Is it morally right to break unjust laws?

Perem Segar ponders whether civil disobedience can be justified.

Does a Malaysian ever have the right to break an unjust law? Knowing that the law is in force, does he have the moral duty to obey it?

One division would claim that any act of disobedience should be prosecuted and are very frustrated when such wrongdoers are not convicted. The other group are sympathetic to some acts of disobedience, where they occasionally disprove of prosecutions and are pleased for acquittals.

Both parties however believe that man has a universal duty to obey the laws even if he disapproves of it because in a society, man is bound by his duty to his fellow citizens, who also obey law that they do not like to his benefit.

But is this an absolute duty though? Do we only owe our duty to the State? Duties can be various — the duty to our family, God, and most importantly in the authors view, the duty to our conscience. A person evaluates what is right in the end after pondering on each duty he has. If he considers other duties to offset his duty to the State, then breaking the law is foreseeable.

The duty to the State is also complex one. Some view it as fundamental, and some obey the state grudgingly and view those who break unjust law as moral heroes. There are also some who put the State so high up, that anything the State dictates must be followed. Then there are those who put the State much lower, and claim that man has no moral duty to obey the State.

Most of us are assumed to be somewhere in the middle — we believe that man has a moral duty to obey the law, but has the option of following his conscience when his conscience conflicts with his duty to the State.

When a person chooses to follow his conscience instead of the State, civil disobedience usually materialises. In a nutshell, civil disobedience is when protesters deliberately break a law. The laws they break are usually the ones they are protesting against, such as segregation laws, draft laws etc.

There any many reasons for civil obedience. In many cases it is used to publicise an unjust law, or to fight for a just law while appealing to the conscience of the public.

Famous advocates of civil obedience are Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi and the many moral heroes who have lived and continue to live amongst us today. It is undeniable that through civil disobedience many civil rights were won (racial equality, gender equality, equal pay, etc.).

However, there are objections to the occurrence of civil disobedience in a democratic State.

Strong objections for civil disobedience in a democracy are not that many. One of the main ones would be that civil disobedience cannot be justified in a democracy because of the existence of legal channels, because unjust laws made by legislatures can be changed by legislatures, thus civil disobedience is unnecessary.

David Thoreau, an American thinker advocating Civil disobedience, argues that sometimes the Constitution is the problem and not the solution. He argues that sometimes legal channels may take too long, and he echoes this by saying — ‘I am born to live and not to lobby’.

Martin Luther King Jr claims that if the legal channels in theory are open, but in practice are obstructed or closed, then the system itself is a façade of democracy, and the only way break that smokescreen is by civil disobedience.

Another objection for civil disobedience is that we should only resort to it when all legal channels have been exhausted. With respect, the author feels that legal channels can never be exhausted, because activists can always write another letter to a member of parliament and state assemblyperson, they can always wait for another five years to cast their votes. This process may end being cyclical with the legal channels and will just be repeated year after year.

The reality of the quote ‘Justice delayed, is justice denied’ can be seen in the nearly 300-years struggle against segregation between the blacks and the whites in America. Martin Luther King Jr shares the author’s sentiment and this can be seen in his eloquent statement — ‘Patience in fighting injustice, perpetuates injustice’.

So should a Malaysian break an unjust law? Aristotle said —‘It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen’.

The conclusion of this short article lies in the readers own view of duty, conscience, and justice.

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Posted on 20 February 2014. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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3 Responses to Is it morally right to break unjust laws?

  1. we should follow the laws which is necessary for stability and if one happens to make references on how past education was, then that person would have all the reasons to embrace the modern education.

  2. Any feedback we may have, I mean us – ordinary people, these offenses are punishable by law equally, and in this case I do not see an end in breaking the law just because it seems not quite moral.

  3. morality and being "on the moral high ground" but therein lies the conundrum," in good conscience "according to whose standards.of interpretation and "definition of" there are so many differing man's/segment view of standards of morality can well be seen as another's trangressions