When Is It Right to Break the Law?
Ethics and law are not the same
8 minutes read - 1558 words
Sometimes laws look like they protect the rich and the wealthy at the cost of the poor and disadvantaged. Sometimes laws may feel unjust. So is it true that sometimes a good person might need to break the law in the pursuit of what’s right? Can it be morally right to break the law? Or is ethics the same thing as the law?
Ethics and the law are not the same. We can think of many examples of morally right actions that are against the law (for example, crossing a red traffic light in order to save someone’s life on the other side of the street). There are also examples of the opposite, morally wrong actions that are legally permitted (lying to a friend, exploiting a loophole in the law to avoid paying taxes). Therefore, it can indeed be morally right, and even indicated, to break the law in certain situations.
Ethics and the law
Often you’ll hear the opinion: “What do I need ethics for? I can just follow the law! The law is the way how society has formalised the ethical principles that we’re supposed to follow. Therefore, just following the law will make sure that I’m acting morally right!”
But is this true?
This idea has obvious roots in the Christian tradition, which itself was originally a Jewish tradition, to see the laws of the state as an extension of the laws that God had decreed for his people. One still finds that in some Islamic countries and in Orthodox Judaism: the idea that God’s law and secular law are not two separate things, but that morality, religious commandments, and the laws of the state are all one and the same, all originating in the same holy books that contain the word of God. So many Western societies, having Christian origins, will still carry echoes of the idea that state law is somehow derived from divine law, and that there is some connection between state law and moral rules. But that is not really the case.
The philosophy of Karl Marx (1818-1883) has been hugely influential throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. One of his best known concepts is the idea of “alienation” that describes how, in capitalist societies, human beings get estranged from their work and from themselves because of the way the production of goods is organised.
The idea goes something like this: you’d have the moral rules that are, perhaps, considered the wider framework, and then you’d have the laws of the state that are more specific, and that cover only a subset of what morality covers. So that you’d think of the domain of ethics as a circle and the laws of the state as a smaller circle that’s entirely inside the other circle.
But this is a dangerous view.
It is dangerous because morality has this absolute claim to direct one’s actions. Ethics gives us rules that we are supposed to follow unconditionally, without ever questioning them: you should not steal, you should be honest, you should be loyal, and so on. But obeying state laws unconditionally is rarely a good idea. Laws are made by a Parliament, and this is not a body that’s inspired by God or by any kind of higher wisdom. The people making our laws are fallible, they can make mistakes; often enough they are greedy, perhaps corrupt, they can be bribed and lobbied, or they serve particular interest groups. So that, in the end, the laws made by such people are not necessarily worthy of being obeyed unconditionally.
The people making our laws are fallible, they can make mistakes.
Many of the laws of any given country are best ignored, rather than followed blindly, and this is why one has to be critical and sceptical about the laws and always keep questioning whether particular laws actually are morally right or not.
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When is it right to break the law?
One way to see that laws and ethics are not the same is to try to find examples of cases where an action is legal but immoral; or illegal but morally right. Clearly, if we could find such cases, then we would know that the two categories cannot mean the same thing; we would also know that one cannot be entirely contained within the other, like concentric circles. Instead, we would know that law of morality are like two circles that intersect. Then you’d have an area where they intersect, and this would be the actions that are both legal and morally right. You would also have an area of actions that are legal but immoral; and, finally, an area that includes the actions that are illegal but morally right.
So, are there such actions? Are there actions that are morally right but forbidden by law?
It’s not hard to think of something. For example, let’s say that you stand, as a pedestrian, at a red traffic light. On the other side of the road, through the cars that are crossing in front of you, you see a little child playing. And suddenly, the child looks like it’s going to run out onto the busy street!
What will you do? Stand there, obeying the law about traffic lights, or jump across the street to save the child? Ignoring the traffic light would be illegal, but saving the child would clearly be morally right, wouldn’t it? So here we have an example of an action that is illegal but morally right.
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Legal but immoral actions are also common. For example, it is legal to search for tax law loopholes and to try to game the system in order to reduce one’s taxes. This can go so far that companies will move their international headquarters to improbable places like some Caribbean islands or Ireland, just to avoid paying regular taxes in their real country of origin (and business). Although such behaviour is legal, it is clearly immoral. A company that makes billions of dollars from consumers in a particular country is morally obliged to pay taxes in that country, and in this way to contribute to that country’s social security systems, public infrastructure, healthcare, schools and so on. Escaping this responsibility, even if it’s legal, is not morally right.
Peter Singer’s Drowning Child thought experiment: If, on the way to the office, we saw a child drowning in a pond, would we think that we have to save it? Would it change anything if we were wearing a new suit and if we came late to our business conference because of saving the child?
The essential freedom of being human
So we can see that legal and moral rightness are two entirely different things. There are actions that are legally right but morally wrong; there are actions that are morally right but illegal; and then, there are also more or less wide areas of regulations where the legal and the moral coincide. So it’s not correct to say, for example, abortion is morally wrong because it is against the law. This is a bad argument, because the law itself might, in this case, be an immoral law. One might, of course, believe that abortion is morally wrong (or right), but that will have to be justified with an argument that is based on ethical theories and not by just referring to the laws of a particular place.
In the end, we all, as individuals, are called to decide what we consider to be morally right and wrong. It is part of what makes us human that we cannot give away this decision
, and let others decide for us. Each one of us needs to decide for themselves which actions they want to consider morally right or wrong, even if this goes against the laws of the state.
Beginning with Adam and Eve and that tree with the forbidden fruits, becoming truly human has always been about claiming the right to decide for oneself what one considers a permissible action. Moral autonomy and the freedom to decide for oneself is the essence of what makes us human, and is the basis for all that is valuable about us.