Is There A Moral Obligation To Obey Unjust Laws? 

The title of this topic is as it is because there is actual uncertainty about the topic as long as the historicity of philosophers on the topic is concerned. Obligation to obey the law entails a reason to do that which the law requires.

In explaining how one could justify obeying or disobeying the law on moral grounds, two highly revered figures and their contrasting reactions to laws they deemed unjust will be employed. These figures are; 

Martin Luther King Jr.


Socrates (Moral Justification to Obey the Law)

In Crito (a dialogue between Crito and Socrates written by Plato), Crito requested to help Socrates out of prison after he was sentenced to death by the Council of Athens; that which Socrates declined in spite of his ineluctable execution provided he stayed. Socrates doing so because of the perceived moral obligation to obey the law. In short the philosopher said; 

Then will they not say: ‘You, Socrates, are breaking the covenants and agreements which you made with us at your leisure, not in any haste or under any compulsion or deception, but having had seventy years to think of them, during which time you were at liberty to leave the city, if we were not to your mind, or if our covenants appeared to you to be unfair. You had your choice, and might have gone either to Lacedaemon or Crete, which you often praise for their good government, or to some other Hellenic or foreign state, or, in other words, of us her laws (for who would like a State that has no laws?), that you never stirred out of her: the halt, the blind, the maimed, were not more stationary in her than you were. And now you run away and forsake your agreements…” 

In this sense, Socrates assumed one had the moral obligation to obey the law even when such laws contravened one’s personal assumption of that which is just or unjust.  Thus, one might be compelled to obey laws made by the State to protect All Individuals in effect to meeting a perceived higher moral principle that calls for that. 

But that’s never always the case so long as moral justifications in having a moral obligation to obeying laws are concerned. The second example calls for that.

Martin Luther King Jr. (Moral Justification for Disobeying the Law) 

In many countries, especially in this era of democratic rule, some laws are not obeyed by certain citizens. The reason behind such disobedience is usually hinged to morality. For instance, though certain democracies have legalized gay marriage, some citizens of these democracies tend to bemoan the legalized act with inspiration from religious morality and in effect, portray hostility and bigotry to those who tend to validate or practise an act legalized. When laws and morality coincides there is a greater certainty of obedience, however, when they are not in alliance, compliance to the law is not assured. Sometimes disobedience of the law starts a social change process. 

A classic example of morality justified disobedience of the law is found in a “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written by Dr. Martin Luther King. In this letter Dr. King expresses his willingness to break some laws. He justifies his stance by saying that there are two types of laws: just and unjust laws. He advocated that just laws be obeyed and went on to say that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Thus, he disobeyed the segregation ordinances, reason to him being that they were morally wrong.
People usually prioritize morality before the law, therefore making morality a strong determinant on compliance to the law. Since morality varies from place to place or person from person, one’s obligation to obey or disobey the law will vary depending on one’s personal conception of that which is moral or immoral. 
Achaab Daniel ABALANSA
Twitter: @AcHaaB_dAn
IG: achaab_dan_gh


2 thoughts on “Is There A Moral Obligation To Obey Unjust Laws? 

  1. A law as “ass” as it were, was made to serve (man), it must be obeyed in breach or, in compliance. There’s difficulty in defining “morality “, for what is moral to one, could be immoral to another!


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