A Free Society Must Expect Civil Disobedience

2305 words - 9 pages

A Free Society Must Expect Civil Disobedience

       Are we morally obliged to obey even unjust laws? Think about what this means. This means that laws, regardless of how unfair, unjust, or immoral they may be, must be followed with no better reason that they are the law. To the thesis that we are obliged to obey even unjust laws, I will argue that the standard objections to Civil Disobedience, given by Singer, are incorrect

 

            To begin, however, I believe it is necessary to define an "unjust" law. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust." (King, 3) According to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority compels a minority group to obey, but does not make binding on itself." (King, 4)

 

            The definition I will take is a combination of these two. I define an unjust law as one that degrades human personality through the unfair suffering of a minority group at the hands of a majority group. Keep in mind that a majority can be in either power or number. A majority in number can be oppressed by a majority in power. Any law that causes a person to suffer simply because they do not agree with this majority is an incorrect and unjust law.

 

            Singer gives two typical arguments in favor of obeying these unjust laws. I will address these arguments one at a time. The first argument says that, "By disobeying [a law] I set an example for others that may lead them to disobey too. The effect may multiply and contribute to a decline in law and order. In an extreme case, it may lead to civil war." (Singer, 297)

 

            I believe that, while this argument has a little merit, it is an extremely exaggerated slippery slope. It is true that people may join in disobedience, but if the law is unjust and is disobeyed within the guidelines I put forth later, people joining the disobedience would be a good thing. It would show the support of a strong minority, and may even help the minority to become a majority.

            The second standard objection says, "If the law is to be effective - outside the anarchist's utopia - there must be some machinery for detecting and penalizing lawbreakers. This machinery will cost something to maintain and operate, and the cost will have to be met by the community. If I break the law, the community will be put to the expense of enforcement." (Singer, 297)

            I will concede this point. There is no argument against it. I would, however, pose that the moral cost of obeying a law that one thinks is deplorable is higher than the cost of enforcing the law. I would remind you that mass genocide of non-Aryan races under Hitler was legal. Would we chastise someone for disobeying that law? Also, realistically, the cost is not very high per taxpayer. It is especially small when...

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