Not really an history question but the ethics/philosophy question came about while thinking of history.

Lincoln violated the constitution a few times and although he's universally recognized as a moral leader, was it a good thing? Was it not designed to provide checks and balances on power? The argument I got when discussing this today was "he was in uncharted waters and did what was necessary". So the more general question is, when and how does one deem it necessary to break the rules.

  • Any examples of how Lincoln violated the Constitution? I assume you're talking about his suspension of habeas corpus, but there are very different interpretations of the Constitution (in a legal sense), some of which would disagree that he actually violated anything. Jul 12, 2011 at 4:40
  • This question is also somewhat similar to this more contextualized version: How much if any suspension of civil liberties can be ethically justified during a “state of war”? Jul 12, 2011 at 4:41
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    Are we looking for cases like when to consider a social contract intractable? So we might consider Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, etc? Jul 12, 2011 at 5:04
  • Thanks for the comments. Maybe not violating the Constitution but he went against the final ruling of the supreme court to allow states decide if slavery would exist, raised troops when he was explicitly not allowed to by congress, etc.. But even if I'm in interpreting the events wrong, I am asking a more general question that applies to Lincoln as much as it applies to Hilter,Google founders,Steve Jobs,DeVinci or anyone who has broken the "established rules". Society raises us to respect its structure yet progresses(and destruction as well) seems to come from those who ignore those rules.
    – Lostsoul
    Jul 12, 2011 at 5:31
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    The massive range of opinions provided to answer this question attests to the fact that this is not a constructive question. Focus it to a specific ethical and legal theory and we can go from there. But as of now "when it is right to break the rules" will vary greatly depending on what views you subscribe to, leaving this question with no definite answer.
    – stoicfury
    Mar 29, 2012 at 21:16

8 Answers 8


Rules are in place for those who aren't capable of being good citizens without some sort of consequence. An example of this would be someone who robs and steals during riots in a moment of weakness in law enforcement or someone who murders because he thinks he can get away with it.

In fact, there's no reason to assume there's any higher moral basis for rules and laws, because if there were, there would be no such thing as conflicting laws in different countries yet there are. It might be illegal to smoke marijuana in one country and it might be perfectly legal in another, for instance. Therefore, they're put in place to maintain order, nothing more.

Of course, the catch 22 is, how do you know when you're doing the right thing then? If you break the law to do what, according to you, is the right thing, then there would be many others who would argue the opposite despite any attempts to prove them wrong. Someone might think killing the guy that slept with his wife as perfectly normal and sane, for instance. Yet, we know that laws themselves don't always uphold higher moral ground. Taxing a family out of their last dime is far from morally correct, yet it gets enforced for the simple reason that laws must apply to all.

Abraham Lincoln was paraded as a hero, though in not even such different circumstances, he would have been considered one of the worst presidents America had ever known. It might have been enough that the south had won the war, for instance. Therefore, as trivial as it sounds, whether it is right to break the rules is entirely dependent upon which moral compass you're holding at the time.

  • The claim that there can be no "higher moral basis" for "rules and laws" because otherwise there would not be divergence and outright disagreement in law across jurisdictions is fallacious. It could well be that there is a higher moral basis and that the divergence in legal systems is to be explained by differences in how closely the various legal systems approximate the system that perfect fidelity to that higher basis would produce.
    – vanden
    Jul 13, 2011 at 5:54
  • @vanden: If we're "approximating" a law system with a higher moral basis, than you can't claim they're all correct, can you? If two compasses claim north is in two separate directions, at most one can be correct, no? Might be a more reasonable argument to claim that a law system doesn't necessarily uphold any higher moral basis..
    – Neil
    Jul 14, 2011 at 12:32
  • I agree that one could not claim that all the differing approximations of the "higher moral basis" were correct, but nothing I said implied that one could or should so say. I merely was pointing out that you reasoned from diversity to the absence of a (common) "higher moral basis" underlying the various legal regimes and that nothing about the absence of such a basis does actually follow from the diversity adduced as evidence for it. Say one is a moral and legal realist with the view that human institutions are imperfect. You'd predict diversity, despite commitment to a "higher basis."
    – vanden
    Jul 15, 2011 at 6:02

There is the smell of a paradox lurking here.

Let us assume that there is some system of rules that codify what is the right thing to do. (I am attempting to formulate things so that this applies equally to the question as restricted to political philosophy as well as to the more general moral philosophy reading of it.)

Let us assume further that there are indeed circumstances where the right thing to do would be to violate the rules that the first assumption posits.

If the circumstances in which it would be right to violate the rules were able to be sharply delineated, then such a sharp delineation would actually serve as a source of further (implicit) rules.

So, while it may well be that there are rules and that it is sometimes right to violate them, the question as put invites a further expansion of the rules to encompass the circumstances under which the violation of the rules would be right. Hence, if the the question is answerable in a sharp sense, it is mis-posed.


Lincoln violated the constitution a few times and although he's universally recognized as a moral leader, was it a good thing?

I very much disagree with this premise. He did not free the slaves that existed in states that remained in the Union. He was responsible for the single greatest power grab by the federal government in history. And he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans much of which could have been avoided had Lincoln been willing to allow reunification once it was clear that the south was defeated. Instead he chose a path of conquest. Many people who were pro-Union and anti-slavery in the south suffered and lost as a result of the land they owned being in a slave state.

Was it not designed to provide checks and balances on power?

Yes. As far as I am concerned this was the most egregious violation of basic human rights, and to the rights of the states to be soveriegn entities as well.

The argument I got when discussing this today was "he was in uncharted waters and did what was necessary". So the more general question is, when and how does one deem it necessary to break the rules.

There were other options. Slavery was near its end because of the industrial revolution. It was a flash point political issue of the time. There was never any intention to treat the slaves as actual people. In fact the union was very much against that in the first place.

Lincoln was essentially beatified in US Culture after his death because of the need of the symbol. Our christan roots elevated martyrdom despite any shortcomings or actual achievements. It is indeed possible that the victory of the Union held back both persons of color and women from full acceptance as persons of equal value to while males. The liberated slaves no longer had work or anyone to provide for their families. Many were allowed to starve to death after all they were not human beings what did it matter? The labor that the slaves provided was replaced by machines. Most of them run by white men.

A person can choose to break the rules knowing that there will be consequenses. It is never ok for a government to break the rules on those they govern's behalf. There are methods to change the rules. There are instances of specific exceptions (See the 14th amendment) to rules that exist. To me any blatent violation of the constitution, reguardless of the reason, is Treason pure and simple. I dont care if it is authorizing the abduction and torture of terror suspects, or using power to coverup and facilitate violations of the constitution.

Governments that are created to be bound by rules set in place, have a covenent with the people to operate under prescribed conditions. When the governement or a member of the government acting as an agent of the government they are breaking that covnent with the people. This is at its worst treason. The governement has the power to destroy and cause the deaths of millions of not just its own citizens. This power is granted with the limitations imposed. The usurping of power not granted and especially that which is expressly forbidden to it, is a form of the highest crime against those it governs. It risks the very legitimacy of the nation and its government when it does so.

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    For the record, the civil war was never about the slaves. It became a justification during the war to rally those both in the Union and in the south against the south, but it was mostly propaganda. As they say, war doesn't determine who's right but who's left, and it was the Union who wrote the history books ultimately. Contrary to popular belief, most southerners during that time silently disapproved of slavery.
    – Neil
    Jul 12, 2011 at 15:34
  • @Neil - And many actively as well.
    – Chad
    Jul 12, 2011 at 15:35
  • "A person can choose to break the rules knowing that there will be consequenses. It is never ok for a government to break the rules on those they govern's behalf." Isn't that nearly a contradiction? Governments are not autonomous machines but are run by persons. Jul 12, 2011 at 18:36
  • @DuckMaestro I have edited my answer to reflect this.
    – Chad
    Jul 12, 2011 at 19:38
  • I've provided an answer that includes Lincoln's most famous justification for the North's activities. You clearly don't believe it was sufficient reason, if it applied at all. Would you say the separating states were justified by something in the Constitution itself or were they following the path blazed by the Founding Fathers when faced with "absolute Despotism"? I think addressing these sorts of questions will bring out more of the philosophical angle of the question and less of the historical angle. Jul 13, 2011 at 20:16

Seems like Lincoln is still without controversy, but maybe going a little further back we can find an action against a government that is less controversial. In addition, perhaps we can find the germ of Lincoln's justification (and the outrage of those who have opposed his justification) in the words that launched the United State of America as a nation:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

What this remarkable statement says is that the British government systematically and sustainedly denied the people of the colonies to what it calls "unalienable Rights" endowed by man's Creator. Because the previous Government was not constructive, but "destructive of these ends", it became necessary for the colonies "to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with [Britain]". It's not explicitly stated here, but the colonies did not have the power to alter the previous Government and therefore was left only with the power to abolish it.

It appears that the Southern states saw the US Government in much the same light as the Founding Fathers saw the British Government. It seems that Lincoln did not see things that way. His most well-known, and perhaps best, statement of his position on the war comes from his Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here, Lincoln seems to justify the civil war as necessary on the same grounds as the Revolutionary War was necessary. He seems to take the earlier Declaration of Independence as higher priority than the Constitution, which came later. He certainly played hard and fast with the rules, if he didn't violate his constitutional powers outright. He justified himself (whether rightly or wrongly) by appealing to a higher rule: "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

So I think a legitimate grounds for violating a rule is in the service of a greater rule. That's why the police are allowed to speed and double-park when pursuing criminals.

  • wow..I must say I really like your answer because I never thought of it like that. He was to the South, what Britain was to America. I also like your police example because it fits into what I was trying to ask.
    – Lostsoul
    Jul 13, 2011 at 22:43
  • By the time of the gettysburg address the war had been ongoing for several months. So his address here is really not realivent to the actuall decision to go to war with the south. A better piece would be the emancipation proclimation. Or even many of his writings and speeches or his debate with douglas. Lincoln believed that the talk of sucession was a bluff. And often downplayed any chance at conflict and I have never seen any mention the possibility of force being used against them prior to his election.
    – Chad
    Jul 14, 2011 at 17:38
  • @Chad: The Emancipation Proclamation was issued almost 3 years into the war. (Gettysburg was fought 6 months later and Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the cemetery almost 6 months after that, so Lincoln's thinking probably was more developed by then.) But these are historical, not philosophical questions. Jul 14, 2011 at 17:50
  • @Jon Ericson - Agreed but to me the "reasons" outlined in the Gettysburg Address read more like excuses of a man who got caught and needs to justify afterwords. I would prefer something that prior to the escalation to war as better justifcation rather that an excuse made afterwards.
    – Chad
    Jul 14, 2011 at 20:34

Right and worng are subjective. In fact, some of the eastern philosophies like 'Advaita' does not even differentiate them.

Usually we reason out that the act of violation if resulted in something much better from the overall moral aspects, compared to the harm it caused, you are morally right to break it.

Eg:Getting down to a railway track to save a child fallen there.

But one of the many possible exceptions to the above is :'killing one innocent person to save thousands'. Because here the one who chooses the decision has no right (as we generally assume it to be) to kill somebody(has no way to assertain that he is ethically right).

We need to find out the root cause for laws to be there; Usually it is to overcome chaos and anarchism. And if the violation does not deviate much from that cause, you can do it.

Mahathma Gandhi violated law for a cause during his non violence movement and that caused his peole to step closer to 'their dream' of being independent.

"I would rather prefer to be ethically right than legally right". But then the question goes to what ethics is. It is paradoxical to a greater extent-you can't break a law until you are 100% sure you are ethically right and there is no absolute system to verify that you are 100% right But at the same time you know that not breaking it will be right neither.

In some cases we can easily reason out but it is tough to assertain in certain other cases.

This is apparent and that is why we call this universe full of 'imperfections' and 'uncertainities' for human cognition.


This depends entirely on your moral framework; as a moral objectivist, the particular moment "when" it is OK to "break the rules" is arbitrary, based on each person's own moral viewpoint. I.E. there is no universal "it is always OK to break the rules if X happens". We determine when it is OK for each of ourselves and this "breaking point" will inevitably vary from person to person.


When the outcome is greater and outweighs the evil of breaking the rules. Goes back to the origins of, doing a bad thing for a good cause.

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    awesome answer..thanks Surfer513..but to play devil's advocate many evil people in history have used such logic to do evil. could there be more to it?
    – Lostsoul
    Jul 12, 2011 at 4:05
  • What if there are other options. If the same can be achieved within the rules?
    – Chad
    Jul 12, 2011 at 15:44
  • Maybe you could unpack this a little?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jul 13, 2011 at 0:18

For example to avoid damage you may tell a lie. You should not lie but it is OK to tell a lie being asked by a bank robber whether you know the combination to the vault.

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    Can you elaborate on this? though it may be the start of an example that addresses the original question, it doesn't go very far in explaining how.
    – Mitch
    Aug 17, 2011 at 19:38
  • Thank you for the question Mitch. You may tell me as a rule I should tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But if you are going to hurt me then it's ethical that I tell you a lie to avoid damage and there is can be right is such a case to break the rule and tell you a lie instead of the truth. Aug 18, 2011 at 0:16
  • I understand what your saying Niklas, but is that ethnical? I mean your example would apply to someone who just got caught for robbing a bank..He may lie to avoid punishment, that isn't ethnical.
    – Lostsoul
    Aug 18, 2011 at 4:03

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