Law and Order: When Is It Wrong To Follow The Law?

When law-breaking is moral and obedience is immoral

Philosophical contradictions (cognitive dissonance)

There have always been contradictions in the predominant (deeply right-wing) currents of political/moral thought in the state I call home, Alabama, that I have never made sense of.
For example, one moment a conservative is the most believingest true believer of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship to do anything, saying that all we need is government to remove itself and bootstraps individualism will solve every problem, then the same dude switches from rose-colored glasses to dystopian lenses, and suddenly Americans have no entrepreneurial spirit at all and only want to mooch off state aid. In this mode of thinking, conservatives presume Americans’ ambitions stop at being a hundredaire!

Similarly, the same conservatives that rail against the “nanny state” demand everyone on gov’t assistance be drug tested, the most intrusive, nanny statest program yet! Florida lost more money drug testing welfare recipients than anyone thought; source: No Savings Are Found From Welfare Drug Tests – New York Times. The program was pitched as massively culling the welfare rolls of druggies and saving untold millions, but very few people tested positive for narcotics, and the only thing that it did was waste money and punish and humiliate people. Hard black market drugs are far less affordable and available to the very poor than is assumed in the unreal fantasy world of the conservative echo chamber. Still, “fiscal conservatives” want this money-squandering testing, though the judicial branch increasingly blocks such testing as unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, there being no probable cause for everyone, just because they’re on state aid, to be urine-searched and intruded upon.

And of course during the Republican primary debates in ’08 and ’12 you have the contradiction of “free markets! Boo-yah!” and the position on the Mexico-U.S. border: seal it, wall it, snipers and barbed-wire electro-shock fences, and the more like the Berlin Wall it sounded and the more violent the language, the more carnal howls of bloodthirsty approval rang out from the debate audience. And no one noticed that the brutal approach to the border, blocking commerce and movement, is the opposite of free markets. One day the far-right may get their laser-turret dystopia on the Mexican border, but there’s no “freedom” about it.

OBEY ALL laws?

But today the main contradiction I’m exploring is this: law and order… why does the conservative insistence on OBEYING cover some things but not others? There is leniency for the powerful; we shelter the corrupt bankster, but tell the wayfaring immigrant and his pregnant wife “sorry, there’s no room at the inn.”

Why isn’t Cliven Bundy following the law? I don’t think he should if the law means his own destruction. …the law saying that Mexicans have to starve and be unable to afford to compete with subsidized U.S. corn and basically die rather than work in U.S., that is an evil law.

I believe in inalienable rights, a sort of natural law, inalienable and unmovable principles that are constant whether you’re Mexican or not, and regardless of disability, gender, outward appearance, age, etc., and one of those rights is the “right to resist” and non-violently civil disobedience-style defy laws that obviously lead to self destruction.

I want to have a morally consistent view. Of course Bundy’s grazing herds and non-paying of taxes is less bad than some of the legal bribe activities politicians do on a regular basis, the president ordering grandmas blown up by Predator missiles in Pakistan, etc., so it’s obvious to me that, while the law matters and shouldn’t be ignored willy-nilly, what is legal and what is right don’t enjoy 1:1 correlation.

“The British put a tax on salt, and said that Indians could not make their own salt. Gandhi walked with his followers 200 miles to the sea to break the law by gathering salt. Soon the jails were overflowing with Indians—and the British did away with the Salt Act.” – comic book panel from Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a December 1957 educational comic book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and non-violent civil disobedience.

And immigrants are even less offensive to my view of right and wrong. I’m an immigrant, all of us are, except for indigenous tribes.  In the mindset of the Tea Party type person, Cliven Bundy’s defiance of federal law is good, whereas the immigrant with no choice but to “illegally” cross because legal immigration is impossible for Mexicans (given the antiquated “quotas” being full) is hated and wrong. I don’t understand this, especially when immigrant laborers put food in your markets, meaning a direct relationship of sorts, and Bundy doesn’t.

We have a problem because natural law (and common-sense) increasingly conflicts with the growing reams of rules. We probably break 20 federal, state, local rules and regulations before lunch…

Gandhi was right to break the law forbidding indigenous salt gathering, as laws that are enacted solely to protect an evil corporate monopoly are inherently unjust and illegitimate.  Similarly, the real Tea Party, the Boston Tea Party, was also about defying the laws set up to benefit the royalist colonial trade monopoly.  Both were backlashes to the merging of corporation and state.

To be a truly moral actor you have to be willing to disobey the authority figure if you’re being ordered to do bad things. These moral dilemmas come to the fore surprisingly often in hospitals, with nurses and other hands-on staff having to make pivotal choices, like whether they should follow the nonsensical bureaucratic rule and potentially harm the patient, or disobey and potentially get fired or harassed by authority figures.

I’ll end on the definitive answer, from Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Letter from Birmingham Jail – April 16th, 1963




For more of my writing on disobeying the evil power structures of modern life, see my series When Life and Death Are “A Matter of Policy”