“When a law is unjust, it is only right to disobey.” Discuss.
The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas expounds a philsophical perspective close to human ideals, as it features people leaving their utopian home (Omelas) in refusal of participating in an unjust community. In essence, it captures people who are unwilling to comply with immoral social rules, forsaking a future in paradise, owing to moral diligence. This moral quandary, closer to home, manifests into activism, rebellion, and other expressions of bubbling indignation; At its worse, disobedience to Law — Law, beyond its common perception as a scale balancing justice and order, happens to be, in its rawest form: a mere social rule.
Laws consist of legislations, forged by humans, for humans, in pursuit of the common good. The very basis of these rules stem from a waning morality, satisfying our selfish whims and fantasies*, proving the fact that even if laws were inescapable enforcements, the morality underlying them is malleable. In the event that a law is unjust in nature, and has not been amended, it becomes unvirtuous in nature, for it instigates harm to be done in pursuit of the common good, which offends any true progress of attaining it. Therefore, since laws are meant to be built upon morality, obeying immoral ones would mean obeying something that is not law, and it is only right to disobey them. For instance, in 1944 during Nazi rule, a woman denounced her husband to the Gestapo under the Nazi Statue Act for his insults on Hitler’s conduct of the war. The husband was initially sentenced to the Russian front, but was eventually put to death. Post-war however, the woman was prosecuted, for infringing on her husband's rights to liberty. This case has been the talk among many jurists, particularly Lon Fuller, a Professor at Harvard Law School, who argued that because the Nazi law had deviated far from morality, it had failed to qualify as law. Thus, the husband who previously rebelled against the absolute dictatorship; However unlawful it had been at the time of the law, is entirely justifiable.
Critics often argue that laws are structures meant to be respected and obeyed, since they ensure order in society. This claim places blatant trust on legal systems, which is merely a human-made construct prone to flaws. For instance, arguing that it is wrong to disobey unjust laws, would mean equivalent to subscribing to deterministic norms. This very ideology itself, is inhumane, because it oppresses the inherent human nature to question and rebuild, and is farther from today’s progressive ideals. Such stances row back to the introduction of rigid commandments, brought about by ethnocentric ideologies, often by the use of force. This era of determinism saw the rise of stringent laws, often accompanied by vile punishments, such as being boiled alive or cut in gallows, for licentiousness. It also marked an advent of moral regression, where slavery, misogyny, racism, and countless vices flourished. Fortunately, owing to our evolution, the moral climate soon changed, due to reformations in both religion and law; One of the greatest reforms, away from the non-empirical, rigid Natural Law, is the emergence of legal theories. Notably, John Locke’s social contract, where he encourages a general obedience to law but to rise against state infringements on rights of “liberty, property and life.”. Additionally, because unjust laws cannot yield justice — obeying it would make us perpetrators for allowing that injustice to occur. Therefore, because it is ethical to challenge unjust laws, and because the only way is via disobedience, we must try to act by the utterances of a Roman emperor, “let justice be done though the heavens fall.”.
It is also crucial to understand that humans, inherently, do not “obey” laws; we comply with law, to prevent ourselves from punishment. Ken Binmore, a renowned game theorist and philosopher, recognises that “rights” are merely rules whereby we discern actions that are not “punishable” and “duties” are actions taken to avoid punishment. Since we only comply with laws, the way to deal with an unjust law would mean non-compliance. Although this solution is not as extreme as disobedience is, it still condemns immorality, often resorting to alternate ways to seek fairness. For example, many women in the US, drive across states to have their abortion done, if their state had overturned the Roe v Wade ruling. This is similar to the case of Omelas, where proponents of justice, reject (not evade) injustice, and do not comply with such laws. However, this Exit vs Voice strategy is not feasible in real-world contexts, isolating only one method: disobedience. We also abide by laws in expectancy that other people do, placing law as a calibrator of equilibrium. This equilibrium is disrupted by the occasional imbalance caused by uproars (comprising the majority of a population*) against unjust law. Hence, while it is not wrong to obey an unjust law, it definitely would be wrong to not disobey (or not to simply accept), not for the sake of homogeneity, but that of a social equilibrium.
Morals are universal, and laws are built upon them. If laws do not reflect morality, it is a sign that they should be re-amended. However, if this action is not completed, and law remains unjust, it is only right to disobey, for there is no better means to fix it. This is due to the power of legal systems, usually forged by the social elite, between which and the working class is a disparity, not just by economic means, but by communication. As such, voices can be heard, only if something beyond the norm occurs — which is to disobey the law. Although detractors may argue that disobeying the law is fatal and endangers life, especially in extreme jurisdictions, an unjust law is equally as cruel, given the extent of control over which law has, over a common man.
*I allude to an ethical concept here: Humans are moral as a result of their selfish desires (Ironically).
*John Rawls Concept of Justice as Fairness: This is because, behind a veil of ignorance — a near-perfect state of ignorance — Because people are unaware of each others’ race, sexuality, class, etc, they agree on a common set of moral principles
Raymond Wacks, The Philosophy of Law (Oxford University Press 2006)
Raymond Wacks, Law (Oxford University Press 2006)
Alex Voorhoeve, Conversations on Ethics (Oxford University Press 22 October 2009)