Environmental groups, civil rights movements, and activists for various causes past and present, have advocated breaking laws which they consider unjust. It has been argued that doing so is the right thing to do. Given that we should do what is right, do we have a moral obligation to break unjust laws?
This was made for a Philosophy essay competition, and considering I didn’t take any essay subjects at A level, my essay skills are quite likely to be poor. But I want to put stuff on Medium, so it’s here anyway.
To answer this question, we must first consider and analyse the “law” and its intentions in society. There are four main purposes of law4, three of which are truly relevant to this essay:
Establishing standards: The law is essentially a guide to what is or is not acceptable within our society. For example, activities that cause physical harm to another individual are deemed unacceptable and are therefore crimes. This feature of law relates to the desire to protect individuals through law.
Maintaining order: Laws also exist to maintain order. “Order” is essentially the general behaviour aligned with society’s guidelines. Laws to protect the environment, for example, may prohibit vehicles from causing pollution in certain regions. This feature of law relates to the desire to protect society as a whole, stopping society descending into chaos and conserving order.
Protecting Liberties and Rights: Another function of law is to protect liberties and rights of individuals or groups from violations by other individuals, groups, organisations, governments, etc. This feature of law relates again to the desire for a civil and morally organised society.
From these purposes, it is clear what the purpose of law is; to create an ordered society in which individuals and the environment are protected from harm as far as possible.
That said, few systems function as intended in every possible scenario. For instance, a computer program may not function as intended in every case presented to it. Cases that lead to an unintended output response due to a program that does not account for them are known as “edge cases” and a computer program malfunction due to a blunder in the code is called a “bug”. When such a bug or edge case is found, the programmer is alerted and is obliged to account for this edge case or fix this bug.
I use this analogy to describe law. Law, similar to a computer program, is highly algorithmic in nature. It works very well for the majority of cases, for instance succeeding in protecting society and the environment as a whole, individuals within it, their property and their rights; however, there may be cases of exception. At times law “malfunctions’ — it does NOT function as intended. It may in fact function oppositely. It may harm the individuals and groups it sought to protect. Laws that constitute this may be referred to as “unjust”. If an “unjust” law is put into action and leads to the harm of society in the short or long term, this unjust law can be challenged. At times, the legal system takes account of this challenge and acknowledges the flaw, thus leading to improvements in the legal system as a whole. However, this is rarely the case due to timing and protocol. Thus, breaking the law may be “better” (for society) since the point of law is to optimise society, and if breaking the law is more successful in doing this than following the law itself, then without a question — breaking the law in these situations should be considered optimal for the good of society — however this argument rests on the law actually being unjust and not simply creating an illusion of unjustness, which is a problem to be discussed later.
Furthermore, whether breaking the law in a situation like this is morally “the right thing” is a different question. A moral obligation is defined as a “duty which one owes, and which he ought to do — but does not legally need to fulfil”5. In this case, society ought to be optimised and although it may go against legal conduct, ought to still take place considering that we wish for societal optimization. Given that we should do what is “right”, if breaking the law can be considered “right”, we do have a moral obligation to do it, but this brings us to a deeper level of this question. What is morality and what can be considered right? Do we even know what “right” is?
Civil rights movements and activists break laws that they, perhaps subjectively, consider unjust. Whether a law is unjust or not is not objective. I discussed previously that if a law fails at its task of protecting society (and the other purposes listed) then it may be considered unjust by us but this does not mean that it necessarily is unjust. It could for example, create an illusion of unjustness while actually being a perfectly fair law, we simply may not be able to comprehend its fairness in that situation, which blurs the meaning of “unjust”. To add to this, We are too epistemically limited to know objectively for a fact that breaking a law is right, or in terms of moral epistemology — moral knowledge does not exist3. We do not know what “the right thing” is, and our notion of morality comes only from us.
Some may argue however that the above argument is too deep and theoretical for the much simpler real world. If a law fails at its intended purpose and harms those it sought to protect — it probably is unjust. Furthermore, while we may not know for sure what “the right thing” is from an epistemology point of view, we can consider that human morality has developed its own moral code which is may be philosophically incorrect, but we psychologically accept this code as a good enough indicator of what “the right thing” is. This moral indicator would say that we should do what optimises society, which as I have discussed and proved previously means breaking the law. This is not a philosophically rigorous argument. It can be abused because the human moral code can be bent in multiple ways and is overall very inconsistent — a moral right like this gives someone an infinite number of ways to break the law and call it “morality”. Stealing a highly precious artefact from a museum is deemed highly unacceptable and a huge crime, murder, too is deemed highly unacceptable. If someone murdered a thief attempting to steal an artefact, thus preventing the heist yet causing death — did they do the right thing? We don’t know. Our moral code is inconsistent and flawed, just like law. It’s just that it does seem to work in almost all cases, so while not rigorous, this argument is valid.
This question is really one about the knowledge of what is right, thus is in practice a question of moral epistemology. I started off by rationally explaining that the law may be flawed, and thus it may be useful to bend the rules of the law to achieve the intended effect, and this is true to an extent — yet if we go deeper we find that we can never really know for sure whether a law truly is unjust — and even if it was objectively unjust we can never really know for sure what “the right thing” is. Going by this deeper logic, there should be no moral obligation to break the law given that we should do what is right because of the unknown meaning of “right”. However, in practice and in reality, laws can logically be considered generally unjust by the majority of people if they seem to fail at their intended purpose, and following the perhaps incorrect moral code evolved and generated by human psychology and interaction, there generally is a moral obligation to break the law.
- The Status of Morality , Dr Matthew Chrisman https://www.coursera.org/learn/philosophy/lecture/WgOhW/the-status-of-morality
Do you have an obligation to obey the law?, Dr Guy Fletcher
Moral Epistemology, author not listed
Meaning and purpose of the law, author not listed
The definition of Moral obligation, author not listed