Obeying and Breaking Laws, Rules, and Agreements
Rick Garlikov


There are at least three reasons different people obey particular laws (or, perhaps more precisely, do not disobey them):


1)    Because the particular law states correctly what is morally right to do, even if it weren’t a law:
Some people believe the laws or rules they obey state what is morally (or at least administratively) right, and they would do those things for that reason even if there were no law requiring it.  In many cases that is why morally good people do not break laws which reflect morally right principles.  It is not laws against theft that keep most people from stealing; it simply doesn’t seem right to them to take something they have not earned from someone who has earned it.  It is not because of laws against public indecency that most people wear clothes outside; they are not doing it to obey the law. This is the reason I wrote above that it is more precise to talk about people not disobeying a law rather than obeying it, since we often do what laws require, but not because laws require it. 


However, people who comply with laws or rules for this rationale will sometime violate laws, break rules, or ignore policies they believe to be seriously wrong, particularly morally wrong.  More about this later.

And I say “administratively right”, as opposed to morally right, because what makes some rules or law right to comply with is that they were set by an administrative decision rather than by morality, but once set, then non-compliance causes problems due to making it dangerous for other people who are acting on reasonable expectations of what your actions will be.  E.g., it is not that driving on the right side of the road or the left side is more morally right prior to the adoption of either side as the general rule, but once a side is adopted, then it would be dangerous and generally harmful and thus morally wrong to break the rule, because other people are counting on everyone’s conforming to the practice for safety’s sake.  [As an aside, this is why strange local laws about reversible one-way streets with confusing signs are dangerous and unfair to expect tourists to be able to follow, such as these gems, which for full effect you have to imagine coming upon for the first time at a busy intersection and having to make a decision about whether it is okay to proceed or not, and if so, which way.]  As you will see later, it is often important for people to be able to predict or know each other’s likely behavior in order to be properly prepared for it and its consequences, and these signs make that very difficult in simply factual, let alone complex moral, situations:

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2)    Some people believe it is a duty, especially in a democracy, to obey the law, no matter what it says, even if it is a bad law:
Some people believe it is morally right to obey laws, rules, and official or institutional policies even if the law, rule, or policy is a bad or wrong one -- that there is a strong (some  people seem to think, even absolute) moral duty to obey existing laws, rules, policies, etc. at least in a democracy. They believe that if you think a law is wrong, you should work within the system to change it, but obey it unless and until it is changed.  And people often also believe it is always required to do or accept what you said you would if you voluntarily signed an agreement or contract about it. Notice that an implication of this point of view is that it doesn’t matter whether the rule, law, policy, or agreement prohibits or requires a particular given act; if the pronouncement is to do it, then people in this group believe it should be done, and if the pronouncement is not to do it, then they believe it should not be done.  It is not the act itself that matters one way or the other, but what the rule, policy, or law is about it.  People in this group are willing to go either way; they simply need to know which way is required.

While I believe that, at least in a democracy, there is a prima facie obligation to obey the law, and that in general there is a prima facie obligation to keep one’s word in an agreement, I don’t believe those are absolute obligations, meaning that no circumstances would make it right to override them.  Laws can be passed that, if unforeseen circumstances occur, can produce such harmful consequences if the law is then followed that it would be morally worse to follow the law than to break it.  Even in the military, orders may sometimes be, and should sometimes be, disobeyed, according to Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley who is reported to have said he “expects soldiers to know when it's time to disobey an order.”

"We're the military, so you're supposed to say, 'Obey your orders,'" Milley said. "That's kind of fundamental to being in the military. We want to keep doing that. But a subordinate needs to understand that they have the freedom and they are empowered to disobey a specific order, a specified task, in order to accomplish the purpose. It takes a lot of judgment."


Such disobedience cannot be "willy-nilly." Rather, it must be "disciplined disobedience to achieve a higher purpose," … When orders are given, the purpose of those orders must also be provided so that officers know both what they are to accomplish and how they are expected to accomplish it.


To illustrate his point, Milley offered the example of an officer who has been ordered to seize "Hill 101" as part of a larger battle plan.


"I've said the purpose is to destroy the enemy," Milley said. "And the young officer sees Hill 101, and the enemy is over on Hill 102. What does he do? Does he do what I told him to do, seize Hill 101? Or does he achieve the purpose, destroy the enemy on Hill 102?"


The answer, Milley said, is that the officer disobeys the order to seize the first hill because following that order would not achieve his commander's purpose. Instead, he takes the other hill.

I would contend that a similar argument could extend even to the point about what General Milley calls the purpose of the commander, if the soldier in the field determines that it would be better for some reason (or for some ‘higher purpose’) not to destroy the enemy on Hill 102 – not to accomplish that purpose – then the soldier should also not follow the order.  A simple example would be that it is verifiably discovered those soldiers intend to defect and turn over important information about the enemy’s positions, plans, resources, condition, etc., or, in a more complicated case, it could be that the enemy soldiers on the hill are involuntary conscripts with knowledge and skills invaluable to civilization who would willingly surrender if given the chance. 

In everyday life, bad laws and rules are often passed or laws, rules, and policies, contracts, or agreements that were adopted under circumstances at the time become harmful or unfair and wrong under new circumstances that were not anticipated.  When those things happen, conflicts arise between people in group 1 (people who obey only moral laws) and those in group 2 above (people who obey all laws and agreements no matter what they require).  I favor group 1 if following a bad law, rule, or principle will result in a significantly worse result than not following it.  I believe that is sufficient reason not to obey the law, rule, or agreement, and that morality requires it and overrides obeying it.

3)    To avoid punishment for breaking the law:
Some people simply don’t want to be punished (whether by fine or prison or both) for being caught breaking a law or rule.  For those people, morality, or even simple intrinsic consequences of the act, has nothing to do with how they act.  Everything is about gaining rewards or avoiding penalties for doing what they are told.  If there were no serious penalty or if they knew they could get away with breaking a law or rule (e.g., because they would either not be caught or because they knew they could avoid conviction or punishment because of a legal loophole or technicality), and it would benefit them to do so, they would.  An example of this sort of view occurred on the local news last night, when a 15 or 16-year-old high school student was asked what he and his friends thought about the upcoming new school rules for fall 2020 that required wearing masks and social distancing at school to try to avoid getting or spreading the potentially deadly COVID-19.  His response was he and his friends wouldn’t really like it, but he would comply “because I don’t want to get in trouble”, not because he doesn’t want to get or give someone vulnerable the disease.


People in the first two groups obey laws or rules for moral reasons, but might disagree about moral principles, particularly when they disagree about whether the circumstances are such that they would justify disobedience.  People in group 1 will disobey laws they think are morally wrong, particularly if they think they are morally reprehensible.  And they will disobey reprehensible laws even if that means having to be punished.  They often believe it is better to suffer injustice than to perpetrate or perpetuate it.  People in group 2 will obey the laws, believing it is their duty even if it causes harm, or is unfair, to innocent people.  They don’t believe it can be morally wrong to obey lawful orders or policies.  They believe it is not their right, let alone their duty, to decide not to obey a rule, law, or policy.  They may even agree with the people in group 1 that a law is terrible and that obeying it will result in terrible consequences.  But they nevertheless think it is morally wrong to disobey it, and that they think that obedience to law is more important than the bad consequences or any unfairness of the law.


I make these distinctions because there are interesting psychological ramifications that lead to serious disagreements about law and public policy, often making the disagreements become unnecessarily and unfortunately contentious in irrational ways, too often maligning the moral character and intentions of each other rather than sticking to the reasons for why a law, rule, or policy ought to be passed, changed, rescinded, or even disobeyed or disregarded.  People in group 1 will too often accuse those in group 2 for being immoral, and vice versa, when in fact they are both being moral but simply disagreeing about whether obedience to bad law overrides its consequences or the consequences of obedience override the law.  One could even hold that obedience is generally required unless the consequences are extremely unfair or harmful, and that they are extremely unfair or harmful in some particular case at issue.  One doesn’t have to hold obedience is always (or never) necessary in order to hold it is necessary in all but disastrous cases.  It is not a defect in moral character to disagree in reasonable ways about whether a particular case is egregious enough to outweigh obedience or not.


From a psychological perspective, first there are many people, no matter why they obey laws, who believe that there are too many people in group 3 who will not obey laws unless punishment for violations is likely to be swift and certain. In some cases, they put much emphasis, sometimes too much emphasis, on Draconian enforcement.  Even people in group 1 often think that an act’s being morally obligatory, justifies the state’s enforcement of it, even though there are clear cases where that is not true – such as its being wrong to stand people up on a date, but hardly right to have them arrested for or have the police enforce.  This is an even more important concern when there is some question whether the laws or rules are right or fair or not in the first place.  It is less likely, but nevertheless possible, and not necessarily inconsistent, for people even in group 2 to hold that laws should be obeyed but hold that enforcement has moral limits too, particularly if the results of enforcement are worse than the legal punishments for conviction of breaking the law. 


Many of the police misconduct allegations, for example, involve violence during the arrest in disproportion to the seriousness of the law alleged to be being broken.  George Floyd, for example, was being arrested for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill, which he may not have even known was counterfeit, and lost his life over that.  Of course, police generally contend the law being broken that justified the (additional) force was “resisting arrest”, but even in cases where video shows the suspect did resist arrest, as in the Rashard Brooks case, shooting him in the back over his running away – leaving police with his car -- even while wildly, blindly firing a taser behind him at a pursuing officer, is hardly justified by his having been asleep and even intoxicated in his car.  This is especially true when he could have been allowed to walk to his sister’s nearby or been taken there by police and have his car impounded in the parking lot of the drive-through restaurant in order to be sure he came to court for a possible drunk driving charge.  A complaint of excessive force in making an arrest is not necessarily a complaint against the arrest (though in some cases arrest is itself not warranted), but is a charge that the force used was not justified.  Typically this is because it is more force than necessary to make the arrest and because it does more harm than necessary to the person being arrested.  But it can also be “excessive” compared with the legal penalty for conviction of the violation itself.  It is hardly justifiable to shoot someone fleeing arrest for a crime whose maximum punishment would be a fine and at most a relatively short prison or jail term.


I want to digress here for a moment to make an observation about the disconnects for both so-called liberals and so-called conservatives, especially those most vehement and perhaps considered ‘extremist’ on both sides, about whether laws should be made or not for some moral issues, and whether there should be limits on the severity or harshness of the punishment or enforcement of them.  During the COVID-19 pandemic extreme conservatives vehemently denounce and reject any attempt by government to (pass laws to) force them to wear a mask in public to protect the lives and health of others as being an infringement on their rights of liberty and self-determination what to do with their bodies.  Yet they argue for strict laws, with harsh punishments against abortion, even though extreme liberals say that is an infringement upon the liberty of women to do what they want with their bodies.  And those liberals argue it is a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body  despite how it might harm others, even if the woman voluntarily performed an act that risked her becoming pregnant knowing she would get an abortion if she did, while arguing people should be forced to wear masks to protect the lives of others because otherwise they are voluntarily performing an act that risks other people’s lives.  Extreme conservatives argue just the opposite – that it is okay to have killed someone from the virus by now wearing a mask or social distancing.  Both sides want the same argument to apply one way – their way -- but not the other.


But I don’t see how you can argue in one case simply that individual liberty trumps the lives of others and in the other case deny it as the operating principle – unless you can explain how that can possibly be because of some other principle that explains when and why, in a consistent way, individual liberty is more important than responsibility to others.  Neither liberals, as such, nor conservatives as such seem to be able to do that, thus exacerbating conflicts about both masks and abortions instead of addressing either in more reasonable moral arguments.


In order to forestall likely objections from both sides about the above, women’s right advocates would likely argue that wearing a mask in public for the safety of others is a small price to pay for the health and safety of others, compared to having a baby (and possibly also raising it or even then giving it up for adoption).  But the real issue is whether fertile women who would have an abortion if they get pregnant should voluntarily risk getting pregnant by having intercourse with a fertile man, knowing that they risk pregnancy (which they will abort) by doing so.  On the other hand anti-mask rights advocates would likely say that an abortion is murder because it definitely kills the baby whereas not wearing a mask doesn’t necessarily cause any specific person to die.  But that is like arguing it is okay to shoot randomly into a crowd as long as you don’t aim at any particular person or to drive drunk on a busy interstate or like arguing it is okay to play Russian roulette because it is not the same as, or necessarily, suicide. Both sides are arguing that the right to do something that unnecessarily risks killing someone else (whether it is intentionally having sex that has a chance it will cause a pregnancy you know ahead of time you will abort, or intentionally not wearing a mask that improves your change of giving COVID-19 to someone you know ahead of time it can kill) is right for them to do, but wrong for the other to do.


A second psychological point about the relationship between rules and punishment: one of the reasons morality is often associated with religion is that religion tends to guarantee that at least in the long run (meaning in the afterlife if not also here on earth) reward for doing right and punishment for doing wrong will be assured and fitting by an all knowing, all wise, just and fair God.  That would solve lots of problems if true.  It would basically guarantee the truth of karma and make doing what is right be individually rewarding while doing what is wrong subject to punishment without fail.  That would give people in group 3 powerful incentive to do what is right. 


However, for people in group 1 in particular, that, of course, requires or assumes that any specified religion has the right rules, just as it assumes that any country has fair, right, benevolent, helpful, and just laws.  Both those assumptions tend to be points of contention.  That can be seen even in religion by the proliferation of denominations and sects within any given religion, besides the disagreements between entire religions.  And it can be seen by the fact that many religions have liberal wings and conservative wings that cannot agree about what their religion requires about various issues.  I would argue that in some ways liberals in different religions are more in agreement about some issues than they are with conservatives in their own religions, and that in some cases even conservatives from different religions are more in agreement about what is right or wrong than they are with liberals from their own religion.


But to me the third and most interesting psychological ramification of the three group divisions concerns trust, control, and predictability; that is, whether we can reliably control and then trust to any reasonable degree that others in our group or in a different group will do what we expect they will or should.  Let me explain.


Suppose, as in the traffic rules and signs above, it is important to control and be able to predict or know people’s behavior.  Besides the cases already mentioned, consider rules against weaving in and out of traffic.  We have all seen drivers weave back and forth among lanes, passing some cars on the left and others on the right, in order to gain an advantage getting where they are going fastest.  In relatively slow traffic, this is not particularly dangerous, but it is very dangerous on the freeway at high rates of speed because if someone is driving fast and weaving, the only thing that makes that even possibly safe is that no one they are about to pass will suddenly pull into the lane they intend to use to pass them just before, or while, they pass them.  And they cannot be sure of that.  Other drivers don’t always use their mirrors properly, or you may be in their blind spot when they do.  It is not just the speed involved, but the unpredictability of the drivers that risks serious harm.


Or suppose you want to hire someone to work for you, and you need to be able to trust his/her judgment in all kinds of situations whether involving work safety or how their behavior and comments reflect on your company.  Or suppose your children want to go out with their friends and you need to know whether their friends are trustworthy, conscientious, and responsible or not.


Now, it is easier to predict and reply on some people than others.  If you know someone belongs to group 3 and that the penalty for breaking a law or a company rule or policy is sufficiently enforced to keep them on the straight and narrow, they are a safe bet to hire, no matter which group you belong to yourself.  This also works for predicting the behavior of anyone who belongs to group 1 who is an ethical egoist – meaning someone who believes s/he should always do what is in his or her own overall or long-term best interest.  You just have to make sure they know what is in their own best interest with regard to working for you or how they behave with your son or daughter. 

A sensitive, moral ethical egoist won’t need extrinsic reward or punishment to do what is right, so they may not particularly also belong to group 3 as well as group 1, but for ethical egoists who are neither sensitive to their own best interests or particularly intelligent enough to realize the intrinsic consequences of their own actions, one might also need to treat them as though they are in group 3 and make sure they are aware of the extrinsic consequences (rewards or punishments) for them.  Of course neither ethical egoists for whom intrinsic consequences of their acts are insufficient nor people who belong to group 3 will be trustworthy to do what is right if they believe they can get away without punishment for doing what is wrong.  People who believed President Trump to be a pathological narcissist ridiculed Senator Susan Collins for saying she voted against convicting him on charges of impeachment because she thought “he had learned his lesson”.  They said the only lesson he had learned from his acquittal would be that he could get away with anything because the Senate was too afraid of his base to remove him from office.  Insensitive or “unenlightened” ethical egoists, as well as amoral and immoral people who respond only to certain reward and punishment, need to know those rewards or punishments are likely, if they are to be influenced by them.


One of my friends who had a very beautiful teenage daughter said that when she dated anyone new, he would proudly show off his gun collection to the boy when he came to pick her up, casually saying that he trusted the boy would behave in a gentlemanly way to his daughter.  I always thought he should also ask how the kid spells his name, explaining that it is so he can engrave it properly on any bullet he might need to.  He didn’t think he needed to go that far.  I myself jokingly told my older daughter that I would set out a bowl of walnuts with a nutcracker and ask any of her dates whether they want some crushed nuts.  She thought I was serious and that it would be so embarrassing and horrific that she told her friends what I had threatened, and so I never even had to buy the walnuts, let alone say anything to the guys.  The circulation of that story alone did the job.  And, as far as I know, gun collections and nutcrackers can overcome even the hormones and otherwise poor judgment of even teenage boys.  Of course, I could be wrong and possibly my daughters kept the boys in check themselves or were just lucky not to have become pregnant or infected with something.


If you know someone belongs to group 2 and is thus disposed to obey rules, laws, policies, and agreements, even without punishment, then as long as you know s/he knows what those rules, policies, etc. are, you can trust her/him to at least try to do what those require.


If you know that someone will do the morally right thing according to the principles they have, then if you know what those principles are under various circumstances they will face, you can fairly likely predict their behavior or choices too.


The big problems for trust however occur when you cannot tell which group someone belongs to (if any of these three) or when you cannot tell what their moral principles are or whether they even have any.  And people in group 2 or group 3 in particular have real difficulty being able to predict or judge people in group 1 because they don’t know what their principles or what they imply in a given case. So do other people in group 1 who believe in fairly simple, generally black and white, moral principles when they are faced with someone from group 1 who believes there is more nuance and complexity involved in moral situations and decisions.  This is similar to making judgments in legal cases.  Not always, but generally the votes, for example, of so-called liberal and so-called conservative justices on the Supreme Court tend to be fairly predictable in cases which tend to involve liberal versus conservative issues.  But it is the votes of “swing justices” who are not staunchly either liberal or conservative, that determine the decision of the court in such cases, and those can only be reasonably confidently predicted by those who know and understand the more nuanced and complex philosophy and principles of law with which the swing justices view cases. 

The same is true for independent politicians whose principles one does not understand.  On the TV show West Wing, one such exchange, given here, points this out.  James Brolin plays the governor of Florida running for President against President Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen.  Brolin is very conservative and not particularly cerebral, and he says this to Sheen right before one of their nationally televised debates.

I maintain that Brolin says Sheen cannot be trusted because he doesn’t know or understand Sheen’s moral principles at all other than to categorize them as liberal and weak, probably because they are too complex and too sensitive to the rights and fair treatment of accused criminals and to the interests of other countries rather than using intimidation through military, police, and economic threat and power, and because they are not simplistically definitive and absolute without exception, no matter what the circumstances.  Those of us who think Sheen’s character is intelligent, sensitive, honest, and knowledgeable believe he is eminently trustworthy, even in cases where we may disagree with his particular reasoning or conclusion.  And we think that using facts and reason to point out the flaws in the other party's positions is not a sign of arrogance, snobbishness, or elitism.


This same sort of problem of predictability and trust comes about in non-moral issues as well, when one side cannot understand the principles used by others.  The simple case is in the above reversable lane street signs above.  Newcomers cannot trust themselves, let alone be trusted by others, to make the correct decision and drive correctly when faced with one of those signs suddenly and unexpectedly in busy traffic. 


In more complex areas it is as bad or worse, though not as clear.  I have long been an advocate of teaching for understanding, rather than for rote memory, and I used to push my local boards of education and successive superintendents to try to institute policies that would work toward that.  They didn’t really understand the concept and they couldn’t understand why I opposed almost every plan they came up with that essentially was just different ways of teaching and testing for rote memorization.  One superintendent told me once in private what Brolin told Sheen, that he didn’t understand what I wanted and that he couldn’t trust me.  Because he had plenty of reason to trust me in other ways, I assumed he meant he couldn’t trust me to be supportive of any proposal or program he and the board adopted.  I agreed he didn’t understand what I thought made for a good education and what I was thus seeking them to implement. 


But I, of course, thought I was very consistent and trustworthy in a principled way about all this, though I could see how he couldn’t see that because he didn’t know or understand (or really try to know and understand) the philosophy of education and the reasons for it that I had tried to get acted upon, and had tried to explain with examples, and volunteer teaching and mentoring in the schools for years.  Also, he was well aware that I had at first been one of the most public vocal supporters of the school system’s first superintendent but became that superintendent’s most vocal public critic when he instituted the opposite of what he had said he would when hired.  To anyone who didn’t understand the underlying principles of education involved, it probably appeared I had simply switched sides for some personal reason. 


And it didn’t help my cause that the school system at issue was a suburban one whose students did relatively well on state tests and that I was not arguing they were not educating the students well relative to other school systems in the state, but that I was arguing they were not educating the students in our district to anywhere near the potential those students started school with, given the resource advantages families in the district.  That was just an alien concept to the board and the superintendents in the state who were all basically trying to make sure students had relatively good test scores on the high stakes achievement tests in the state and who didn’t see the problem with merely doing well on such tests, even though college teachers and business leaders were bemoaning the learning abilities of students even from the high scoring districts.


Since morality requires reasoning and logic about intangibles in many of the same ways as philosophy of education and every other philosophical matter, and since its results are often even less visible than school test scores or other surface indicators of relative success in life, and certainly less easy to see than the problems with the street signs shown here, it is to be expected that until and unless people can understand their own and each other’s ethical principles better, behavior based on principle will not be considered predictable apart from harsh coercion (and sometimes even with and despite harsh coercion).   And people will then mistrust even the most moral and well-meaning other members of society, not to mention mistrusting those who actually deserve mistrust and who are not well-intentioned or concerned about being decent, respectful, and fair to others.