To be clear, I am not asking if laws are moral, or even a good approximation for a moral system. We understand that there can be moral laws and immoral laws. For example, the law prohibiting murder is considered, by almost everyone, to be moral. On the other hand, a law that requires you to stone a woman to death for being suspected of witchcraft is considered, by almost everyone, to not be a moral law. Or there could be laws that aren't explicitly immoral, but that can be immoral in specific circumstances. For example, the law against stealing others' property, while not a bad law on its own, made it illegal for one to free slaves. So when I say something like "immoral law", that's just a shorthand way of saying that, in a specific context, the act that adheres to that law is less moral than the act that breaks that law.

What I am asking is:

Is there moral value to obeying the law that's independent of the moral value of the law itself?

Suppose we took, for example, a law that is completely amoral. Whether it's obeyed or not has no moral value whatsoever, according to whatever moral theory you subscribe. (One example might be driving through a red light in a circumstance where it's perfectly clear that you won't hit or inconvenience anybody.) Could an argument still be made that it's moral to obey that law, or immoral to disobey that law? Furthermore, if there was a law which you determined to have some negative moral value, should you obviously disobey it, or is there still some inherent moral value in "obeying the law" against which you must weigh the negative moral value of the law itself?

In the second last chapter of Peter Singer's Practical Ethics he touches upon this briefly. He offers an argument for why there's some moral value in following the law (though, as a utilitarian, he still maintains that you ought to weigh that value against other consequences of following/breaking a law). His argument, as I can best describe it (though I risk misrepresenting his argument with my flawed interpretation), is as follows:

A system of laws, where policies are put in place by elected officials and disputes are settled by people with expertise in said policy, while flawed, is better than any alternative method of being systematically moral that we know about. Because we don't know of a better alternative (though they likely exist), if we deviate from this system, we will most likely devolve to a worse system (for example, one in which disputes are settled by force). So, from a purely consequential standpoint, there is moral value in maintaining this system, even if our laws are not ideal. This system is maintained by people obeying the law and maintaining its integrity. If people disobey the law often, it will set a negative example for others and weaken people's conviction in the law itself. So obeying the law is tantamount to maintaining the integrity of this system that's imperfect but "better than the alternatives".

This argument makes some sense to me, though it feels a little weak. I'm not sure if it addresses any inherent wrongness of disobeying the law. Singer himself acknowledges that this only means that there's moral value in obeying the law if others are looking. According to this argument, if you can disobey the law without anybody knowing about it, there's no moral wrong in the disobeying of that law. (Again, this is independent of whether or not there's a moral wrong in the actual illegal thing that you did.)

I would like to know if there has been other work done on this question in the ethics literature that offers alternative answers that are satisfying.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – user2953
    May 6, 2018 at 10:00

6 Answers 6


By a Lockean notion of the social contract, you have tacitly agreed to obey laws that support that contract by remaining in your society and accepting the protection of its principal players and its institutions. Conservatives are not really being hyperbolic when they claim people have died so you can have your nationality.

If you want out of that contract, that can be arranged. But transferring nationalities is difficult unless you afford exceptional value, and the cost of not having some social identity is extremely high. By not taking that risk, you are accepting an obligation.

So breaking the law is lying, at least as long as the laws themselves are not contrary to the deeper tenets of the social contract. It does not matter whether anyone is looking, misleading people is immoral unless there is a very good reason. To water down Kant a bit, being disingenuous as a matter of course degrades our ability to communicate the difference between what is important and what is not.

So yes, to the degree that honesty has any moral content it is inherently moral to obey the law.


EDIT -- Long response to comment:

There is always an element of deception at the point of decision to break the law because you have previously implicitly agreed to the social contract. One can lie for good reason. And admitting you are doing something now that renders past promises into lies is not the same has never having lied, though it can come close. Especially so if you are only doing so because you feel there is a good reason.

I do not intend the answer to depend jointly on Lock and Kant. Locke's approach translates lawbreaking into a form lying. And most moral codes have some injunction against serious lies. You can choose any one of those. So this is a case of reducing a new problem to an existing solution. I have just given my own watered-down, evolutionary pseudo-Kantianism as an example.

Social contracts also go beyond law. By citing Locke, I am speaking from a strong Western European bias here, set in the explicit Enlightenment philosophy on which we have created constitutional democracies, where we expect the laws to be continually edited to represent the contract as it stands, so that obeying the law really means obeying the law.

The "Russian" version of the social contract, for instance, contains a corrective translation to dilute corruption. In a culture where a given group consistently and unfairly uses the law to their own advantage, one can see law as a false expression of the social contract. This can go so far that all laws are 'honored' in a different way from actually being obeyed.

(Even in the US, we have a sort of "Old New York/New Chicago" thread, in some ways similar to the "Russian" one. Our current President holds it. He has openly stated that actually paying the taxes one legally owes, without attempting to cheat, is stupid. And it does not seem to be one of his nonce-lies, but something he has always believed. He is working from an approach that says people put stuff in the statutory law that they don't really mean, and we are meant to read past it as a matter of course.)

So there is still a problem with the definition of 'obeying' the law. One may not obey it outright, but as interpreted through a prism of tradition, where not all players come out of the same tradition.

  • Great answer, thanks! Just a few questions. Are you addressing specifically the act of breaking the law when nobody knows? Or are you talking about breaking the law in general? What if you break the law and are forthright about it? Is there still an element of deception because not everybody, who helps you benefit from elements of the social contract, will know about it? Also, is this answer specifically from a Kantian perspective where you have a categorical imperative not to lie, or is it more broadly applicable? May 5, 2018 at 17:28
  • My comments here got so long I edited them in as an appendix to the answer.
    – user9166
    May 5, 2018 at 22:30
  • 1
    One can not agree, tacitly or otherwise, to a fictional contract that was never offered or spelled out, and that would have to be in constant flux if it was. Locke's theory is a piece of Enlightenment's ahistorical fiction, as social constructivism you favor makes perfectly clear, and one does not really need to break out of an imaginary cage. Even under the Locke's fairy-tale it may well be moral to disobey some laws, namely the ones that the ever changing "contract" will eventually strike out.
    – Conifold
    May 6, 2018 at 0:28
  • @Conifold Things do not have to be real in order to convey meaning. In fact, meaning cannot be attained through anything real. Healthy forms of social constructivism encourage accepting social constructs that do not ultimately undercut themselves, not endlessly destroying them because they are not somehow more real than is possible.
    – user9166
    May 6, 2018 at 0:34
  • 1
    I encourage you to explain what "accepting social contracts" means in real terms, i.e. without Locke's flowery language that imagines some timeless commitments. Should we say that 1930s Germany signed the Nazi contract? What are these "social constructs", who spells out the terms, how are they legitimized, why should they bind the unborn, why should they take precedence over personal ethics, if they should, how are they amended/revised, etc. It is not clear from what you are saying that there is any there there to be destroyed, aside from motivational rhetoric.
    – Conifold
    May 6, 2018 at 0:46


One can have a moral obligation to obey the law yet more important countervailing moral obligations may require one not to obey the law. Consider the parallel with a promise : I am under a moral obligation to return a borrowed book but that obligation can be overriden by the more important moral obligation to help a dying person.


There is no reason to suppose that the proponent of natural law morality, of utilitarian morality (either act- or rule) or conventional morality in the sense of our unreflective moral norms, let alone an existentialist morality will answer the question in the same way. They might do : but agreement wouldn't tell us what is the right moral basis on which to answer the question or, if they disagree, which is right.


If we base ourselves broadly on what I will call ordinary moral thinking, then I suppose there are a number of standard approaches to answering the question.

☛ Consent

But a sizeable chunk of the population or citizenry do not give it. They have not promised; they have not entered into a written contract; they have not authorised others to make laws on their behalf.

☛ Tacit or implied consent

Three conditions might yield implied consent :

1 Although I have not consented, if I had been asked I would have consented.

2 I commit myself to a position by virtue of which I cannot sincerely adopt that position unless I consent to its obvious consequences. E.g., I cannot argue from every possible angle for euthanasia and then refuse my consent to the practice of euthanasia.

3 I voluntarily take part in a rule-governed activity. In so doing I bind myself during my participation and by virtue of that participation to following the rules whether I have expressly consented to do so or not.

It would take a lot of argument to link the moral obligation to obey the law to any plausible claim that all, most or even one of the citizenry have/ has fulfilled any or all of these conditions in the law-making process.

☛ Fair play

Here the basic idea is that if I have accepted certain benefits from a law-organised society, without whose laws those benefits could not have been conferred, it is a requirement of fair play to obey the law in return.

But suppose (to amend Rawls) my law-organised society is not a mutually beneficial and just scheme of social cooperation, and that the advantages it yields are not available to me or perhaps whole social groups, how does 'fair play' generate a moral obligation to obey the law ?

☛ Duty of justice

In recent times the moral obligation to obey the law has sometimes been set on a foundation of justice. But the primary context has been a contractual scheme of political obligation of the kind offered by Rawls, for whom the duty to obey the law rests on the fact that the relevant laws would be adopted by the representative individuals in the original position. Much as I admire Rawls, his theory of justice is highly contestable. It needs to be rationally suasive beyond its present limits of acceptance for the moral obligation to obey the law to rely on it. (I have included it in 'ordinary moral thinking' because it is so widely known and is part of the background for many of us.)


Even if none of the grounds of moral obligation to obey the law is sufficient on its own to support a general obligation, it is possible that consent, tacit consent, fair play and (something akin to Rawls') duty of justice might in combination sustain a moral obligation to obey the law.


☛ Aquinas

In separating the moral content of a law from the moral obligation to obey it, one should at least note Aquinas' position that what is immoral - unjust - is not a law. 'Unjust law' is an oxymoron. Here's what he says :

Human law has the quality of a law in so far as it is in accordance with right reason [ recta ratio] and in this respect it is evident that it is derived from the eternal law. If it deviates from the right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus does not have the quality of a law but rather that of an act of violence. (Summa Theologiae, First Part of Part II, Qu. 93, a3 : St Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics, tr. P.E. Sigmund, NY : Norton, 1988, 48.)

Aquinas takes a God's eye view of everything. Human law is only permissible under God and it is only permissible under God if it promotes justice or some other Christian good. If it fails to do this, by being unjust, it does not fulfil the condition for being a law. Law and morality are not separable for Aquinas in the way they are for most of us confronting this question. He is an intellectual world away but his view is worth noting precisely because it is distinctive. I say no more; this is a historical footnote.


George C. Christie, 'On the Moral Obligation to Obey the Law', Duke Law Journal, Vol. 1990, No. 6 (Dec., 1990), pp. 1311-1336.

A. John Simmons, 'Tacit Consent and Political Obligation', Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Spring, 1976), pp. 274-291.

A. John Simmons, 'The Principle of Fair Play', Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Summer, 1979), pp. 307-337.

J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

George Klosko, 'Multiple Principles of Political Obligation', Political Theory, Vol. 32, No. 6 (Dec., 2004), pp. 801-824.

  • Thanks! I'm not sure I understand the Aquinean qualification, but it sounds like a semantic game. Like, "you are morally obliged to obey the law because the law is moral by definition. And the things that you are calling 'laws' that aren't moral, are not actually laws." But I really like the rest of the answer. May 5, 2018 at 17:54
  • Thanks. I think the matter is a little deeper than semantic. Aquinas takes a God's eye view of everything. Human law is only permissible under God and it is only permissible under God if it promotes justice or some other Christian good. If it fails to do this, by being unjust, it does not fulfil the condition for being a law. Law and morality are not separable for Aquinas in the way they are for you. This is a difference of world view, not a question of some 'semantic game'. I am not asking you to side with Aquinas, only to understand that his position is profoundly different from yours.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    May 5, 2018 at 18:15
  • The brevity of comments makes everything sound abrupt ! I much appreciated your reply. I wasn't 'getting at' you in my last, just didn't think you'd quite got Aquinas straight. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    May 5, 2018 at 18:18
  • @Bridgeburners. I've amended the text. If you were disssatisfied with the bit about Aquinas, others will be too. I've explained his standpoint, flagged it as a historical footnote, and moved rapidly on. Thanks for the nudge. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    May 5, 2018 at 18:32

Sometimes there are moral considerations that may require breaking the law.

Sometime entitlement is taken in the response to an emergency.

Sometimes the moral response to immoral acts by government is civil disobedience.


Is it moral to obey the law?

It is only moral (in the sense of being correct or doing the 'right thing') to obey God's law, insofar as we can understand it. And in fact that is historically the presumed basis for practically every successful civilization's laws pertaining to government and economics.

...The power of a ruler is upheld by an army, by tradition, by promises of protection, or by secular law. But not infrequently, the differential distribution of power is further upheld by religious techniques. Religious validation of political power takes on many different forms...

...The political order is then validated because it is "god-given."

The royal dynasty or ruling lineage may be further strengthened by a mythical genealogy, which demonstrates that the rulers are direct descendants of the gods, or of the first divinely installed ruler...

The author then explains how priesthoods are sanctioned by governments as the two arms of power function together. Religious ideas are also used by governments to manipulate and control economy through production, distribution, and consumption.

Religion and Culture: an Introduction to Anthropology of Religion, by Annemarie de Waal Malefijt, c.1968, pps. 305-28 (Religion and Government; Religion and Economic Organization).

(See also, The Rise of The First Reich: Germany in the Tenth Century (Major Issues in History), c.1969.) by Boyd H. Hill

But basing human laws on universal morals is futile without knowledge of God. Many people don't know enough about God to accept its existence, in the first place. And those who do (or pretend to) have widely diverse views and theories, motivations and intents, regarding the true nature of God. Even the most dedicated, pure-hearted saints can only strive for a little clearer understanding of it. So that is why all are immoral sinners (law-breakers). It is impossible to be law abiding enough to avoid that predicament. And genuine saintly types are always the first to admit the fact.

So, to answer the question:

No, it is not "moral to obey the law."

It is only moral to obey God's law, because God is the origin of universal morality.


While the point about weakening the law by disobeying it is a good one, this implies that breaking one law is equivalent to breaking any law.

For instance, if people expect others to ignore speed limits, they will ignore them as well. But would ignoring speed limits cause people to also ignore laws against shoplifting?

I would argue that a law must have a valid purpose and sound reasoning behind it before there can be a moral value in obeying it. Nearly all laws do in democratic societies, but there are exceptions.

Some of these exceptions have been deemed unconstitutional in the United States, others haven't. There are "anti-Sodomy" laws forbiding mutually consenting adults from doing private things beind closed doors. There are "dry laws" in some counties, that forbid consumption of alcohol.

Now I know that people will ask "how do you determine whether a law has sound reasoning? Won't people disagree about which laws do?"

Obviously, every law has a legitimate purpose to those who pass it, and I can't develope an exact formula for determining it in a breif amount of time. I would mantain that rational individuals will generally agree on what laws are valid, and if the law doesn't serve the purpose of protecting citizens' life, health, or property from harm, then there's no moral obligation to obey it.

  • Do you have references pointing to others who take the same view? I also wonder why only a democracy has legitimacy. May 6, 2018 at 0:58
  • @FrankHubeny I removed the part about democracy, as that's technically outside the scope of the question. I've some familiarity with moral arguments, but never read anyone who shares my view
    – anotherguy
    May 9, 2018 at 21:34

Since it is somehow OK to attack me as if I were Locke, when I speak from a traditional interpretation of Locke, I will give a more personal answer, contrary to the stated policy of the site.

In my own mind Sartre leads back to Kant via Transpersonal Psychology.

The question of whether to obey the law involves a direct conflict between two layers of an individual's identity. One is most primarily one's conscious, autonomous self, preserving the sense of identity and independence that allows for day-to-day decision making.

But humans are social animals and one is also a member of concentric rings of group identity. Each of these layers comes with its own expectations and its own moral pressures. I have my religious history, my identity in terms of my race, class, sexual orientation, and other subcultures in which I take part. I have my nuclear family standards, and my extended family standards. I have my nationality, and my family tradition of nationalities, including the pattern of assimilation from past nationalities into my current one. This goes on and on.

From an Existentialist POV, how to manage the accumulated moral pastiche is a challenge to my authenticity. I cannot be the perfect version of each of these competing selves, and if I were the 'perfect' version of any of them, I would be simply reducing myself, within the context of the games that maintain those processes, into a non-player character who does not contribute anything by being there. Virtual nonexistence on many levels is not problematic. There are so many potential contexts that being oblivious to most of them and complying completely within most of those of the remainder is an automatic consequence. But virtual nonexistence on every level defies the authentic need to be an individual.

One of these layers is he meta-national construct of liberal democracy. Liberal democracies themselves are very consciously constructed from the theory of the social contract. So a chosen position toward that theory is necessary if one wishes to maintain a position within the context of any modern State. If you reject the position entirely, you need to analyze whether the benefits that are conferred on you by the state can be authentically accepted, or whether being where you were raised requires of you unproductive denial or degrading manipulation.

If you choose to accept the State as it is, you cannot reasonably dismiss this theory. You do not need to participate in it from a position of actual faith or belief, but you need to accept it on its own terms. The theory itself does not dictate that you are bound directly by the laws of the State. Instead, it requires that you judge the laws of the State, and that you respond to them honestly as if negotiating a contract that would bind everyone in your position.

Your position is always entirely unique, so this is not necessarily something like a Kantian universalization. But the negotiation process that you undertake with these expectations needs to be, again, authentic. It needs to maintain your identity and not abuse it. To the degree you want to be a special case, that position must not require you to live out a fantasy that detaches you from responsibilities the weight of which you do, in fact, feel.

Decisions to break the law are direct conflicts between the conscious individual self and this expected negotiation process imposed by the structure of the modern state. We do in fact accommodate ourselves to the history of decisions we make, so the only real rule is "don't pretend, unless you are willing to have the act become a reality for you."

That is a lot of work. So complete compliance with the notion of the social contract, even though it is a known fiction, is simply the only way of remaining sane most of the time. But obviously, when it contends directly with levels of the persona closer to its core, the more personal autheticity wins unless a meaningful compromise can be struck.

(I have defied sodomy and drug laws quite liberally, because those challenge more personal layers of my identity that I cannot compromise while retaining an authentic relationship to the intersection of my gender, my sexual orientation and my social class, and the culture that has grown up around it. If the punishments assigned were in fact applied, I would not simply accept them, I would consider myself abused. Public health is the kind of thing a liberal democracy tries to regulate, but it is not a good reason to exert some kinds of control.)

This is pretty much the Kantian picture of the relationship of the individual to the State. Compliance is problematic if the underlying principle does not properly recognize or respect autonomy, but it is expected otherwise, because stability is something that strengthens individual application of autonomy in general. To the degree you create instability, you need to realize that others are involved, and not to treat them as means or as irrelevant non-entities.

(This is why no one reads postmodern positions, and why I almost never write them. This is a lot of nonsense to get back to a very basic position that is better expressed based on simpler principles that are almost right already.)

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