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The Rationality Of The Duty To Obey Laws

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Let’s suppose that someone is born in Canada and is, therefore, by law, automatically a citizen. From an infancy, until the person is 18 they have been living and acting in the everyday Canadian lifestyle and this is a lifestyle that is enjoyed by the individual. They have also been subjected to Canadian laws throughout their lifetime, however, has not always obeyed them. Despite whether the individual obeys or disobeys the law, the question that stands is whether the person has a duty to obey most laws, most of the time? The theme of obedience and disobedience and what justifies wither action is one which has been disputed through centuries. Here, I will argue that one has the duty to obey most laws most of the time because it is irrational to not obey the laws of a civil state which are mostly just.

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For the purpose of this essay, civil state will refer to a sovereign body made up of individuals (Social Contract Theory, Rousseau) who are governed by las which are legitimized by an authority (a government), which itself, is outlined in terms of a constitution in society (Theory of Justice, Thoreau). Rationality, in it’s simplest form, will refer to the economic definition, where the benefits will outweigh the cost. We will also assume that the civil state which we discuss is for the most part just in its laws. This essay will first introduce the theory of justice, as examined in Thoreau’s Resistance to a Civil Government (Chapter V1 Duty and obligation). Next, we will examine civil disobedience to “unjust” laws through the experience of Martine Luther King Jr. and Antigone.

Finally, we will look at social contract theory as explained by Rousseau in order to further examine that one has the duty to obey is not merely for oneself, but for the collective. The reason that one may say it is rational to have the duty to obey most laws is that the benefits of obeying the law are much greater than the costs of what it takes to obey. The first argument that Thoreau examines is the principle of fairness in relation to the theory of justice. In his essay, “this principle [of fairness] holds that a person is under the obligation to do his part as specified by the rules of the institution whenever he has voluntarily accepted the benefits … or has taken advantage opportunities it offers… provided the institution is just or fair…” (Thoreau, coursepack, 175). Thoreau uses the concept of a promise to relay this idea; instead, we will backtrack to the idea of natural duties in order to explain cost-benefit analysis, which will later relate back. Mutual respect would be a natural duty, and as Thoreau explains, benefits an individual immensely by perpetuating one’s worth through the respect shown towards one by others in society; due to this notion the individual also has the duty to show another the respect that is due to them (171). Using the example in the introduction, in Canada an individual has the benefit of a pension when one retires, granted that the individual does their part in paying their taxes.

Similarly, the amount we pay in taxes to the government, we see benefits that return to us in the form of security from foreign powers (Rousseau). Thus, living within the civil state of Canada provides individuals with great benefits (pensions, security), which come with small costs (like paying taxes); when factoring in the costs to benefits, it is more rational to obey laws. But what is a law is unjust? In this instance, what if the costs outweigh the benefits received? Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the brutality and systematic racisms created in segregation laws in America. Historically, the Black people of America were systematically oppressed by means of unjust laws which demeaned them as humans and provided very little benefits in their part. King Jr. writes from his jail cell “one has the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (King Jr. , coursepack, 153). So by this logic, using on the bases of the theories presented above, one has the duty to not obey the laws when it costs the individual more than it does benefit him. The notion of having a “moral responsibility to disobey is also present in Sophocles tragedy, Antigone. In the play, Antigone disobeys the law when she buries her brother because God’s told her to do so (Sophocles, 18).

In relation, Aquinas writes that laws are unjust when they contradict Devine law (Aquinas, coursepack, 25). So in all the above cases of disobedience, one would say that there is a duty to disobey laws, especially when they conflict with the moral consciousness of the individual. In this instance, one would say it is even rational to disobey as the burden or rejecting moral consciousness can be a cost with no benefits. Since it’s been established that it is rational to disobey laws because they constrict moral conscious, let me pose the idea that laws only reflect the general will of people. Before this Rousseau explains that obedience to a state brings about moral freedom which allows people to associate with laws of a country because they believe themselves to be free and have associate freedom with the civil state (Rousseau, coursepack, 130). The moral freedom that people credit from issue to Rousseau’s social contract theory. This theory shows civil state perpetuates the general will of the people as it acts as a machine with multiple parts assembled together to work as a whole (142).

People obey most of the laws imposed by the civil state because they encompass the social contract, which values the general will, which in extension is there will (139). It is rational to obey because: “by nature of the pack every act of sovereignty, that is to say, every genuine act of the general will, …favours all citizens equally … [and] knows only the body of the nations and does not single anyone out” (139). Canada, being a state which is generally just and is ruled by a system of democracy where elected members of legislature reflect the will’s of the people from their region and come together to form laws, which together construct the general will of the nation. Thus, we have a duty to obey most laws because social contract theory says that we are a part of a greater political body, which we gain benefits from, and an extension, it is rational because the laws derived from this theory reflect the general will of the people which in extension reflects our own will. Although one may have the duty to disobey laws because they reject moral consciousness, it is the moral freedom derived from the general will of people within the social contract that gives us perpetuate the duty to obey most laws, most of the time. Additionally the notion of rationality, in that most of the time, not always, in a civil state, the cost of obeying laws are very little compared to the benefits you receive. To conclude, there is a duty to obey most laws, most of the time, which is justified by rationality.

18 May 2020

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