Is Breaking The Law Always Morally Wrong Essay

WHEN is it justified, then, for the citizen to act as his own legislator, and to decide that he will or will not obey a given law?

An answer that covers all the issues this question raises cannot be given here, nor can a set of principles be proposed that will allow anyone to make automatic and infallible judgments con­cerning the legitimacy or illegitimacy of specific acts of civil disobedience. Such judgments require detailed knowl­edge of the facts of specific cases, and such knowledge is often unavailable to the outsider. Nevertheless, it is possible to indicate some of the principal issues that are raised by civil disobedience, some of the more common mistakes that are made in thinking about these issues, and, at least in outline, the ap­proach that one man would take to­ward such issues.

We can be­

IT is possible, however, to take a mucn more moderate and plausible version of this position, and many quite rea­sonable people do. Such people concede that disobedience to the law can sometimes be legitimate and necessary under a despotic regime. They argue, however, that civil disobedi­ence can never be justified in a democratic society, because such a society provides its members with legal instru­ments for the redress of their grievances.

This is one of the standard arguments that is made, often quite sincerely, against the ac­tivities of people like sup­porters of the Congress of Ra­cial Equality, who set about changing laws they find ob­jectionable by dramatically breaking them. Such groups are often condemned for risk­ing disorder and for spreading disrespect for the law when, so it is maintained, they could accomplish their goals a great deal more fairly and patriot­ically by staying within the law, and confining themselves to the courts and to methods of peaceful persuasion.

Now it is perfectly true, I believe, that there is a strong­er case for obedience to the law, including bad law, in a democracy than in a dictator­ship. The people who must abide by the law have presum­ably been consulted, and they have legal channels through which to express their protests and to work for reform. One way to define democracy is to say that it is a system whose aim is to provide alternatives to civil disobedience. Never­theless, when applied to the kind of situation faced, say, by CORE, these generaliza­tions, it seems to me, become cruelly abstract.

THE basic fallacy in the proposition that, in a democ­racy, civil disobedience can never be justified, is that it confuses the ideals or aims of democracy with the inevitably less than perfect accomplish­ments of democracy at any given moment. In accordance with democratic ideals, the laws of a democracy may give rights and powers to individ­uals which, in theory, enable them to work legally for the elimination of injustices.

In actual fact, however,

Worse still, the majority may have demonstrated, in a series of free and honest elections, that it is unwavering in its support of what the minority regards as an unspeakable evil. This is obviously the case to­day in many parts of the South, where the white ma­jority is either opposed to de­segregation or not so impa­tient to get on with it as is the Negro minority. Are we prepared to say that majori­ties never err? If not, there is no absolutely conclusive reason why we must invariably give the results of an election great­er weight than considerations of elementary justice.

IT is true, of course, that one swallow does not make a summer, and that the test of legal democratic processes is not this or that particular success or failure, but rather the general direction in which these processes move over the long run. Still, the position that violation of the law is never justifiable so long as there are legal alternatives ov­erstates this important truth. It fails to face at least three important exceptions to it.

In the first place, dramatic disobedience to the law by a minority may be the only ef­fective way of catching the at­tention or winning the support of the majority Most classic cases of civil disobedience, from the early Christians to Gandhi and his supporters, ex­emplify this truth. Civil dis­obedience, like almost no other technique, can shame a ma­jority and make it ask itself just how far it is willing to go, just how seriously it really is committed to defending the status quo.

SECOND, there is the sim­ple but painful factor of time. If a man is holding you down on a bed of nails, it is all very well for a bystander to say that you live in a great coun­try in which there are legal remedies for your condition, and that you ought, therefore, to be patient and wait for these remedies to take effect. But your willingness to listen to this counsel will depend, quite properly, on the nature of the injury you are suffer­ing.

Third, it is baseless preju­dice to assume that observ­ance of the law is always con­ducive to strengthening a democratic system while dis­obedience to the law can never have a salutary effect. A ma­jority's complacent acquies­cence in bad laws can under­mine the faith of a minority in the power of democratic meth­ods to rectify manifest evils; yet a vigorous democracy de­

Disobedience to bad laws can sometimes jolt democratic processes into motion. Which strengthens one's hope for de­mocracy more — the behavior of the Negroes in Birmingham who broke municipal ordinanc­es when they staged their pro­test marches, or the behavior of the police, using dogs and fire hoses to assert their legal authority?

ANOTHER factor should also be taken into account. In our Federal system, there are often legitimate doubts con­cerning the legal validity, un­der our Constitution, of various state or local ordinances. Dis­obedience to these laws is in many cases simply a practical, though painful, way of testing their legality. But even where no thought of such a test is involved, there is often present a moral issue which no one can easily dodge—least of all the man whose personal dig­nity and self‐respect are caught up in the issue.

A citizen caught in a con­flict between local laws and

Yet there is another side to the story. It would be a mistake to conclude from what has been said that civil dis­obedience is justified, provided only that it is disobedience in the name of higher principles. Strong moral conviction is not all that is required to turn breaking the law into service to society.

Civil disobedience is not simply like other acts in which men stand up courageously for their principles. It involves violation of the law. And the law can make no provision for its violation except to hold the offender liable to punishment. This is why President Kennedy was in such a delicate position last spring at the time of the Negro demonstrations in Bir­mingham. He gave many signs that, as an individual, he was in sympathy with the goals of

We may admire a man like

In short, if anybody ever has a right to break the law, this cannot be a legal right under the law. It has to be a moral right against the law. And this moral right is not an unlim­ited right to disobey any law which one regards as unjust. It is a right that is hedged about, it seems to me, with important restrictions.

FIRST of all, the exercise of this right is subject to stand­ards of just and fair behavior. I may be correct, for example, in thinking that an ordinance against jaywalking is an un­necessary infringement of my rights. This does not make it reasonable, however, for me to organize a giant sit‐down strike in the streets which holds up traffic for a week. Conformity to the concept of justice requires that there be some proportion between the importance of the end one de­sires to attain and the power of the means one employs to attain it.

When applied to civil diso­

Although violence may be no part of the intention of those who practice civil disobedi­ence, the risks of violence are present, and are part of what must be taken into ac­count when a program of civil disobedience is being contem­plated.

In short, civil disobedience is a grave entefprise. It may sometimes be justified, but the

NOR is this the only limita­tion on the individual's moral right to disobey the law. The most important limitation is that his cause must be a just one. It was right for General de Gaulle to disobey Marshal Pétain; it was wrong for the commanders of the French Army in Algeria, 20 years lat­er, to disobey General de Gaulle.

Similarly, if it is absolutely necessary, and if the conse­quences have been properly weighed, then it is right to break the law in order to eliminate inequalities based on race. But it can never be nec­essary, and no weighing of

In sum, the goals of those who disobey the law have to lie at the very heart of what we regard as morality before we can say that they have a moral right to do what they are doing.

BUT who is to make these difficult decisions? Who is to say that onE man's moral prin­ciples are right and another man's wrong? We come here to the special function that civil disobedience serves in a society. The man who breaks the law on the ground that the law is immoral asks the rest of us, in effect, to trust him, or to trust those he trusts, in preference to the established conventions and authorities of our society.

He has taken a large and visible chance, and implicitly asked us to join him in taking that chance, on the probity of his personal moral judgment. In doing so, he has put it to us whether we are willing to take a similar chance on the probity of our own judgment.

Thomas Hobbes, who knew the trouble that rebels and dis­senters convinced of their recti­tude can cause, once remarked that a man may be convinced that God has commanded him to act as he has, but that God, after all, does not command other men to believe that this is so. The man who chooses to disobey the law on grounds of principle may be a saint, but he may also be a mad­man. He may be a courageous and lonely individualist, but he may also merely be taking orders and following his own crowd. Whatever, he may be, however, his existence tends to make us painfully aware that we too are implicitly making choices, and must bear responsibility for the ones we make.

THIS, indeed, may be the most important function of those who practice civil diso­bedience. They remind us that the man who obeys the law has as much of an obligation to look into the morality of his acts and the rationality of his society as does the man who breaks the law. The occurrence of civil disobedience can never be a happy phenomenon; when it is justified, something is seriously wrong with the so­ciety in which it takes place.

But the man who puts his conscience above the law, though he may be right or he may be wrong, does take personal moral responsibility for the social arrangements under which he lives. And so he dramatizes the fascinating and fearful possibility that those who obey the law might do the same. They might obey the law and support what exists, not out of habit or fear, but because they have freely chosen to do so, and are pre­pared to live with their con­sciences after having made that choice.

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  • Vigilantism isn't a good thing.

    Taking the law into your own hands is a dangerous thing to do. It can be one-sided, fueled with rage. Many people don't reflect on their motives and consider the other person's side. Police are there to carry out justice. Innocent people are often caught up in this illegal business as by-standers.

  • Laws are in place to protect the public.

    Never should there be a reason that you must break the law. Every law is put in place for protection and other reasons as well. When people break the law if makes look as if breaking the laws is okay. Laws are important and never should there be a reason to break them.

  • Not all laws are in placed to protect you.

    What about laws that are in placed with ideologies that do not protect the general public or the greater good? Laws are completely relative. There is a difference between laws of protection such as it being illegal to murder, or harm others. However there were once laws that were in place which directly violated an individual's basic human rights. Apartheids, same-sex marriage laws, abortion laws etc. Laws which attempt to control and create social obedience rather than protect, are destined to be broken. Look at MLK for example and his letter from Birmingham prison. He says it is a moral code to disobey unjust laws.

  • Never break the law

    You dont need to break the law. Its bad and if u do it then everyone will do it then where would we be? People breaking the law all the time. All it takes is that one person to break it first. I would not want to be that person.

  • The law is there to help you not hinder you

    Why bite the hand that feeds you. The law was put into place for a law book to justice, therefore there is a reason for which that rule was placed. If you really think that it is unjust flag it up to the police they’re always there to help. Don’t take matters into your own hands.

  • It's not illegal to break the law sometimes

    Atleast in my country the law states that in a case of emergency, you are allowed to break the law if it's needed. For example, if someone is trying to murder you, you can use self-defense. Still I see plenty of people saying that these emergency situations are the reason why breaking the law is sometimes OK. So... The law makes that illegal thing legal in those cases, so the whole argument doesn't even defend the point they are trying to make.

  • Oh yes, I know what i'm saying

    Cause I say so, i know what i am saying. We are all rule breakers. YOLO, rules are meant to be broken. If we follow the rules or not, we still gonna die. We all have the same ending. So why not break the law.



    I am kidding, follow the law, its the reason we are alive. Rules are good

  • Of course not

    Breaking the law is breaking the law. There is no question about it. Sure some laws are unjust, it doesnt mean they are meant to be broken. Rules are made to be broken? Does that apply to laws such as murder and rape? If people agree that it is permissible to break the law if the law is seen as unjust then that is basically saying that individuals can choose what laws apply to them.Maybe they see something like theft as an 'unjust law'. Does that give them the right to steal? If one saw attempted murder as unjust, does that give them a right to beating someone close to death? The answer is no. It is that simple. If there are no laws than it destroys our way of society, our way of living, one could argue it destroys our rights. I believe that it is not ever permissible to break the law. If we wave away just one person because of breaking an unjust law, what does that mean for society? Isn't that telling them, "that guy got away with breaking an unjust law, sweet i wont get punished for theft."
    this is my argument

  • Of course not

    Breaking the law is breaking the law. There is no question about it. Sure some laws are unjust, it doesnt mean they are meant to be broken. Rules are made to be broken? Does that apply to laws such as murder and rape? If people agree that it is permissible to break the law if the law is seen as unjust then that is basically saying that individuals can choose what laws apply to them.Maybe they see something like theft as an 'unjust law'. Does that give them the right to steal? If one saw attempted murder as unjust, does that give them a right to beating someone close to death? The answer is no. It is that simple. If there are no laws than it destroys our way of society, our way of living, one could argue it destroys our rights. I believe that it is not ever permissible to break the law. If we wave away just one person because of breaking an unjust law, what does that mean for society? Isn't that telling them, "that guy got away with breaking an unjust law, sweet i wont get punished for theft."
    this is my argument

  • Nope, nope, nope

    By the government breaking the law, people will start doubting the reason as to why they were set from the start. The laws are there to hold people back and show their limits as a human being and as a citizen of a bigger society. If the government, being the people we look up to when it comes to politics, were to break the law, what would hold Americans as to not follow their lead? Everything comes with its circumstances. One decision, especially one this big, will always hold multiple risks.
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