We have several options when a government passes an unjust law. We can obey it without trying to change it, we can obey it while trying to get it overturned through legal means, or we can disobey it immediately. American philosopher Henry David Thoreau advocated for the third option. He refused to pay taxes in protest of slavery and the Mexican-American war, both of which he viewed as unjust and imperialist.
His argument was that the only moral obligation anyone had was to do at every moment what they believed was right. By paying taxes to immoral institutions, Thoreau would be financing their immoral acts and hence participating in them. According to this logic, individuals don’t have any obligation to obey unjust laws. Additioinally, if compliance goes against an individual’s values they even have a moral obligation to disobey.
This point of view is far from universal, with some philosophers arguing that there is a duty to obey even unjust laws. When Socrates was sentenced to death for disrespecting the gods and corrupting the youth, his friends offered to help him escape. The Athenian philosopher allegedly refused. According to his student Plato, Socrates argued that he had spent his life in Athens and had previously accepted and benefited from its laws, giving him a moral obligation to continue to do so. In other words, choosing to be an Athenian citizen meant that he had consented to abide by its decisions, even when he didn’t think they were fair.
However, it could be argued that this argument doesn’t apply to everyone. It is obvious that nobody chooses what country they were born into, but depending on social status and financial situation, some people have always been able to move from state to state relatively easily. As a result, choosing to stay could be interpreted as implicit consent to accept the country’s laws. Others have a much harder time leaving. Whether it’s because of obligations, finances, or regulations, it’s almost impossible for them to move to whichever state they would most rather live in. It’s unfair to say these people have chosen to live in their country. The fact that they haven’t left tells us nothing about how they see their country’s laws.
Socrates also argued that laws must be obeyed because not doing so would weaken the government. For example, if you are seen disobeying a rule, others might be encouraged to do the same. This could arguably strengthen a culture of rule-breaking which could weaken the government’s ability to provide people with the benefits of the law, such as stability and safety. It can be argued that one of the main functions of the law should be to create a consistent, widely-known, framework which enables people to live together harmoniously in society. Anarchy might be preferable to a deeply unjust community, but most wouldn’t argue that it’s better than a mostly just society with a handful of unjust rules. So long as you’re living in the latter, it could be better to obey the occasional unfair law.
This is particularly the case since doing so doesn’t mean you can’t try to change things. There are ways of altering or repealing laws. In a just, democratic society, it’s even likely that citizens would have the power to influence this process. In such a system, there could be both a moral obligation to obey unjust laws and an obligation to challenge them through legally sanctioned procedures. This is because, on the one hand, upholding the rule of law is desirable. On the other hand, we also don’t want to have immoral laws. The idea that we can obey them while challenging them allows us to do both.
However, this point of view depends on the idea that disobeying unfair rules could undermine the social order. In practice, this might not be the case. Earlier, we argued that breaking legal norms could encourage others to do the same, undermining law and order. This point of view implies not only that people are likely to break rules if they see others doing so, but that disobeying one specific law is likely to lead to disobeying others. The first is probably true regardless of whether the law disobeyed is just or unjust.
However, I would argue that the latter isn’t. Disobeying one specific law might lead to disobeying others if the law in question is moral, and is acknowledged as such. For example, we all agree that stealing is wrong, all other things being equal. If shoplifting becomes normalised, people might soon commit crimes like vandalism. This is because the rule-breaker is operating according to the idea that breaking the law is okay so long as it’s in their self-interest. Anyone watching can probably detect this. Later, they’ll remember not just the idea that it’s okay to break the law, but that it’s acceptable to do so for their benefit. This is why breaking moral laws can lead to different moral laws being broken.
The situation might be different if the rule being disobeyed is immoral. In this case, the rule-breaker isn’t disobeying purely out of self-interest. They are operating on the idea that it’s okay to break the law if it’s immoral. Others watching are probably able to detect this. Instead of being left with the idea that disobeying legal norms is right if it’s in their self-interest, onlookers leave with the idea that immoral rules should be disobeyed. Normalising this principle might lead to other laws being broken, but only those laws which are unjust, or widely perceived as such.
Encouraging this behaviour isn’t bad for society. On the contrary, it has led to meaningful social reform in the past. Civil disobedience (when protesters intentionally disobey unjust laws) was one of the main tactics used by Gandhi, starting with the infamous Salt March. Indians had been prohibited from producing salt in order to protect the lucrative British monopoly on it, leading to working-class people struggling to afford it. Followed by a growing number of supporters, Gandhi walked more than 380 km to the sea before publicly breaking the salt law by taking a few handfuls of sea salt. This led to widespread illegal production, as well as other forms of rule-breaking through refusing to pay taxes. These actions led to the ban on salt production being overturned. Furthermore, they are credited with laying the foundations for the Indian independence movement.
In conclusion, breaking unjust laws is not immoral. Despite arguments to the contrary, living in a country doesn’t mean you’ve consented to obey all laws it passes. Furthermore, breaking unfair rules doesn’t threaten social stability. So long as protesters are clear about what they’re doing and why, civil disobedience shouldn’t encourage self-interested crime. Instead, it should inspire others to target injustice and make society better in the long run.
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