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Are We Ever Morally Justified In Disobeying Laws We Consider To Be Immoral? Essay, Research Paper

Are we ever morally justified in disobeying laws we consider to be immoral?

The answer to this question depends very much on our understanding and opinion on the status of the law. On this issue it is likely that everyone falls into one of two broad categories. People falling into the first of these categories would be those who consider that through social contract we are obliged to obey the law, whatever the law states and regardless of our opinion on the moral status of that law and that we are morally obliged to operate within the law. Furthermore by this way of thinking we can conclude that if the law binds us over to commit, what we consider to be an immoral act then we must be exempt from guilt as our morality dictates that we should obey the law regardless. Those who fall outside of this category would therefore believe that we are not bound over to obey the law and that in fact we should be morally obliged to disobey any law that we consider to be immoral. There is however a problem with this situation, in so much as it relies on appealing to a set moral code to justify our actions and such a moral code is merely an abstracted system of laws.

I believe that we can be morally justified in disobeying laws, which we consider to be immoral and there are several reasons for this. I believe that it is only possible to happily live in accordance with our own moral code, it may also be possible to live without too much dissatisfaction within the bounds of laws, which dictate a stricter moral code than our own. However I do not believe that it is possible to happily exist under a system of law whereby we are obliged at times to break our own code of morality. In this situation we are likely to find ourselves in a constant struggle between conscience and consequence.

Personal morality could be considered to be a set of internal laws and just like laws existing within a society there is mechanism to prevent us from committing crime. The fear of punishment is an example of one such mechanism: the consequence of committing a given crime out weighs the benefit and as such deters us from committing that crime. Within the realm of our own morality conscience can be seen perform this role, just ac if we contravene laws we must live with punishment, if we break our own morality we must live with our conscience. All of this is fine until a situation arises where our morality clashes with the law, and at that time we are faced with a stark choice, a choice between the punishment meted out by the state for infringement of the law and the punishment delivered by our own psyche – a straight choice between consequence and conscience. In fact in this situation the more relevant question might be are we ever justified in obeying laws which we consider to be immoral. Of course at some point the burden of the constitutional punishment is likely to become greater than the burden of conscience and we will find ourselves living with the burden of conscience.

Another argument for moral justification in breaking immoral laws can be extrapolated from J. Rawls’ “Theory of Civil Disobedience”. Rawls outlines circumstances in which we may be considered to be constitutionally justified in breaking laws, which we consider to be unjust and ergo immoral. In fact Rawls goes as far as to suggest that we can even be justified in breaking laws other than those to which we object. Rawls states that in objecting to a law we are justified in committing acts of non-violent civil disobedience as a communicative act, which is designed to appeal to the sense of common justice assumed to be held by the majority in a nearly just society. Although he concedes that it is necessary to have attempted to change the law through due political course first. This civil disobedience is to be seen as a socially corrective measure and as such part of the democratic constitution. In this situation we are told that we may be permitted to break laws which we feel to be immoral or unjust in order to protest about their existence. In any situation we may at least seek moral justification for our actions, before we seek legal justification, after all why would we face both conscience and consequence when there is a choice between the two. Therefore it seems that if there are situations where we are legally justified in breaking the law then at those times we must also have found moral justification to do this as well.

I believe that we must be morally justified in disobeying laws, which we find immoral. If we obey such laws then we simply break our own code of morality and make ourselves immoral by our own standards. Not only this, but it is interesting to note that recent history has shown, in the case of retrospective legislation regarding Nazi war crimes, that our moral justification for breaking the law may later be legally vindicated.


Rawls, J. (1977) ‘A theory of civil disobedience’ in R.M. Dworkin (ed.) The philosophy of law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rawls, J. (1977) ‘A theory of civil disobedience’ in R.M. Dworkin (ed.) The philosophy of law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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