Consider for example Piracy. Many people justify piracy of academic books by certain popular publisher based on the fact that these publishers don't give any money to the people who actually create most of the content in the book/ are plain abusive.

My question is, is such a justification valid? If so, could someone explain in more words why breaking a bad law simply for it being bad is justified?

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    See SEP, Legal Obligation and Authority. Roughly, arguments for duty to obey laws have significant gaps, especially when the laws are morally flawed rather than just "bad". The idea is that we must judge laws on their moral merits, and obedience is conditional on this judgment. Moral duty overrides legal obligations. However, piracy justifications are often self-serving excuses rather than conscientious moral objections to the copyright law. It is not like most objectors are actively seeking alternatives to reward the creators.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 13:27
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    Could you point to a specific argument that you think is doing this? “Bad” is quite an emotive term - disagreement with the law is not in itself sufficient reason to break it because the law is in part a social compromise, for example - but there may be a different kind of general ethical principle at work in some of these arguments.
    – Paul Ross
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 13:28
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    I gave privacy for example, or people in Iran throwing away hijab to protest the strict relegious laws etc @Paul Ross
    – Babu
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 13:31
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    The determination of good and bad is based on power. The history of injustice is written by the victor.
    – user64314
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 17:18
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    "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty." - Thomas Jefferson. Laws must serve us, as a whole community, that is the social contract.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 13:02

7 Answers 7


If you'd like a good philosophical take this issue, you should read Thoreau's "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience".

Now, I haven't read that essay for a while, so I can't claim that I'm making exactly his argument, but the issue is that the force of law isn't really with the legislatures, police, or judiciary. The force of law lies in the respect and acceptance of members of the citizenry (individually and collectively). In other words, citizens obey the law when they think to themselves: "This law benefits myself and my community." When citizens respect a law, they respect and support the police and judiciary who enforce it, and the legislators who write it; when people do not respect a law, they cease to grant that respect, and writing and enforcing law becomes dramatically more difficult.

Intentionally breaking a law falls into two categories:

  1. Profit-oriented (criminal disobedience): When something people value is outlawed, there is an incentive to break the law to acquire it, and thus an incentive for others to break the law to provide it. We can think here of the rise of the mobs during Prohibition or the modern drug Cartels, the sex trade, internet piracy, or any 'black market' activity where buyers and sellers conspire to perform illicit exchanges.
  2. Consciousness-raising (civil disobedience): When law is explicitly targeted to oppress or harm some group, there is an incentive for individuals to publicly break the law in order to engage the attention of other citizens, with the goal of creating public outrage over the injustice. This is a common tactic in civil rights conflicts, mostly stemming from Martin Luther King Jr and other protestors in the 1950s and '60s.

In either case, the point is that one asserts a right or privilege without regard to the law, and compels the legislature, police, and judiciary to enforce it. The idea is that if the law is good — meaning well-accepted by the citizenry — then enforcing it will be comparatively easy, cost-effective, and morally tenable. But if the law is bad — meaning that not many citizens care about it, or that it actually offends public sensibilities — then it will be difficult to enforce, consuming excessive time, energy and resources, and that those tasked with enforcing it will begin to feel discomfort and shame in the performance of their duties. The long-term effect of breaking bad laws is that those who write and enforce them will lose heart because they are consistently portrayed as villains for trying to impose a law that citizens dislike. We can see the beginnings of this with the current GOP pushes to restrict abortion in various states, which will only get worse as cases head to court and the 2024 elections get closer.

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    People in nazi Germany or in occupied countries sometimes saved Jews from death and they didn't do it publicly. Otherwise both they and their saved ones would have gone to concentration camp together. So surely it doesn't have to be public, all depends on the context. Same goes for many cases in USSR when people read forbidden literature etc. You completely disregard that a state can be totalitarian.
    – user66933
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 16:23
  • As for profit oriented, imagine living in a country where most of your taxes are stolen by corrupted government. Or some laws that just rob you of your money. You can disobey them and really have profit just because you;ll protect what is yours. However you somehow portrayed profit as something 100% bad case. So both of your examples are far from objectivity. :)
    – user66933
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 16:28
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    @Whysoserious: No, profit isn't intrinsically bad. The distinction is self-oriented vs public-oriented. Am I breaking the law because I don't think I should be subject to it, or am I breaking the law because I don't think "anyone* should be subject to it. There's a lot of gray area when it comes to intention, but there is a difference between wanting to skirt the law and wanting to change it. Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 16:56
  • I understand your decision, but I was thinking one of your two categories should really have a subcategory, but couldn’t determine which it should go under. So, I think there should be a 3rd category something along the lines of “The law is considered irrelevant”, consider some US states have purported still had laws on the books saying that you can’t drive faster than 5mph at night and have to have someone with a lantern walking in front of you. Upon learning about such a law, you don’t disregard it out of civil disobedience and you don’t think of it as gain, just that’s not what one does.
    – jmoreno
    Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 14:44
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    @SimonCrase: I think the problem that you and jmoreno are pointing out is that I've used the word 'profit' loosely to include things like 'selfish gratification' or 'convenience'. Vandalism is selfish gratification; the vandal thinks it's fun to vandalize. I'm trying to think of a better way of phrasing it, but it's not gelling for me yet. Commented Aug 14, 2023 at 16:16

May I answer this a bit indirectly? Looking at the very idea of justification.

Laws have no inherent moral authority - throughout history there were many grotesquely immoral laws. And if you consider some law immoral, why do you need to justify your actions at all? Who are these people you justify your actions for? :)

Maybe you wanna justify it for your own comfort? Well, but if you are convinced you are doing the right thing, you don't need it. And if you aren't sure, then this justification is just a trick.

My position is simpler - if you need to download some material and have no means, be honest with yourself. Just say so - I am going to get cause I need it. Justification is a sign of weakness here. A desire to look "nice". Don't be nice. Just do or don't do.

Also you can get in touch with an author and thank him personally without giving money to a publisher if it's your serious stance. Then you don't need any words of justification either, get the stuff freely, give some gratitude directly to the author, end of story.

  • Many people try to justify this as "victimless crime". This has been a common rationalization in software and media piracy: "I wasn't going to buy it anyway, so the publisher hasn't lost anything."
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 14, 2023 at 15:35

The idea that one is not obliged to obey "unjust" laws goes back at least to Aquinas. There is an interesting, and somewhat worrying, article here, which quotes Dr. Martin Luther King. (My take home from the article is that, if we are going to break a law because we judge it unjust, we need to be clear where we are going to draw the line. The article illustrates this rule, by breaking it!)

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when 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 Saint 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 distort the soul and damages the personality.

So far, so good. Then it moves on to health care workers who were sacked for refusing lawful orders, and a clerk who insisted on drawing a salary while refusing to perform the duties of her office. In both cases there is an honorable course of action, to resign. It doesn't earn brownie points for martyrdom.

They (rightly) hail Dr. King for pleading his rights against laws that violated his conscience, whereas they angrily sue modern Christians who dare do the same.

In fact, they sent Kim Davis, the Kentucky marriage-license clerk, to jail for not issuing same-sex marriage licenses in her name.

(Socrates seems to be arguing, in Crito, for unconditional obedience to the laws: he went to his death rather than break the law. Maybe the answer is to compare MLK and Socrates, on one hand, with Kim and the antivaxxers.)

  • I suspect Socrates would echo "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Render_unto_Caesar Socrates said he would not do anything his daimon, his conscience, demanded he not do. So he he would obey laws that circumscribed his actions, but not undertake actions they commanded that he disagreed with.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 14:27
  • @CriglCragl I doubt it. Socrates was a citizen of Athens. Since laws were made by the adult male citizens, he was himself one of the law makers. Generally we judge a law maker turned law breaker more harshly than an ordinary criminal. I find it difficult to imagine Socrates deferring to Caesar. Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 19:08
  • You miss my point. I'm saying he'd regard the muddling through of necessary administration as one domain. And the domain of conscience & transcendental themes as a different domain. Conscience is the 'still quiet voice' (Kings 19:12). Socrates never accepted that he had broken any law, he instead saw himself as doing something like the god's work.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 21:38
  • @CriglCragl If I miss your point, perhaps the blame lies with your presentation: it's not clear what you are arguing. I suggest that you actually read the Crito, where he imagines the Laws of Athens reproaching him if he fled the City. Socrates' faithfully served his City, both in peace and in war; I think he would have seen "render unto Caesar" as a cop out. Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 22:13

Bad means immoral, good means moral.

Morals are the rules that human groups developed in order to survive, live in peace and have happy lives. Nature is, by means of natural selection, what decides if the group's morals allow the group to adapt (or else, it must perish). Good becomes synonym to moral.

If you doubt which are the rules of social interaction that led to the success of human groups, it is morals.

Law and justice should normally be absolutely consistent with morals. However, considering that:

  1. the moral rules of a group are very difficult to test (many generations would be required)...

  2. the fact that each member can interpret moral rules in a different manner, and...

  3. power (including the power to write laws) is subject to interests...

... then, law can be quite different to morals (law becomes a biased interpretation of morals). In other words, not all laws are good.

When laws are not consistent with morals, social disobedience emerges. However, as said, it is very difficult to assess the goodness of a moral rule, and in consequence, the goodness of any law. In case of any conflict, not always the good guys win.

If a law turns to be immoral, or bad, for nature, its application implies that nature will decrease the probabilities of persistence of the group.

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    Murdering people isn't good, but executing people or fighting wars has been ok. Intentions matter. Moral & good aren't synonyms, there's more work to do. & you can't get ought from is, evolution is not enough
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 16:05
  • @CriglCragl killing in war (someone from the enemy group), or killing a murderer (someone inside the group) is moral/good because it means protecting the group, otherwise, it is immoral/bad. Just what I've said.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 16:36
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    @RodolfoAP Killing to protect the group is moral? So were Michael Corleone's actions moral IYHO? Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 19:13

A law is based on societal morals, and anyone who chooses to break it is using individual morals to justify their action.

Therefore there cannot be an answer to this question, because the reasons for law-breaking are ultimately down to the actor breaking said law.


The law provides a reason to behave a certain way. Generally speaking it is intended to foster cooperative behavior in the face of conflicting interests. Hence the adversarial model of justice where different parties present their positions before a judge, whose posture and dignity are such that their decisions are binding and a reason for the parties to “agree even if they disagree”. Conceptually the judge is an arbiter of last resort, and the idea is that there is no further legal recourse beyond appeal; and even that tops out at a certain hierarchical position.

The law has nothing to do with morality; or at least in practical terms it is coexistensive with “the bills legislatures pass”. Notably the law is also to some extent “whatever will get you into trouble” since the value of an effective law is often precisely its vagueness — you know what you should do. Moral principles are conflated with the law but clearly many laws are arbitrary and again have only to do with minutiae related to civic order, like rules of the road, for which it is not so important which decision is made since it is arbitrary but only that some decision is firmly committed to (driving in the right lane).

The protest against the law is also part of it, at least under a democracy with freedom of expression — that is even the supreme law of the land may be questioned (the constitution) and even transformed (or at least amended over time). Acts of revolution install new laws which may be fundamentally at odds with the preceding government. A given law is therefore not generally reflective of some ultimate moral obligation —- but a practical matter of external circumstances (police, legislators, judges and jurisprudence). However in the ideal situation perhaps the law would be in clear accord with good moral order and therefore a positive reason to act.

Critical legal theory would suggest that many laws are in fact reflective of pre-existing power arrangements and therefore are representative of certain settlements between social classes rather than any particularly-abstract form of moral authority.

Recommended Reading


Is "I should follow it because it's a law" a valid justification for following a law?

If we take it to the extreme, we end up with, say, reporting Jews in Nazi Germany, which I hope we can all agree is immoral (although having your own life threatened in the process blurs the line a bit there).

I hope we can also all agree that our respective countries aren't run by Nazis. But this should highlight that laws seek to further some goal, that may or may not be moral, and it may be more or less good at achieving that goal.

Most laws seem to be based on the idea of not harming others, and most people don't break most laws, not because they're laws, but because they don't want to harm others.

So one could judge laws based on their underlying goal, and of course consider the risk and severity of punishment, in deciding whether to follow a law.

One could make cases both for and against the intrinsic value of being law-abiding: it promotes the social cohesion of following laws (to potentially avoid causing a situation where someone else breaks a law and ends up harming you), but it also promotes a blind obedience to authority, and not challenging or trying to change laws that may be unjust.

I'd personally prefer to call myself a humanist, and base my actions on that, rather than calling myself law-abiding.

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