Is There a Moral Obligation to Obey the Law?

Topics: Law, Argumentative, Argument map Pages: 9 (2868 words) Published: April 26, 2005
‘Must we only obey a just law; should we obey a law because it is just to do so; or else can we not obey at all?' ESSAY

The questions that shall be answered in this essay are ‘Must we only obey a just law?', ‘Should we obey a law because it is just to do so?' and ‘Or else, can we not obey at all?'
Before we can answer these questions it is important to establish what is meant by the term ‘just'. ‘Just' in this case means ‘morally just', I think, but differences of opinion exist as to its meaning. For the purpose of this essay, I shall take ‘just' to mean ‘fair' in the way Rawls indicates when he writes about the veil of justice in 1971: the every-day-sense of the term the average person would agree about.

Should we obey a law because it is just to do so?

The first question I shall address is whether one should obey a law ‘because it is just to do so'. Woozley in 1979 states: If political leaders and police chiefs had their way, all of us would believe that a powerful reason (possibly the principle, if not the only, reason) that we should obey a law is that it is a law. In fact, with the exception of a special class of laws, it is no reason at all.

This is the core of discussion whether there is a general moral obligation to obey the law. This discussion started in the 1970's in the United States. The background to it was the civil rights movement in the United States, and the Vietnam War with its political scandals. People who disagreed with the governments' policies started arguing that sometimes, a citizen is justified in acting illegally. The question is: does a citizen have a moral duty to obey the law and if so, why?

In the writings of Honoré, Raz, Smith, Finnis and Bix there are many arguments for and against a general moral obligation to obey. Often, they take each other's ideas as a basis and develop or counter argue them. I shall give a synopsis of five arguments in favour of a general moral obligation to obey, and give my own and theorists' counterarguments. More arguments in favour and against a general moral obligation to obey the law exist than these five, but I shall take those that are clearest and mentioned most often.


The first argument in favour of a general moral obligation to obey the law is provided by … the Greek philosopher Plato and is known as the benefit or gratitude argument. It is the idea that for those who receive substantial benefits from the state it is immoral not to respond with the small obligation government asks in return namely to obey the law. Indeed, almost all citizens of a country, even when undemocratic, receive benefits from the state. These can be police protection, free education or social benefits, but also simpler things as the provision of roads, electricity, or water. If the benefits are considered ‘substantial', they imply a moral obligation to obey the government's laws as an expression of gratitude. Although there are many ways to counter argue this argument, it is perhaps natural the argument appeals to people who find their government a just one.
There are several counterarguments.
It is argued for example, that the benefits of the state are not asked for, but automatically given. We are born into citizenship and therefore, the benefits we receive are ‘forced' upon us and we might like them non-existent or different.. But a stronger counterargument is provided by Raz. He claims that, in the case we should like to express our gratitude, we needn't necessarily express it by obeying the law, there being other ways of expressing our gratitude. Also, who judges whether the received benefits are substantial?


A second argument for a general moral obligation to obey the law is the argument of consent. This is the idea that by some action, or inaction, we have implicitly consented to obeying society's law. This action may be voting, accepting government benefits, or simply not...
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