According to Corlett's "Is There a Moral Duty to Obey the Law?"

It is a self-contradiction, Kant argues, for the law to contain within itself a law permitting citizens to disobey it. After all, did they not consent to live under its rule? Kant’s Argument for the Absolute Moral Obligation to Obey the Law looks something like the following:

(1) The law must contain no contradictions
(2) The law’s permitting disobedience to it in any form implies self-contradiction in the law
(3) Therefore, disobedience to the law in any form is unjustified.

What about laws that are unfair, immoral or enforced unequally? What about laws that favor certain races while oppressing others? What about laws that help the rich exploit the poor, then help them escape justice on the rare occasion it rears its head? Is disobedience still unjustified.

Merriam-Webster gives "Your actions contradict your words" as an example. If a politician or administration says they're going to help the little guy, then turn around and pass laws that help the rich get richer, that's a clear contradiction. Laws in general are generally supposed to be balanced, or fair, so there's an inherent contradiction in unfair laws, or did Kant use "contradiction" in some other sense?

Did Kant have anything to say about unfair laws at all? Did he say people are obliged to obey laws no matter how unfair or immoral they are?

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    Hi : Could you source the quotation, please, and give some indication of how a law contains contradictions in the cases you describe. Just a light indication will do. Thanks.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    May 6 '18 at 9:05
  • That's the question I'm asking. Did Kant recognize the obvious unfairness/contradictions in laws that are made and enforced unfairly by corrupt officials, or would he just shrug his shoulders and say "That's not a contradiction"? May 6 '18 at 9:35
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    Hi : but how is unfairness actually a contradiction in a law ? If I weren't interested in your question, I wouldn't ask but your examples don't - the problem may be mine - link the two notions. 'This is a law and this is unfair' - how is that a contradiction ?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    May 6 '18 at 9:43
  • See my second edit. May 6 '18 at 9:50
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    I edited your question to make the train of thought easier to follow.
    – Conifold
    May 6 '18 at 23:07

To answer this question, it's important to understand that Kant distinguishes sharply between morality and legality. The most commonly read Kant text on ethics Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is singularly focused on morality. Kant's ethics is further spelled in the Critique of Practical Reason and the second half of the Metaphysics of Morals, the Tugendlehre which is often called "Doctrine of Virtue."

Kant's primary treatment of law occurs in the first section of his longer Metaphysics of Morals, the Rechtslehre which is called "Doctrine of Right" or "Metaphysical Principles of Justice."

This is important because Kant thinks that ethics is about what the reasons for your actions but law cannot look into these actions (Kant explains this about ethics by itself in several of these texts but spells it out for the distinction in the preface to MPJ).

This has several consequences. First, we cannot externally know whether someone's action is moral. At best we can only know if their action is compatible with morality. This is best explained by illustration, let's say the moral thing to do is to help an old lady across the street because she requires assistance navigating a busy intersection. Many different actions will involve me "helping the old lady across the street" but the action is only moral (on Kant's view) if I also got the reasons behind my action right.

Second, this applies on Kant's view not just to evaluating other's actions but quite possibly to our own (this ties back interestingly to Kant's own pietistic background and the belief we are all sinners). Consequently, laws do not extend to motives.

With one further piece of information, all of the pieces are on the board to answer your question. For Kant, we are prima facie to assume the rationality of others in their activities. This includes their law-making. Consequently, we are to assume even in the face of evidence to the contrary that laws that are promulgated are just.

So then to simply answer your question, Kant's position that a law that includes provisions for its own disobedience is self-contradictory is contradictory on a level far prior to the problem of an unjust law. For Kant, the very definition of law is something that it is right to obey (here right in the sense of justice not necessarily ethics).

In answer to your question about how would Kant handle unjust laws. Textual references escape me a bit but the basic answer is that your obligations to right (justice) are subservient to your obligations to ethics but only to the extent that they directly contradict.

When I stated above that Kant's ethics is about why we act and that we cannot know we acted morally (since it's not clear we have reflective access to our maxims on a sufficiently clear level), there's an interesting non-symmetry: sometimes we can know that an action is wrong. So since there are some actions that the categorical imperative (at least on Kant's own reading) expressly prohibits such as lying, murdering, we can know that any law commanding us to do these actions is a law we cannot obey... but it's important to realize that this is narrowly construed down to only the point of doing something that must be immoral because it's incompatible with the CI.

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    "Obey the authority who has power over you (in whatever does not conflict with inner morality)" (MM 6:371). Alas, Kant is silent on what to do when it does so conflict. At least, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's" left no doubts as to who takes precedence in case of conflict. Kant says unjust laws are to be obeyed as long as the government that passed them is just, but does he think the government as such can be unjust? And he does not seem to be able to bring himself to say that the duties he imposes on governments, unlike individuals, are enforceable.
    – Conifold
    May 7 '18 at 0:49
  • Good explanation. Ironically, the whole issue of law vs morality is kind of frustrating for me. It's a very important issue, but it's hard to get beyond the abstract theories and forge them into sound, practical guidelines. I generally support (Kant's?) idea of a "social contract" to a point. But I think contracts should be fairly constructed and fairly enforced, and when any element is unfair, I support disobedience. May 7 '18 at 1:21
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    What do you mean I generally support (Kant's?) idea of a "social contract" to a point. ? Kant's not much of a social contract theory. At best, there are constructivist readings of Kant.
    – virmaior
    May 7 '18 at 4:46
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    @Conifold most definitely true, but we can supply a partial and disappointing lacuna as I've suggested above. Some of Kant's more imaginative 20th century readers believe they find a robust 21st century liberal theorist, but Kant's own silence is telling as to whether this reading is accurate.
    – virmaior
    May 7 '18 at 4:48

Laws cannot make things happen, they can only prescribe appropriate handling of things that do or do not happen. Therefore, a law is generally the association of a behavior with a range of punishments. So there are always two ways to obey a law.

It can be argued, and has been demonstrated at a couple points in history, that the best way to address a destructive law is to submit to the punishment, but put the full weight of its delivery clearly and openly upon those at the point of delivery.

Under Cromwell, Quakers obeyed the laws that required that they report for execution under obviously unfair charges, even the children. But they addressed judges, wardens and executioners so directly with religious messages and publicity that they would not carry out the process. In the end, the sentences often could not be enforced, and the laws changed. (The name of the sect allegedly comes from the fact that they charged their poor members to defy the rules of the court and accept the punishment (something that was relatively easy for the richer, propertied members that came up with this idea) and this was frightening enough that they often shook in terror in courtrooms.)

Gandhi and King used similar tactics on various occasions, encouraging people to break unjust laws and submit to punishment, but make it as hard to carry out as possible. This sometimes had disastrous results. But ultimately they were effective at correcting unjust laws.

So in the same way the injunction against lying seems counterproductive, this one can instead lead to better solutions that have more permanent effects.

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