When Should You Not Follow The Law?

A system of laws, or rules that we all must follow, is one of the crowning achievements of our society. The law makes civilization possible, so that different people can work together to do more than any individual could manage on their own.

At the same time, there have been, and will continue to be, bad laws that have been enacted. Laws can be unfair, either intentionally or unintentionally. And if there is a bad law, good people cannot be expected to follow it.

Sometimes, even good laws are broken. It is a rare individual indeed who has not jaywalked at least once in their life, but the existence of crosswalks increase public safety. Speeding on the road is common, even though speed limits are in place for a very good reason — they save lives.

But how does someone determine which laws should and should not be followed? The law itself allows our civilization to function, and any sort of mass, consistent breaking of the law by a significant portion of the populace would cause society to break down. Conversely, blindly following unjust laws could also lead to to an unjust society.

As individuals, we have a duty to follow the laws that our peers have agreed upon. However, we also have a duty to stand up to injustice, even if that means breaking the law.

How can we determine which is which? When should you not follow the law? What should the consequences be for someone who breaks an unjust or unfair law? Should we only try and amend unfair laws, or is it important to break them when necessary? When is it necessary?

Related questions: What are our responsibilities to others? When is a lie justified? What do you do that you shouldn’t? Where does authority come from?

2 thoughts on “When Should You Not Follow The Law?”

  1. No comments yet? I guess the lawyer can start things off…

    The obvious answer is when the law itself is harming someone. We’ve seen this with slavery and Jim Crow.

    I work with families in extreme poverty, which is sometimes reinforced by welfare laws. I’ve known families that have committed technical welfare fraud by working for cash to feed their kids and not reporting it because they can’t make ends meet without their full grant. Here, the law is interfering with basic physical survival. That’s what distinguishes a poor family working for unreported cash, in my mind, from the white-collar criminal who steals to maintain the lifestyle he believes himself entitled to.

    I would also point out that there are a lot of laws that are supposed to be binding on government, which government fails to follow because they’re inconvenient.

  2. I agree with Ben on all his points.

    What I’d offer additionally has to do with large, organized campaigns to break the law in order to provide a platform for a few chosen participants to decry a different, immoral law. For example, mass participation in blocking a road to give some the platform to call attention to police brutality. In this case, you want your chosen protesters (sometimes everyone) to get arrested and your chosen speakers to raise the issue of police brutality.

    The action needs to strategic and impactful. It needs to garner more support for your cause.

    I raise this issue because sometimes anarchist-types like to invade a protest and introduce chaos to the situation, taking over the narrative and sending a message of lawlessness.

    Again, the people chosen to be arrested and/or speak must make sure the correct message is conveyed.

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