Why should we obey the law?obey-this-sign-weird-laws-strange-bizarre-funny-wacky-crazy-silly-law

If we say that morality leads us to obey law, then why have law at all? Is law simply a system of state-sponsored coercion to discourage us from misbehaving?

Should we simply respect the law as law. In other words, does the fact of legality as such create obligations for us beyond the moral obligations we already feel?

wcower7And when is it morally permissible – or even obligatory – to disobey unjust laws and institutions? That is, when should we engage in deliberate and principled law-breaking, i.e., civil disobedience?

It is a murky relationship between the very notion of law (what is law?) and the meaning of its authority (why should I obey it?). Many have attempted to clarify this murkiness. Three attempts, in particular, deserve our attention.

First, the conceptual. The law is the law; obey it! That’s just what law means. Period. Legitimate authority entails obedience, say proponents of this conceptual approach.  To say something is law is to say that it must be obeyed. Disobedience is thus wrong by definition. Notice how legality itself – not the content of the law – justifies the obligation to obey.

Second, the consequentialist. Obey the law, because if you don’t, then society will collapse. Legal compliance is good for society. Non-compliance is bad. It is bad because people will hurt each and trust will break down, among other consequences. Note how this argument opens the door to argue that sometimes breaking the law will be good if we can show beneficial effects from non-compliance.


Third, the contractual. We obey the law because we have agreed – whether explicitly or implicitly – to obey the law. The rulers and the ruled have entered into a pact. The rulers expect obedience because those ruled have consented. Their obedience is already due under their prior agreement. But note here too another open door: if the rulers break their side of the agreement, can the ruled then disobey?

Even with these three justifications – conceptual, consequentialist, and contractual – the link between law and obedience remains murky. Perhaps turning to the drama A Jury of Her Peers will clarify things in a different way. It will allow us to test the three justifications for obedience against the concrete events of the story and our own intuitive sense of these problems.

Let’s turn to A Jury of Her Peers.

Minnie Foster strangles her husband while he sleeps. She breaks the law.

When the sheriff, the prosecutor and the neighbor who discovered the crime visit the Foster house to investigate the scene, they’re accompanied by the sheriff’s wife and the neighbor’s wife, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, respectively. As the men search the house for clues, the women begin to see signs that Minnie had quietly suffered  years of abuse at the hands of her husband. The men miss these signs. The men, in fact, interpret much of the same evidence – a messy kitchen and a bad stove, for instance – to signify Minnie’s shoddy homemaking and insufficient subservience to her husband.

In response, the two women tacitly conspire to hide evidence of Minnie’s motive and to color the investigating men’s perception of the crime scene. They clean the kitchen to remove evidence of disorderliness that may reflect poorly on Minnie in an all-male jury’s eyes. They fix sloppy sewing on Minnie’s quilt to veil the likely turmoil of her mind. They hide Minnie’s dead bird – who died in apparent violence, perhaps again at Mr. Foster’s hands – to conceal evidence of motive in Minnie. The women act in these silent ways, hoping that their actions will stifle the men’s investigation into Minnie’s motive and thereby hinder her prosecution at trial.

Thus, one crime – Minnie’s killing of her husband – is compounded by another – the cover-up by the women. Or is it?

1. Did Minnie break the law? Do Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale break the law?

2. How and why do the men and women interpret the evidence differently?

3. Whose interpretation is correct?

4. How do you interpret the same evidence?

5. Do you condone the actions of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale? Why did they do it?

6. What would you do, and why?


  1. Paul Aker says:

    Of course, there are no easy answers. That is the law of literature and philosophy. However, I think the “law” (in this country) simply defines what we collectively consider an acceptable society. By design, the law changes through formalized process when needed. That is its strength and weakness. That is why the concepts of civil disobedience and jury nullification tempt our moral intuition and simultaneously offend our sense of order stability.

  2. Catherine Kirk says:

    I’d agree that the law of the this country for the most part defines what we collectively consider “good behavior.” Or, more properly, it defines what is unacceptable behavior since enforceable (criminal) law that has a specified consequnce is worded to direct what “no person shall…” do. Historically this is true. However, increasingly there are attempts to use the law to direct people to do and not do things based on a given agenda or for “feel good” reasons. I can think of very few examples of “poor behavior” that is not already prohibited under an existing statute. And the “poor behavior” that is prohibited is easily identified by a concrete negative outcome, usually met on “innocent” bystanders, that the law seeks to protect. Yet, we continue to have “feel good” legislation to say that we “have done something about” a perceived problem. As a relatively sterile, non-political example: mc helmet laws. Ohio does not have one (except for those with a probationary endorsement) for a good reason. A helmet saves only the person who crashes and has no value whatsoever to the motoring public at large. Eye protection, on the other hand, does have a value to the motoring public: if a mc operator gets something in his eye that causes him not to be able to see or lose control of the bike, then this can have a concrete negative outcome on an innocent. Seatbelts, believe it or not, can be viewed under a similar concept. They are required in Ohio for the front seat: keep the driver and front seat passneger in their seats so the driver is able to control the car without interruption. They are not required in the back seat because if the back seat passenger interrputs the driver, it is either purposeful or the crash has already occurred… It really has little to do with being injured in crash and almost everything to do with preventing a crash. But I think we get into trouble when we allow more laws because someone (insurance giant) uses a pretty good argument (public safety and public health) to get their way (seatbelts, and helemts, and knee and elbow pads…yes, this was acctually discussed as a law in Columbus).

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