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Is it okay to disobey a just law just because you disagree with it? For example,

Is it okay to disobey a just law just because you disagree with it? For example, take under-age drinking of alcohol. In various parts of the world there is a general disagreement about when it is a right age to drink alcohol. In the United States, the drinking age is 21. Many choose to begin drinking at an earlier age because they feel they have a right to do so. What philosophical problems are there with disobeying a just law?

Of course, it isn't morally acceptable to disobey a law merely because you disagree with it (you seem to be confusing the concept of a 'law' with the concept of a 'suggestion'). Let's suppose I'm an American driving in Europe and I want to drive on the right side of the street simply because I prefer it and find the government's insistence that I drive on the left side to be unintuitive and intrusive. This would likely result in someone getting hurt... most likely me. Laws like this one are designed to promote public order and protect people.

I think the drinking age is a good example of this pattern (that laws we disagree with are often there to protect us and promote public order). The drinking age was raised to 21 in the USA largely to cut down on drunk driving accidents and injuries. And (statistically speaking) it has worked rather well. I admit that laws like this one do hinder the liberty of more responsible young adults for the sake of the 'greater good,' but it is hard to argue with thousands of lives saved. In fact, I have a good friend who is a trauma surgeon at the local ER... he says that he would likely be out of work if alcohol were outlawed entirely since the most frequent feature in the patients he sees such as those from car accidents, injuries from violence, etc. is the use of alcohol.... (not that either of us would really like it if alcohol were outlawed).

So the most obvious problems with disobeying a just law are the possible harmful consequences to ourselves and others. There are probably other problems... for example if I break a law that is unnecessary (but not necessarily unjust) I may weaken the authority of the lawgiver and encourage others to break more important laws.

I think that in cases of horrific crimes, the death penalty is acceptable, or

I think that in cases of horrific crimes, the death penalty is acceptable, or even required by retributive justice. However, I think this only applies to cases where there is absolutely no room for doubt. I also think that there really are such cases where there is 100% certainty e.g. the perpetrator was seen by many witnesses and confesses, plus as much additional evidence as you need. Unfortunately, if we only make convictions where we have the luxury of this certainty, we set the bar too high, and many guilty people escape conviction. Inevitably, under any reasonable judicial system there will be people charged for crimes they didn’t commit. But when you are charged with a crime, you are thereby unequivocally guilty, and there’s no way of charging someone with being guilty with the qualification, “he might not have done it” and another “he’s guilty of the crime and there’s no doubt”. In the eyes of the law, a guilty verdict is definitive; you did it, end of story. Is there a problem with this either...

You make two good points. On the first, re death penalty, I would agree that there are cases where it's crystal clear that the accused is guilty. But this is really beside the point. The question is whether we can design a mechanism that correctly identifies these cases. In the absence of such a mechanism, we must be especially reluctant to use the death penalty.

Your other point is that perhaps we should incorporate into criminal verdicts an assessment (by the judge or jury) of the degree of certainty. But again, there is the question how accurate this assessment would be. And there is the further point that it would look quite bad to impose a severe punishment on someone with the comment that we've just barely reached the minimally required level of certainty. Better then perhaps to handle this issue unofficially: just as jurors sometimes acquit someone who very clearly did what the law proscribes when they feel the person did nothing wrong (example: the killing of a suffering and terminally ill spouse), a judge may sometimes impose a lesser penalty because she is less than fully convinced that the person really committed the crime.

And a possibly interesting footnote on this second point. In the case of acquittals, as well, one could incorporate an assessment (by the judge or the jury) of the degree of certainty. And this is actually done, I believe, in Scottish jurisprudence, which allows -- aside from "guilty" and "innocent" -- a third verdict of "not proven." The accused goes free, but has not been fully cleared of the charges brought against her or him.

Is racial profiling immoral because it is ineffective? For instance, would the

Is racial profiling immoral because it is ineffective? For instance, would the racial profiling of blacks become increasingly justifiable if blacks increasingly became criminals?

I've argued for an affirmative answer in my response to question 2466. This appears also to be the view of Joseph Levine (response to question 2535). If these earlier responses leave you unsatisfied, then please write in again and say what these reasons are.

When Peter King recently decried Michael Jackson as a pedophile, Al Sharpton et.

When Peter King recently decried Michael Jackson as a pedophile, Al Sharpton et. al were quick to point out that Jackson had never actually been convicted on sex offense charges. (This seems to me a very common way of arguing.) When it comes to allegations of wrongdoing, are all important considerations about what is reasonable to believe or maintain as true exhausted by the judicial process? If someone is found guilty or not-guilty of a crime, does this settle the matter, not simply of whether he should be legally punished or imprisoned, but also of how we should regard the allegations generally?

No, the law is not perfect or even adequate in assigning moral blame or approval, but then no smoke without fire does not work epistemologically or morally either.

What should we make of the Dickson verdict? UK prisoner Kirk Dickson and his

What should we make of the Dickson verdict? UK prisoner Kirk Dickson and his wife Lorraine made various appeals to achieve their right to found a family. Dickson is in prison for murder and by the time he is released his wife will be too old to bear children. The couple campaigned for Dickson's right to donate sperm to be used via IVF. Their appeal was granted based upon the idea that if Dickson was not allowed to do this, it would be a violation of his basic right to found a family. I think that lots of questions can be raised from this: Do criminals sacrifice their right to found a family when committing a crime? If not, should their right be acknowledged through the use of IVF - what about alternative methods that cost less money? The biggest question for me is based upon the fact that six more prisoners have petitioned for their right to become fathers. But what happens when prisoners petition for their right to become mothers? This adds a whole new element to the debate but the state cannot deny...

I'm with you. But for me, the concern is not so much men vs. women and their respective rights, but the nature of punishment and who really ought to become a parent. The crucial problem with this case is that the murderer in question is currently incarcerated. There are certain rights which prisoners maintain, despite their crimes. The right to medical care. The right to worship. The right to have access to legal counsel. The right to live in a place that is safe while incarcerated. Putting someone in a dank hole to rot isn't justice, no matter the crime committed.One of the many social purposes of incarceration is punishment.

Punishment ought to hurt, but not too much (see note on dark hole above). No doubt it is painful for prisoners not to be able to do things that free people otherwise enjoy. But this strikes us as the fair price paid for committing crimes. I think the human right to have a family is on shaky grounds, much more shaky than the right for prisoners to have health, spiritual, and legal care. One reason for this is our tradition of human rights long predates the required biotechnology. Locke and Hobbes just weren't worried about smuggling sperm out of jail. A better reason why we shouldn't think of prisoners as having a human right to have a family while incarcerated is the potential life at stake: the future child. Society should come to the point of admitting that ethically, not everyone ought to become a parent. Who would I ban from parenting? It would be a great list to debate. But people currently incarcerated sounds like a good place to start.It would be taking things too far to say that convicted murderers should never become parents. If someone earns parole, turns his life around, and becomes a model citizen then I think - as far as the law is concerned - a convicted murderer might have the same chance that anyone else has to parent. Of course, would I say the same thing if the person in question was a convicted child molester-murder? Probably not, but my concern again would be ethics and not the reach of the law.

Are there ever occasions when justice might require the law to be broken?

Are there ever occasions when justice might require the law to be broken?

Yes. Clear cases are ones where the agent has strong reasons to believe that (1) the law is unjust, (2) compliance would cause substantial harm, and (3) non-compliance would neither (3a) lose much greater benefits, nor (3b) cause harm of comparable magnitude or (3c) unreasonable cost upon the agent. The Nazi period offers examples. Justice required German citizens in typical circumstances not to obey a law that mandated that they report Jews to the authorities for internment in concentration camps. This is so because German citizens knew, or could and should have known, that (1) the internment of Jews (and others) was unjust, (2) reporting a non-interned Jew to the authorities was very likely to harm this person greatly, (3a) the internment of the person reported would not bring any substantial benefit, (3b) the non-internment of the person would cause no harm comparable to the harm of internment, and (3c) not reporting a Jew was typically without risk to the agent (at least when one could plausibly plead ignorance).

We usually assume that there is law in a society only if that society has its...

We usually assume that there is law in a society only if that society has its... laws. But I would like to ask if you think there is another important sense of "law" or of "legal matters" (I'm a law student). Suppose Pete goes to some wise and strong person, Justine, and tells her: "I want that guy, Pat, to be forced to give me back the tool I lent him, since the time has passed when he sould give it back to me, according to what we agreed." As far as I see it, if Justine wants to hear Pete and Pat and have some intervention in their dispute, she has a legal question in hands. She will be like a judge. I think that some questions are legal irrespective of whether some group of people has any previous legal organization. This story between Pete, Pat and Justine could take place on a desert island where the three might have just arrived coming from different places.

As you say, Justine would be "like" a judge, but I don't think that actually makes her a the sort of judge who presides over a court of law. She might be making a moral judgment or even a political judgment. Clearly, ideas like what one "should" and should not do are operant here, and clearly it seems to be relevant to appeal to reasons, such as the agreement Pete and Pat made. But those are also the sort of things to which friends or students or romantic partners appeal in disputes. You don't have, however, a formalized legal code. Procedures for adjudication and appeal. Etc. So, while I'd say you have some of the elements of the rule of law or legal institutions, what you describe isn't quite sufficient to warrant describing their situation as "legal."

Dred Scot v. Stanford, Supreme Court rules slavery is constitutional.

Dred Scot v. Stanford, Supreme Court rules slavery is constitutional. Plessy v. Ferguson, Supreme Court rules segregation is constitutional. Today they’ve allowed the government to spy on its own citizens. They’ve outlawed partial birth abortion. They’ve pursued pro-torture policies. The Supreme Court is appointed, not elected. I was never given any say in WHO gets to be a Justice. While the President is only allowed a max of eight years in office, and legislators have to repeatedly struggle for re-election…the justices serve for life and there’s no way for us to remove them from office. …Considering that they’re the ones who get to decide what the constitution means, (Mauburry v. Madison, Judicial Review) don’t you think this seems a bit out of place in the American government? I mean…they tell us what our constitution means, and there’s nobody to check it. Seems tyrannical, primitive, undemocratic, and out of place in an republic government to me.

Of course, if you vote, you do get at least an indirect say in who's on the court. And after all, your say in a good many matters is only indirect.

In any case, if the question is what the Constitution means, there's something unappetizing about having the check be one that's too directly tied to the political realm. Constitutions are supposed to set some things beyond the reach of the ordinary democratic process, not least so as to evade what some call the "tyranny of the majority."

But in any case, it's not as though there are no counterweights. Some have held that Congress has the authority to declare that some matters are simply outside the purview of the Court, though I gather that this is controversial. But if the Court makes a constitution ruling that enough people object to, the Constitution can be amended, and has been many times.

More generally, what strikes me (as someone born elsewhere) is that far from being "primitive," the American system of checks and balances - including checks and balances on the Court itself - is actually both supple and subtle.

During the 2004 Presidential Debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry

During the 2004 Presidential Debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry campaign a young female college student asked John Kerry about abortion and his political position on this issue. Kerry responded first by asserting that he is a Roman Catholic and that he did not endorse or feel good about the practice; but he added that he also believed that “articles of faith”, by which I presume he meant a religious belief about the moral status of abortion, are not matters of legislation or law (a position I fundamentally agree with). Kerry’s response seems to assume that morality, or at least morality based on religion, should not be a part of law; however, it also appears to me that it is difficult to imagine where law would derive its power if not from some kind of (religious?) moral basis. I have been trying to see how Kerry’s comment is intelligible in light of the dilemma of how laws would have any kind of power, or that there would be any justification for their authority, without some kind of moral...

The question "What is the basis of morality?" is obviously an extremely difficult one, and it can sometimes seem as if there are as many answers to that question as there are philosophers who have thought about it. Or maybe more. But I take it that the questioner's central worry is whether there is any real possibility that law might not "derive its power...from some kind of (religious?) moral basis". And that is quite a different matter.

There are, I think, two important things to say about this. First, it's not at all clear that religion is capable of providing the kind of basis for morality that is sought. This is often regarded as one of the central points of Plato's great dialogue Euthyphro. There, Socrates poses the question, whether what is good is good because the Gods will it, or whether the Gods will what is good because it is good. And his point is that neither answer is very happy. If what is "good" is good only because the Gods will it, then even torturing babies for fun would be good if the Gods had happened to will it, and what they will, on this view, is not constrained by any prior moral facts. So what is good ends up being kind of arbitrary, and the view of radical Islamists, say, that blowing up the World Trade Center was good becomes perfectly comprehensible. It's just a view about what the Gods will. But if the Gods will what is good because it is good, and presumably because they recognize its goodness, then what is good is independent of what the Gods will, and religion provides no basis for morality. You might find out what is good by finding out what the Gods will, but there might just as well be other ways, too, since what is good comes first, and what the Gods will comes second.

Now, as the questioner rightly notes, it needn't really be religion that provides a basis for morality. And what is at issue here needn't even be what the basis for morality is, in some fundamental sense. The worry might be, more fundamentally, that people's moral views are thoroughly tied up with their relatively individual points of view---their religious beliefs, in some very broad sense---and it is hard to see how law can get by wholly independently of morality. This question, I take it, could also be put this way: How can questions about political justice be independent of questions about morality? And if we think the latter is tied up with religion and the like, doesn't political justice too become tied up with religion and the like? Well, I can't answer that question. What I can say is that it is, in many ways, the question that has animated "liberal" political theory since John Locke---and here "liberal" just means: fundamentally concerned with individual freedom (which is what Liberals too are fundamentally concerned with, whatever you may hear from O'Reilly and the like). It is very explicitly the central concern of John Rawls's second great book, Political Liberalism. So if you really want to come to grips with that question, you might start with Locke's Two Treatises on Civil Government and Letter on Toleration, continue with Rousseau's Social Contract, and then have a look at Rawls's Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism.

Some proponents argue that in the judicial system, matters of policy reasons are

Some proponents argue that in the judicial system, matters of policy reasons are best left in the hands of Parliament to decide. For instance, cases involving moralities which appear before the courts such as deviant sexual practices, assisted suicide and the likes where consent is clearly given and that these practices have not yet been made illegal/unlawful. In these cases, is it over the board to say that judges who decide based on the general consensus of morality in a particular society are interfering with one’s conduct (because it has not yet been made illegal/unlawful) even though it is generally understood that these practices are inherently wrong? Can this statement be countered by Dicey’s third postulate on the rule of law that the courts are the guardians of citizens’ rights and that judicial activism is necessary to solidify a common morality? Or is it best for a judge to merely sit back and apply the law as it is, despite knowing that had Parliament decided on these issues, it would be...

This question merits a much longer answer than I am capable of giving. But, with apologies for the compression, I'd say that the distinction between "activist" and "non-activist" judging is a popular-political distinction, not really one with much philosophical basis. Both the legislature and the judiciary produce new law and nullify old law, and they have always done so. They create and nullify law, however, in different ways--the legislature by enacting new legal codes, the courts by issuing rulings. Nor, however, is the line between the law and morality a clean one to draw. And, so, while I think it proper (indeed unavoidable) for the judiciary to enact new law, I also think it proper for judges to appeal to custom and common morality in rulings (for example in matters of indecency). Appeals to custom and common morality, however, must be balanced and in some cases simply limited by stipulated rights of non-interference and claim rights. They must also be balanced by countervailing lines of reasoning which may properly persuade courts that custom should be over-ruled. A clear set of principles to weight or establish an unequivocal hierarchy for (a) constitutional rights, (b) custom and common morality, and (c ) lines of independent reasoning cannot, I think, be given. The dynamic process of legal reasoning by means of precedent, guiding principles, clouds of norms, empirical studies, etc., is meant to work out this balance. As a general rule of thumb, however, constitutional rights trump the rest.