll do that even when it’s unpleasant.
Sometimes, of course, the majority makes rules that aren’t just stupid, but are more deeply wrong from a moral standpoint. If owning people as property is legally allowed, then certainly, help those slaves escape (or, being a slave, feel entitled to escape). If the law mandates that you hold certain opinions and requires you to report people whose ideologies differ so they can be punished and “reprogrammed,” then go ahead and dissent if you wish and keep your mouth shut about others. Laws like these are much worse than a tax code with suboptimal incentive structures; they’re actually unjust and it would be immoral to obey them.
It’s difficult to create a rubric for which sorts of laws should be classified as “unjust” rather than just “clearly misguided.” I’m able to identify cases that clearly fall on one side or other other, but I don’t have a bright line to offer you (at least within the scope of this particular post). For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll hazard this definition: A law is unjust when it violates a fundamental right. A fundamental right is a protection without which people would not have consented to the social contract. (Something like Rawls’ veil of ignorance is probably a necessary part of this definition. Would you have consented to the social contract ahead of time if you did not know your gender, your skin color, your social status, your wealth, etc. in advance? That is, would a generic person with any random traits be expected to consent?)
One more issue on this topic that I think is worth discussing is what manner of disobedience is warranted. I’m inclined to say that breaking an unjust law should generally be as narrowly tailored as possible. Given that my moral judgments are premised in part upon the idea that it’s bad to do harm to others (yes, I will discuss “first principles” at some point later on), I believe violence should be avoided unless that is what is really necessary to correct the rights violations occurring. More egregiously unjust laws merit more flagrant and potentially dangerous disobedience, and conversely, more flagrant and dangerous acts of disobedience require greater certainty about the extreme injustice of a law and about the necessity of those acts in correcting the injustice. Up until now I’ve been generally talking about liberal democracies, but we could take this concept to the extreme and argue that if the government itself is fundamentally unjust and does not have any (or, any effective) legal framework for challenging those injustices, a civil war would be morally justified and even commendable.
Am I too much of a goody two-shoes? Or am I too lenient? Have a particular tough example of this dilemma that you want to hash out? Have at it in the comments.