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What, If Any, Protections Should There Be 
For Disobeying Bad or Unconscionable Laws?
Rick Garlikov

The standard parental response to "But everybody does it" is, of course, "If everyone else were jumping off the roof, would you do that too?!" meaning that following the crowd is not always the right thing to do, and here is a clear example of that.

However, those same parents, if they are citizens in a democracy, might hold that if everyone (or even just 51% of voters) voted that people should jump off a roof, that as long as that is the law, we should all obey it.  Hence, everyone else's believing something is right or doing it, is not grounds for joining them in doing it, but their voting for it, is.  How does a vote justify something that is otherwise wrong?  Or does it?  When, if ever, doesn't it?  Those are the questions I am raising, but not answering, in this essay.

Now, while it is unlikely that voters will approve a roof-jumping referendum or that legislators would pass such a bill, still there are plenty of laws that do get passed, and that have been passed, that commit people to actions they think are wrong and even unconscionable, or that prohibit people from activities they believe right, perhaps even obligatory, to do. Thus, the collective conventional wisdom (or beliefs) that serves as the (merely political) protection against roof-jumping legislation breaks down in cases that are not as commonly obvious but which may be just as wrong.

So the question is, what, if any, are the safeguards in American or other democracies that protect the individual against having to do acts s/he believes wrong (or having to refrain from acts believed right or obligatory) even though s/he also believes one should (normally) obey the law? What should such safeguards be, if any? And what is the rationale for having or not having various (or any) safeguards.

The Viet Nam War, of course, was a notable case that raised the issue of conscientious objection to conscription and to supporting the war in various ways, but there are plenty of other issues that show the subject is far more general than just objections to (a particular) war. Many people believe in the right to suicide or assisted suicide under certain conditions, but most states prohibit that. Many women and some doctors, even before Roe v. Wade, believed that abortion under certain circumstances was right to do even though the law prohibited it. In a nation closely divided on this issue, abortion again may someday be made illegal, or its legal circumstances severely restricted. During prohibition, many thought it was right to make, sell, buy, and drink, alcoholic beverages. Similarly with marijuana and some other drugs today, particularly with regard to medicinal uses to improve the quality of life of terminal patients or to attenuate the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation medical treatments. Many people think certain taxes, or the expenditures for which they are collected, are wrong or at least excessive and unfair. Some people believe that public education has taken an immoral, and/or in some cases, incompetent, turn, and they want some sort of affordable and educationally feasible remedy so that they do not have to send their children to such schools. 

The same question, I think, may be asked in many ways: 

Why should, and when, if ever, should, the political will of a majority override the moral views of the minority? 

What, if anything, makes following the majority will morally obligatory in those cases where the action enjoined is otherwise considered immoral? 

Which is an individual's higher moral obligation in such cases? 

Can a majority vote make something that is wrong be right? If so how? 

Should there be any limits to majority rule? If so, what should they be? (Remember that even the rights in the Bill of Rights, and all the other rights, of the United States Constitution can be annulled by constitutional amendment. Such amendments require a particular kind of majority vote that is, of course, difficult to achieve under normal social and political circumstance, but still possible, and under some circumstances perhaps more likely. So although rights granted in the Constitution are not subject to annulment by "simple" majority rule, they still need sufficient minority consensus in order to protect any individuals, and therefore individual conscience and reason may be trumped. Thus even Constitutional rights are not the kind of absolute legal or moral protection they are often erroneously considered to be.)
And, of course, in all the versions of this question, what is the reasoning that supports the answer?
This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.