Obligation to Obey, Rawls, Singer

Christopher Hurtado —  January 21, 2010
Obligation to Obey, Rawls, Singer | Christopher Hurtado
Is there a moral obligation to obey the law?

Is it immoral to ever disobey any particular law no matter what the law or reasons? It seems it depends on the law, the situation and one’s reasons. When considering whether we have an obligation to obey the law, some would answer that it depends on what is meant by “law.” By law do we mean moral law or man-made law? Martin Luther King, Jr., a premier example of civil disobedience in our day, wrote in a letter to his fellow clergyman from jail in Birmingham regarding unjust man-made law that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” According to Augustine, an unjust man- made law is really no law at all. While there seems to be a legal and moral responsibility to obey just laws in this view, there also seems to be a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Just law can be understood as man-made code that is consistent with moral law, whereas unjust law can be understood as human law not rooted in eternal and natural law.

Others, like Mill would answer by appealing to the principle of utility. In his view, the law does not add anything to the morality of the situation. There is no moral obligation to obey the law. It is the consequences that matter. The question then becomes, are the consequences of my disobedience good overall, or are they harmful? Kant would ask, what if everyone did it? His categorical imperative claims that if one can will one’s maxim to be universal law without contradiction, then one’s maxim is moral and one must act on it. Otherwise, it is not moral and one must refrain from acting on it.

Others still see God’s commands as the basis for an obligation to obey the law. Joseph Smith wrote in the 12th Article of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” It is also written in section 58 of the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church, as revealed through Joseph Smith: “let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land” (D&C 58: 21). However, this injunction must be interpreted in light of “a declaration of belief regarding governments and laws in general, adopted by unanimous vote at a general assembly of the Church held at Kirtland, Ohio, August 17, 1835” given in section 134 of the Doctrine & Covenants which states an obligation to obey the law provided that it protects one’s rights.

Compare Rawls and Singer regarding the justification for civil disobedience.

According to Rawl’s theory, we have all entered into a social contract. People have joined in society with one another and by accepting the benefits of that society, they are obligated to obey the rules of the same. It is only a matter of fair play. No one should be free to disobey. This contract is implicit by living in society, accepting the benefits of said society, and in voting. Rawls would only justify civil disobedience if (1) it is a last resort (2) in the face of a substantial violation of justice which (3) allows others the same right to protest and (4) has a likelihood of success.

For Rawls, the motivation of civil disobedience must be political. It cannot be religious or moral. It must be based on the social contract’s shared conception of justice. Singer takes issue with Rawls, saying people should be free to disobey the law for other reasons, including moral and religious reasons. Singer would argue against Rawls by asking, what if one wants to protest against this shared conception of justice?

Christopher Hurtado

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Christopher Hurtado is President and CEO of Linguistic Solutions and Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and Political Science at Utah Valley University. He holds a BA in Middle East Studies/Arabic and Philosophy and an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. He coauthored Vacation Spanish: A Survival Guide for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central & South America. He is married to children's book author and homeschool mom, Alysia Gonzalez. Together they have nine children. They are active in their church and in their community.