Do we have an unqualified moral obligation to obey the law?

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When Singaporean activist Jolowan Wham was charged by the police for organizing a public assembly without a permit after he had held a vigil outside Changi Prison for an inmate who had been sentenced to death, there was much discussion online regarding whether Mr. Wham’s actions were inappropriate, or on the contrary, whether the actions taken against him were unnecessary.

I wish to talk about one particular aspect of the present debate – that is, the question of whether Mr. Wham was wrong to have held the vigil solely on the basis that it was against the law for him to have done so. Some commentators appear to take this position. Mr Calvin Cheng, for example, commented in a Facebook post that although causes such as opposing the death penalty are “noble causes”, there are ways for activists to champion them while respecting the law.

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Mr. Cheng is correct in that, broadly speaking, noble causes can be undermined if they are championed through the wrong types of behavior. However, the key issue here is what consists ‘acceptable’ behavior in the context of public activism? Of course, it is conceded that many acts that break the law are wrong and damaging, but is an act automatically wrong just because it involves disobeying the law?

is an act automatically wrong just because it involves disobeying the law?

If we were to take such a position, and criticize Mr. Wham solely because he broke the law, then we should too, condemn any German who saved a Jew’s life, or helped a Jew escape Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, since that German had broken the law as it was during the time. Such a position is untenable, and I doubt very few people would take it. Hence, it is argued that the rightness or wrongness of an action ought not to be judged solely on whether it involves the disobedience of the law (thought that might be a useful starting point), but rather, on the substantive basis and effects of that action.

To some, this argument might be unintuitive. After all, if it is possible to obey the law and act wrongly, or disobey the law and act rightly, one might ask, why obey the law at all? However, as Singaporeans, we should not be so uncritical as to let our moral compasses be purely dictated by the legality of our actions, but rather, through a careful consideration of their substantive impacts, as well the motivations behind them, in deciding whether something is right or wrong.

There is also a logical dimension to this problem. If something is right just because it is the law, and wrong just because it is not, then logically, laws should never change, since they will always be right as they are, and never wrong. However, laws do change, and this exposes the fallacy of those who think rightness and wrongness are mere mirror images of legality and illegality.

One might respond, as one netizen has, that (to paraphrase his words) if one wishes to disobey the law then one ought not to complain when punished for doing so, and if one believes a law is unjust, then one ought to stand for election, or mobilize a majority of votes to get it changed.

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This is a common viewpoint, and I have seen it repeated on various platforms. It is unfortunately a very simplistic position to take on a rather complex issue. To take this viewpoint is to first of all speak from a point of privilege in that one’s ‘side’ (so to speak) is favored by the current status quo. Second, instead of looking into the substantive reasons why a law should or should not exist, or whether it is good for society as a whole (and not just the majority), it simply takes the position of: ‘we are in charge, so too bad, you better play by our rules and if you don’t and get burnt, it is your fault‘. Third, by saying that Mr. Wham is wrong since he could always change the law completely overlooks the fact that there may not necessarily an equal playing field, and also that the very law that is being broken in Mr. Wham’s case is precisely one that restricts freedom of expression, which is necessary in order to convince the electorate to take up legal change.

Here is another common viewpoint that needs to be reconsidered:

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Again, I see this viewpoint shared on multiple platforms – that disobedience of the law is completely and unqualifiedly unacceptable on the basis that disobedience of the law will set society down a path to anarchy, and hence anyone who disobeys the law ought to be roundly condemned. Unfortunately, like the above viewpoint, this perspective is too simplistic, and fails to consider the nuances at stake. It makes a sweeping assumption that all forms of civil disobedience lead to anarchy, without any considering different forms of civil disobedience. Again, it does not look into the law that is being disobeyed but takes a simplistic approach and treats, say, the law against murder and the law against chewing gum as equally valid (or invalid), and believes that a contravention of the former is wrong precisely because it would, at some point, lead to the contravention of the latter.

Finally, an unqualified moral duty to obey the law, if it exists, must rest on some legitimate moral authority of the legal system. This, some commentators have argued, is lacking in some respects. For example, Andrew Loh points out that sometimes, it appears that not all are equal before the law:

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One might argue that an inconsistent application of the law undermines the law’s authority, which correspondingly undermines any unqualified moral duty to obey it.

Hence, it is very difficult to condemn Mr Wham on the sole basis that he ought to have obeyed the law. Any criticism of his actions must take into account the normative impacts of his behavior, and must also consider the content of the laws he disobeyed. Are they fair? Are they just? Are they good for society? Right now the debate remains too simplistic, and this needs to change.

As a parting note, I noted earlier that we should be critical thinkers and think about the reasons behind our actions, as well as their impacts on others in deciding whether or not to do it, rather than whether or not they break the law or not. I believe that this is important for us as individuals with a sense of right and wrong; otherwise we will be no different to those Nazi collaborators who, after being condemned for their atrocities, attempt to defend themselves by saying that it was legal for them to do what they did at the time.

So next time, when you tell a child not to steal, don’t tell them not to do it because it is against the law; tell them not to do it because it is wrong, because it hurts others and because it is selfish. This sort of approach towards appraising human behavior, I argue, is far more superior than a simplistic equation between legality and morality.

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Image credit: The Straits Times

Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a recent law graduate from the University of Oxford. His interests include politics, sociology, legal theory and political philosophy.

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