Rawls [6], “Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play,” (1964)

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?

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4 Responses to Rawls [6], “Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play,” (1964)

  1. Lime says:

    I’m actually with Ronald Dworkin here. I think an important consideration, in a constitutional democracy like the United States, is whether the law violates an individual’s rights. If a law (arguably) is unconstitutional, then I think an individual is under less obligation to obey, even if the law is the product of a duly elected legislature. In some cases, it might even be morally praiseworthy for an individual to break the law, to become a test case for the courts.

    That said, this very real life consideration (probably at play in the Arizona case) just pushes the aged-old philosophical question to the side. The question in the above case is not so much whether an individual has a duty to obey a law that they find unjust, but whether the product of the legislature is, in fact, a valid law. We could just reformulate the question. Suppose that a law is the product of a duly elected legislature and clearly not a violation of individual rights, yet nonetheless unjust. Does fairness demand adhering to that law? I don’t know what I believe, but I’m willing to be convinced!

  2. Juan says:

    for someone who doesn’t think the law is morally binding,like i tend to be, you are not doing anything immoral if you don’t report people.
    but Rawls also has something about civil disobedience,although i don’t remember exactly what he says.this case would probably warrant civil disobedience even for Rawls.so there are ways out even on his theory.otherwise,we would be morally complied to obey any stupid law,no matter how racist or whatever.but that’s ridiculous,and it would disqualify any theory about obedience to the law.

  3. Lime says:

    Yes, I am curious to see how David’s summary of “The Justification of Civil Disobedience” compares to this post. Good stuff.

  4. David says:

    Thanks for the responses. It’s true that Rawls allows for the possibility of justified civil disobedience, but his position is clearly not that one is justified in breaking any law (civil disobedience) that one deems unjust. Indeed, in “Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play,” he argues that we may be obligated to obey even a law that we KNOW is unjust (and not just BELIEVE is unjust.) So the question is: when, according to Rawls, may an unjust law be broken (justified civil disobedience) and when may it not (legal obligation)? Does Rawls have a clear answer to this question? Is it unreasonable to expect a clear answer?

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