Is It Ever Moral to Break the Law
Our period of history is often described as “materialistic” and “conformist,” a time when governments have enormous power to crush the bodies and numb the minds of their subjects, and in which the great mass of men and women – presumably as opposed to men and women of other times – prefer to play it safe. instead of raising questions about basic moral principles. It should be noted, however, that massive opposition to the law, justified in the name of higher moral principles such as “liberty”, “equality” and “national independence”, was a striking feature of our time and one of its most effective techniques of social action. Millions of ordinary people who do not claim to be heroes or saints have used it in India, South Africa, in resistance movements against the Nazis and in the struggle for equal rights for blacks in the United States. False (left) and right relationship between laws and moral rules. Worse still, the majority may have shown in a series of free and fair elections that it strongly supports what the minority sees as an unspeakable evil. This is obviously the case today in many parts of the South, where the white majority is either opposed to desegregation or not as eager to pursue it as the black minority. Are we prepared to say that majorities are never wrong? Otherwise, there is no absolutely conclusive reason why we must always give more weight to the results of an election than to considerations of elementary justice. However, the jury was not convinced and found him guilty. They were even angrier when, at the time of the condemnation, Socrates suggested that his “punishment” should be a lifetime supply of free meals in the prytaneum or central foyer, an honor usually reserved for Olympic and other champions. These antics did not work well and Socrates was sentenced to death.
A religious celebration delayed the execution by a few weeks, but it now seems imminent. Well, I believe it is absolutely true that in a democracy there are stronger arguments for obedience to the law, including bad law, than in a dictatorship. Those who must abide by the law have probably been consulted, and they have legal means to voice their protests and work for reform. One way to define democracy is to say that it is a system whose purpose is to provide alternatives to civil disobedience. Nevertheless, when applied to the kind of situation that CORE, for example, faces, I think these generalizations become cruelly abstract. It is common practice today to argue that the sentence must “match” a particular crime if the sentence for that crime is to be justified. All general theories of punishment offer different methods for determining the correspondence between a sentence and a crime. Deterrence theorists might argue that this value is determined by the difficulty of deterring cases of a particular crime in the future. Dissuasive penalties are therefore justified only if they are sufficiently severe to deter certain infringements. We can admire a man like Martin Luther King who is willing to defy authority in the name of principle, and we can think that he is absolutely right; Similarly, his right to break the law cannot be officially recognized.
No society, whether free or tyrannical, can give its citizens the right to break their laws: to ask them to do so is to ask them to proclaim by law that their laws are not laws. The question is as old as Socrates. This has regularly led people to radically examine the premises of personal morality and civic obligation, and even the government itself. And it`s an interesting question, not only because of its philosophical implications, but also because it`s always been a painfully practical question, and never more so than it is today. The combination of law and morality is a curious American custom that undermines the functioning of the legal system. That`s a shame. That`s why it can sometimes be so difficult to change laws. If it`s not just about politics, it`s about ethics, then changing a law means that something immoral is legal.
Americans tend to mix law and morality. We believe that means we are doing things illegally because they are immoral. While we may admit that there are exceptions, we tend to think that our laws generally reflect what is right and wrong, rather than a simple or arbitrary effort to control the population in a way that the people who influence politics want. Finally, even if the social contract remains intact, breaking the law may be the least bad thing Socrates can do under the circumstances. Allowing an unjust sentence to be carried out could be more damaging to Athens than breaking the law. Obedience to bad judgments also sets a precedent that Socrates should be concerned about. Certainly, disobedience carries its own risks. But not all moral considerations accumulate on the side of obedience, as Socrates suggests. This idea has obvious roots in the Christian tradition, which was itself originally a Jewish tradition, of seeing the laws of the state as an extension of the laws God had promulgated for His people. You can still find this in some Islamic countries and in Orthodox Judaism: the idea that God`s law and secular law are not two separate things, but that morality, religious commandments, and state laws are all one and the same, all from the same holy books that contain God`s Word. So many Western societies of Christian origin will still carry echoes of the idea that state law is somehow derived from divine law and that there is a link between state law and moral rules.
But that`s not really the case. In short, if someone has the right to break the law, it cannot be a legal right under the law. It must be a moral right that is contrary to law. And this moral right is not an unlimited right to ignore any law considered unjust. It is a right which, it seems to me, has significant restrictions. Anyone who knows Socrates knows it won`t be easy. However, Crito is determined to save his friend`s life, and so he comes armed with a series of arguments. Krito knows that Socrates is not afraid of death, and so he wisely appeals to the considerations that are most likely to resonate with Socrates: his sense of honor and his obligations to others. Let us assume that 51% of people support the bill and 49% do not support it. The supporters have the majority, and with utilitarian moral calculation, we should respect their ideas. If the 49% feel that their fundamental rights are being suppressed by the state, do they have the right to disobey its orders by breaking surveillance cameras in their homes? This fine line between labeling a government oppressive or democratic is the source of disagreement over protests and other acts of civil disobedience.
Critics argue that if we do not respect the electoral system, we will make the state even more oppressive and violent than it already was, or we may even lose that system altogether. But if we are governed by a flawed system, why not try to change and improve it? And if the damage is immutable, why should we have this system? Another argument against civil disobedience is that it harms others and therefore cannot be moral. However, civil disobedience is by definition non-violent. The only direct harm it would cause would be to the state. And isn`t it good to undermine the authority of the state when the system does not benefit its citizens, the goal of democratic government? The purpose of a watch is to display the time, and if it is not used for that, it is useless. If a state does not serve its people, it is useless: civil disobedience is a non-violent way to solve this problem. Third, it is an unfounded prejudice to assume that respect for the law is always conducive to strengthening a democratic system, when disobedience to the law can never have a salutary effect. A majority`s complacent acquiescence in bad laws can undermine a minority`s confidence in the power of democratic methods to correct obvious evils; But a vibrant democracy depends on the existence of minorities who have just such faith. Another factor must also be taken into account. In our federal system, there are often reasonable doubts about the legal validity of various state or local ordinances under our Constitution. Disobedience to these laws is, in many cases, simply a practical, if painful, way to test their legality.
But even when such a test is not considered, there is often a moral question that no one can easily evade – least of all the man whose personal dignity and self-respect are trapped in the question. (This may actually be an American example of practicality trumping morality—the argument “abortions will happen illegally (and just as often) if they are banned” is more compelling to many people than the argument that it is morally right to allow abortion.) He seized a great and visible opportunity and implicitly asked us to join him and seize this opportunity, on the integrity of his personal moral judgment. In doing so, he asked us if we were willing to seize an opportunity similar to the honesty of our own judgment. But he who places his conscience above the law, even if it is right or wrong, assumes personal moral responsibility for the social conditions in which he lives.