Suppose we are legal residents of Arizona, and a law has recently been passed which demands of all legal residents that they report suspected illegal immigrants to the local authorities. (Never mind for the moment how such a law could possibly be enforced.) Suppose furthermore that I think this law is unjust, and, additionally, I think that widespread compliance with the law will do more (social) harm than good. Suppose finally that I report these two beliefs to you but tell you that I am going to comply with the law anyway, because, well, it’s the law, and I have a moral obligation to obey the law.
You might find my compliance objectionable. You might think, indeed, that if I believe the law in unjust (and indeed have good reasons for that belief), and also believe that compliance with the law will do more harm than good (also well founded), but comply with it anyway, then I’m not acting morally at all but rather just trying to avoid the sanctions that go along with noncompliance.
But no, I insist, my reason for complying with the unjust law is rooted in morality, not self-interest. The law, after all, was created by the duly elected legislature of my state–it is, as I say, a procedurally just law. And look, I add, the law only works–it only secures the goods of security and social order–when those subject to it agree to defer to the law in cases where it conflicts with one’s own beliefs about what is just and one’s own beliefs about what is socially advantageous. I point out that if everyone followed the law only when it accorded with their individual assessments of justice and utility, the law could not achieve its significant social benefits. Summing up, I tell you this: those who endorse the law–the majority of people within my state, let us suppose–have a right to my compliance, since certainly some of these people comply with laws that they find objectionable but that I endorse. I benefit from their compliance, and from the fact that they defer to the law over their individual judgment, and it is only fair that they should receive the same benefit from me. Finally, I assure you: I’m going to protest the law–indeed I’ve already drafted a letter to my representative, and begun planning a demonstration with others that deem the law unjust–but I will protest the law using only the means legally provided for and not by breaking the law.
As far as I can tell my reasoning here expresses the spirit (though not the letter) of Rawls’s argument in support of a moral obligation to obey the law, as presented in “Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play.” Is this at all convincing? Suppose my friend hears me out but says, “To hell with that–I’m not reporting anybody.” Is his subsequent non-compliance immoral? Is he treating me unfairly?