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  Is it morally right to break an unjust law?
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Author Topic: Is it morally right to break an unjust law?  (Read 1058 times)
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John Dule
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« on: January 07, 2020, 07:21:44 am »

If you break the law, you go to jail.  You don't get to say "well, I don't like that law, so it's not fair to send me to jail for breaking it."

I've been considering this exact question lately and I was curious to hear Atlas' take on it. Is it acceptable for a person to break the law if they have a moral objection to that law? Aquinas, Cicero, and Ockham said yes. Hobbes said no. As usual I'm inclined to side with Hobbes, but I look forward to some spirited debate.
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« Reply #1 on: January 07, 2020, 08:06:58 am »

It depends on why you break that law. I do not think it is morally right to break a law only because you think that law is unjust. However, it is morally right to do an action that is morally right even if it means breaking an unjust law. Indeed, depending upon the circumstances, it is possible for it to be morally right to break a just law, as no law can be so perfect as to deal with every possibility with equity. That is one reason why the English legal tradition has both courts of equity and courts of law.
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AtorBoltox
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« Reply #2 on: January 07, 2020, 08:13:53 am »

This is one occasion where it's justified to invoke Godwin's law
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Mopolis
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« Reply #3 on: January 07, 2020, 02:03:02 pm »

The threat of jail muddles the issue. The right thing to do is always the right thing to do, regardless of its incidental consequences.
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John Dule
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« Reply #4 on: January 07, 2020, 03:36:48 pm »

It depends on why you break that law. I do not think it is morally right to break a law only because you think that law is unjust. However, it is morally right to do an action that is morally right even if it means breaking an unjust law. Indeed, depending upon the circumstances, it is possible for it to be morally right to break a just law, as no law can be so perfect as to deal with every possibility with equity. That is one reason why the English legal tradition has both courts of equity and courts of law.

I like this interpretation, but it doesn't set up any sort of objective standard independent from the law by which we can judge actions. By your logic (correct me if I'm wrong), morality and legality are completely independent concepts, and it's possible for there to be no correlation whatsoever between the two in a hypothetical society. How do we prevent people from breaking the law and justifying doing so by saying that the law conflicts with their own personal interpretation of morality?
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brucejoel99
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« Reply #5 on: January 07, 2020, 03:57:53 pm »

Generally speaking, & in most normal circumstances, we're ALL morally obliged to follow the law, but unjust laws are to be broken & protested against (Aquinas famously said: "An unjust law is not a law").
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Antonio V
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« Reply #6 on: January 07, 2020, 07:23:22 pm »

By definition, if a law is unjust, then following it is immoral (that's all it can mean for a law to be unjust) and thus disobeying it is not just morally licit, but morally required.

But that's missing the real issue. It's all well and good to talk of a hypothetical, theoretical "unjust law", but this premise assumes perfect moral knowledge on the part of the individual. Real individuals, of course, fall short of that. Moral error is a universal fact of human nature, I'm sure even atheists concede as much. So the real question isn't "is it right to break an unjust law?" but "is it right to break a law that I (possibly mistakenly) feel is unjust?"

There are many factors to consider in answering that question, of course. The most important is who made that law. If you live in a democracy, then the presumption is that a majority of the citizenry believed the law to be just (obviously the gap between the ideal democracy and the very flawed reality we see is quite big, but that's a question for another day). And if a majority believed so, then I'd say that in almost all circumstances the right thing to do is to defer to one's peers. Who the hell are you to say the majority is wrong? Of course there are exceptions, but they are rare and should be fully motivated.
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« Reply #7 on: January 07, 2020, 11:25:08 pm »

It depends on why you break that law. I do not think it is morally right to break a law only because you think that law is unjust. However, it is morally right to do an action that is morally right even if it means breaking an unjust law. Indeed, depending upon the circumstances, it is possible for it to be morally right to break a just law, as no law can be so perfect as to deal with every possibility with equity. That is one reason why the English legal tradition has both courts of equity and courts of law.

I like this interpretation, but it doesn't set up any sort of objective standard independent from the law by which we can judge actions. By your logic (correct me if I'm wrong), morality and legality are completely independent concepts, and it's possible for there to be no correlation whatsoever between the two in a hypothetical society. How do we prevent people from breaking the law and justifying doing so by saying that the law conflicts with their own personal interpretation of morality?

Why should we have any expectation that such prevention is possible, let alone desirable?  That seems as naive to me as any expectation that breaking an unjust law should be without consequence.
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LBJer
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« Reply #8 on: January 07, 2020, 11:37:03 pm »
« Edited: January 07, 2020, 11:45:07 pm by LBJer »

By definition, if a law is unjust, then following it is immoral (that's all it can mean for a law to be unjust) and thus disobeying it is not just morally licit, but morally required.

But that's missing the real issue. It's all well and good to talk of a hypothetical, theoretical "unjust law", but this premise assumes perfect moral knowledge on the part of the individual. Real individuals, of course, fall short of that. Moral error is a universal fact of human nature, I'm sure even atheists concede as much. So the real question isn't "is it right to break an unjust law?" but "is it right to break a law that I (possibly mistakenly) feel is unjust?"

There are many factors to consider in answering that question, of course. The most important is who made that law. If you live in a democracy, then the presumption is that a majority of the citizenry believed the law to be just (obviously the gap between the ideal democracy and the very flawed reality we see is quite big, but that's a question for another day). And if a majority believed so, then I'd say that in almost all circumstances the right thing to do is to defer to one's peers. Who the hell are you to say the majority is wrong? Of course there are exceptions, but they are rare and should be fully motivated.

I find your arguments very lame.  If you believe in your bones that obeying a law is unconscionable, majority support for it is no reason to obey it.  There are numerous examples of majority opinion being wrong.  You're essentially saying that people should forfeit their individual consciences--a very dangerous and scary proposition.  Should civil rights demonstrators in the South have deferred to the will of the apparently pro-segregation majority?  By your logic, "who they hell" were they to object to segregation? Should Underground Railroad workers before the Civil War have likewise deferred to pro-slavery public opinion?

And if those contemplating breaking a law lack "perfect moral knowledge," don't those who made the law lack it as well?  Your point here cuts both ways.  

Additionally, you overlook the fact that even if a law is considered generally just by most people, there may be important exceptional situations where it is not.  When most people think of laws against murder, they're not imagining someone putting a loved one out of their misery at the person's own request.  Legally that is murder, but it's not what most people have in mind when they hear the word "murder," and it's not at all clear that most would think it would be wrong for someone in that situation to disobey the law.    
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afleitch
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« Reply #9 on: January 08, 2020, 12:16:32 pm »

By definition, if a law is unjust, then following it is immoral (that's all it can mean for a law to be unjust) and thus disobeying it is not just morally licit, but morally required.

But that's missing the real issue. It's all well and good to talk of a hypothetical, theoretical "unjust law", but this premise assumes perfect moral knowledge on the part of the individual. Real individuals, of course, fall short of that. Moral error is a universal fact of human nature, I'm sure even atheists concede as much. So the real question isn't "is it right to break an unjust law?" but "is it right to break a law that I (possibly mistakenly) feel is unjust?"

There are many factors to consider in answering that question, of course. The most important is who made that law. If you live in a democracy, then the presumption is that a majority of the citizenry believed the law to be just (obviously the gap between the ideal democracy and the very flawed reality we see is quite big, but that's a question for another day). And if a majority believed so, then I'd say that in almost all circumstances the right thing to do is to defer to one's peers. Who the hell are you to say the majority is wrong? Of course there are exceptions, but they are rare and should be fully motivated.

If laws are passed by citizens referenda perhaps you could argue that. But in parliamentary democracies it's a big jump to take an individual elected members vote, which may be for political or personal moral reasons, then pooled together to enact a law, as representative of majority opinion.
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« Reply #10 on: January 08, 2020, 03:05:00 pm »

Why should we have any expectation that such prevention is possible, let alone desirable?  That seems as naive to me as any expectation that breaking an unjust law should be without consequence.

It's desirable to prevent because if everyone is allowed to break the law if it violates their subjective views of morality, then the law loses all of its effective power. This means the law can no longer be enforced, as anyone would be able to claim a moral objection at any time. A system with laws that can't be enforced is not different in any practical way from a system with no laws at all-- aka Anarchy.

On the subject of whether or not it's possible, I'd say no. So I still think that the best way to ensure that society continues to function is to stop telling people that they can break laws that they personally deem unjust or immoral.

There are many factors to consider in answering that question, of course. The most important is who made that law. If you live in a democracy, then the presumption is that a majority of the citizenry believed the law to be just (obviously the gap between the ideal democracy and the very flawed reality we see is quite big, but that's a question for another day). And if a majority believed so, then I'd say that in almost all circumstances the right thing to do is to defer to one's peers. Who the hell are you to say the majority is wrong? Of course there are exceptions, but they are rare and should be fully motivated.

If you're trying to determine what is actually "just," and you don't accept the law as a standard for justice, then I don't see why you'd use the legislator as a standard for justice either. And as you're someone with fairly unconventional political beliefs, I would've thought you'd be less sympathetic to majority opinion. I can scarcely think of a time in human history when your socioeconomic views would've been embraced by even a slim majority in any society-- hell, just 12 years ago, 52% of our home state voted against gay marriage. But now it's legal. Does that mean that allowing gays to marry one another somehow became "more just" in the intervening time? No. If we're going to create some standard for justice that is objective and independent from the law, it should also be applicable regardless of time, place, or environment. The law is subjective depending on which society you're in, but concepts like justice and morality are useless if they are not universal.

As for your question: Who the hell are you to say the majority is right? You presume that majority opinion is somehow the aggregate of all individual opinions, but in my experience it's more like the average. Crowds are dumb, panicky, and easily led astray by emotion and social pressure. When humans act as a part of a group, they feel less responsibility for the outcome than they would as an individual, and therefore do not act responsibly. You're speaking as though legislative bodies and public majorities are somehow more than the sum of their individual parts, while I'd argue that they're actually less. As LBJer said, nobody in this equation possesses what you'd call "perfect moral knowledge," so I'm more inclined to defer to the lone individual who is capable of standing against the crowd (and has actually thought his opinions through) than the sheep who follow majority opinion in lockstep.
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« Reply #11 on: January 09, 2020, 08:43:17 am »

Why should we have any expectation that such prevention is possible, let alone desirable?  That seems as naive to me as any expectation that breaking an unjust law should be without consequence.

It's desirable to prevent because if everyone is allowed to break the law if it violates their subjective views of morality, then the law loses all of its effective power. This means the law can no longer be enforced, as anyone would be able to claim a moral objection at any time. A system with laws that can't be enforced is not different in any practical way from a system with no laws at all-- aka Anarchy.

On the subject of whether or not it's possible, I'd say no. So I still think that the best way to ensure that society continues to function is to stop telling people that they can break laws that they personally deem unjust or immoral.

I thought I made clear that I did not hold that breaking unjust laws either would be or should be without consequence or enforcement. Indeed, in classical examples of civil disobedience, such as those of Ghandi and King, those who broke unjust laws expected they would receive the consequences of doing so. They did so in expectation that receiving such consequences would help convince society at large that the laws they broke were unjust.
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« Reply #12 on: February 02, 2020, 11:29:37 pm »

MLK said it best:

“ And so it is important to see that there are times when a man-made law is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe, there are times when human law is out of harmony with eternal and divine laws. And when that happens, you have an obligation to break it, and I’m happy that in breaking it, I have some good company. I have Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I have Jesus and Socrates. And I have all of the early Christians who refused to bow.”
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« Reply #13 on: February 13, 2020, 11:12:28 pm »

It is morally right to break an immoral law in my view, now an unjust law could conceivably not be immoral if it dealt with matters not pertaining to morality but if an unjust law were immoral than it would be moral to break it. Who enacts the law is irrelevant to this unless one subscribes to the view that any law which is enacted by a political process one supports is always justified. 

The reason I consider a law to not necessarily be moral even if enacted by a political system I support is because I believe there is such a thing as Divine Law which is established by God and which supersedes any laws passed by people. I don't support the view for example that because a law may be passed via popular consent that it is right. Laws may be passed via the popular will that are immoral and it is moral to disobey and undermine them.
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« Reply #14 on: February 14, 2020, 05:08:17 am »

It is morally right to break an immoral law in my view, now an unjust law could conceivably not be immoral if it dealt with matters not pertaining to morality but if an unjust law were immoral than it would be moral to break it. Who enacts the law is irrelevant to this unless one subscribes to the view that any law which is enacted by a political process one supports is always justified. 

The reason I consider a law to not necessarily be moral even if enacted by a political system I support is because I believe there is such a thing as Divine Law which is established by God and which supersedes any laws passed by people. I don't support the view for example that because a law may be passed via popular consent that it is right. Laws may be passed via the popular will that are immoral and it is moral to disobey and undermine them.

The advantage of codified written law is that it provides an identical standard by which we can judge the actions of every person in a society uniformly. I have yet to see any sort of "divine law" pass this test. There is no consensus among believers in the divine as to what god does and does not condone. The subjectivity of belief does not only exist between faiths, it exists within them. So if you are arguing that you have the right to break the law because it violates your personal interpretation of the divine law, then you must logically extend that right to everyone else in the society. The end result of this line of thinking is indistinguishable from anarchy.
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Kingpoleon
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« Reply #15 on: February 14, 2020, 08:22:38 pm »

The advantage of codified written law is that it provides an identical standard by which we can judge the actions of every person in a society uniformly. I have yet to see any sort of "divine law" pass this test. There is no consensus among believers in the divine as to what god does and does not condone. The subjectivity of belief does not only exist between faiths, it exists within them. So if you are arguing that you have the right to break the law because it violates your personal interpretation of the divine law, then you must logically extend that right to everyone else in the society. The end result of this line of thinking is indistinguishable from anarchy.
On the contrary! A people who do not agree on morality and what should and should not be law cannot exist together as a nation for long. Your argument thus undermines itself: if all people in a society disagree on moral and immoral laws - as you have claimed - then indeed, there would be anarchy and no laws should exist. But every society in existence and extinction then beggars belief; on a few minor things, there is great controversy and dispute. But most people follow most of the law most of the time - and thus come forth societies which agree on a certain social contract, both in lifestyles and in civil and criminal conduct.

The end result of your thinking is a uniform society, where all people follow all laws all of the time and have all the same beliefs. And if that’s what you’re into, I recommend you start a cult or something.
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« Reply #16 on: February 14, 2020, 08:28:53 pm »

The advantage of codified written law is that it provides an identical standard by which we can judge the actions of every person in a society uniformly. I have yet to see any sort of "divine law" pass this test. There is no consensus among believers in the divine as to what god does and does not condone. The subjectivity of belief does not only exist between faiths, it exists within them. So if you are arguing that you have the right to break the law because it violates your personal interpretation of the divine law, then you must logically extend that right to everyone else in the society. The end result of this line of thinking is indistinguishable from anarchy.
On the contrary! A people who do not agree on morality and what should and should not be law cannot exist together as a nation for long. Your argument thus undermines itself: if all people in a society disagree on moral and immoral laws - as you have claimed - then indeed, there would be anarchy and no laws should exist. But every society in existence and extinction then beggars belief; on a few minor things, there is great controversy and dispute. But most people follow most of the law most of the time - and thus come forth societies which agree on a certain social contract, both in lifestyles and in civil and criminal conduct.

The end result of your thinking is a uniform society, where all people follow all laws all of the time and have all the same beliefs. And if that’s what you’re into, I recommend you start a cult or something.

I was not talking about the general concept of morality. I was talking about "divine law." Regardless though, the extreme diversity in what is considered "moral" in America is evidence enough against your claim that such a society would automatically disintegrate. The only laws on which we have forged a meaningful consensus are based on self-interest, not morality.
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« Reply #17 on: February 14, 2020, 09:15:30 pm »
« Edited: February 14, 2020, 09:18:50 pm by Kingpoleon »

I was not talking about the general concept of morality. I was talking about "divine law." Regardless though, the extreme diversity in what is considered "moral" in America is evidence enough against your claim that such a society would automatically disintegrate. The only laws on which we have forged a meaningful consensus are based on self-interest, not morality.
It was not I who said such a society would fall into anarchy. You said that if you have the right defy break the law because it opposes your personal idea, whether your personal idea of divine law or your personal idea of morality, such a right would lead to anarchy. But whether such a right exists or not, the possibility of such defiance exists - and has our society then become anarchy?

Our society is governed by an unwritten idea: the idea of universal brotherhood of all mankind, and the application of such alone is disputed. Nobody disputes the idea in and of itself, and so we do have a common idea of morality and right and wrong.

Also, just a note to anybody else reading: notice that he did not disavow or disagree with that last line of my first post. His ideas are that of a universal, “utopian” uniformity - an entirely common morality, which he claims is needed so that laws are followed, will naturally produce such.
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« Reply #18 on: February 14, 2020, 09:56:10 pm »

It is morally right to break an immoral law in my view, now an unjust law could conceivably not be immoral if it dealt with matters not pertaining to morality but if an unjust law were immoral than it would be moral to break it. Who enacts the law is irrelevant to this unless one subscribes to the view that any law which is enacted by a political process one supports is always justified.  

The reason I consider a law to not necessarily be moral even if enacted by a political system I support is because I believe there is such a thing as Divine Law which is established by God and which supersedes any laws passed by people. I don't support the view for example that because a law may be passed via popular consent that it is right. Laws may be passed via the popular will that are immoral and it is moral to disobey and undermine them.

The advantage of codified written law is that it provides an identical standard by which we can judge the actions of every person in a society uniformly. I have yet to see any sort of "divine law" pass this test. There is no consensus among believers in the divine as to what god does and does not condone. The subjectivity of belief does not only exist between faiths, it exists within them. So if you are arguing that you have the right to break the law because it violates your personal interpretation of the divine law, then you must logically extend that right to everyone else in the society. The end result of this line of thinking is indistinguishable from anarchy.


Yes I do believe everyone should only follow a law if it agrees with their moral views, that's why I believe a society where you have people with fundamentally different views of what is moral or immoral is destined to fail as you might have one group of people considering one thing moral and another set consider that thing immoral, only a society where everyone has the same basic worldview is capable of functioning in the long run. The experience of history is societies where you have different worldviews on fundamental matters present tend to fail eventually.
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« Reply #19 on: February 16, 2020, 03:12:34 pm »

Of course it is. Don't be a bootlicker.
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« Reply #20 on: February 17, 2020, 12:07:20 am »

It was not I who said such a society would fall into anarchy. You said that if you have the right defy break the law because it opposes your personal idea, whether your personal idea of divine law or your personal idea of morality, such a right would lead to anarchy. But whether such a right exists or not, the possibility of such defiance exists - and has our society then become anarchy?

Our society is governed by an unwritten idea: the idea of universal brotherhood of all mankind, and the application of such alone is disputed. Nobody disputes the idea in and of itself, and so we do have a common idea of morality and right and wrong.

Also, just a note to anybody else reading: notice that he did not disavow or disagree with that last line of my first post. His ideas are that of a universal, “utopian” uniformity - an entirely common morality, which he claims is needed so that laws are followed, will naturally produce such.

I did not "disavow or disagree" with that line because I thought it was apparent how absurd of a question it was. I did not take it seriously and did not think you did either. However, let me clarify my position: I would very much like to say that one should be able to violate the law if it conflicts with their moral standards. However, I cannot find a way to apply this universally without allowing people to violate the law whenever it suits them. Therefore, I am forced to conclude that the law remains the only objective metric by which we can judge a person's actions. If you have another measure we can use, feel free to suggest it.

Our society has not become anarchy because we do not recognize "This law conflicted with my personal subjective morality" as an acceptable defense in court. I thought that was obvious.

And as for the universal brotherhood of mankind, all I can say is... lol.

Yes I do believe everyone should only follow a law if it agrees with their moral views, that's why I believe a society where you have people with fundamentally different views of what is moral or immoral is destined to fail as you might have one group of people considering one thing moral and another set consider that thing immoral, only a society where everyone has the same basic worldview is capable of functioning in the long run. The experience of history is societies where you have different worldviews on fundamental matters present tend to fail eventually.

I'm sorry, but I really find this to be a ridiculous statement. So you condone the actions of any person who breaks the law so long as they are doing so because of their own subjective morality? Of course you don't. You only endorse lawbreaking when that person's conception of morality aligns with your own. Would you give a blanket license to jihadists to kill heretics because the law against murdering non-believers "doesn't agree with their moral views?" I know that's an extreme example, but if you're going to condone unlawful behavior based on your own subjective morality, then logically you have to condone it for the subjective morality of all others as well. That is, unless you claim to have some sort of monopoly on knowing what is and is not moral, in which case you should have no trouble explaining how that standard works, objectively speaking.

Of course it is. Don't be a bootlicker.

What objective standards do you set for when it is and isn't moral to break the law, then?
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« Reply #21 on: February 17, 2020, 12:47:30 am »

It was not I who said such a society would fall into anarchy. You said that if you have the right defy break the law because it opposes your personal idea, whether your personal idea of divine law or your personal idea of morality, such a right would lead to anarchy. But whether such a right exists or not, the possibility of such defiance exists - and has our society then become anarchy?

Our society is governed by an unwritten idea: the idea of universal brotherhood of all mankind, and the application of such alone is disputed. Nobody disputes the idea in and of itself, and so we do have a common idea of morality and right and wrong.

Also, just a note to anybody else reading: notice that he did not disavow or disagree with that last line of my first post. His ideas are that of a universal, “utopian” uniformity - an entirely common morality, which he claims is needed so that laws are followed, will naturally produce such.

I did not "disavow or disagree" with that line because I thought it was apparent how absurd of a question it was. I did not take it seriously and did not think you did either. However, let me clarify my position: I would very much like to say that one should be able to violate the law if it conflicts with their moral standards. However, I cannot find a way to apply this universally without allowing people to violate the law whenever it suits them. Therefore, I am forced to conclude that the law remains the only objective metric by which we can judge a person's actions. If you have another measure we can use, feel free to suggest it.

Our society has not become anarchy because we do not recognize "This law conflicted with my personal subjective morality" as an acceptable defense in court. I thought that was obvious.

And as for the universal brotherhood of mankind, all I can say is... lol.

Yes I do believe everyone should only follow a law if it agrees with their moral views, that's why I believe a society where you have people with fundamentally different views of what is moral or immoral is destined to fail as you might have one group of people considering one thing moral and another set consider that thing immoral, only a society where everyone has the same basic worldview is capable of functioning in the long run. The experience of history is societies where you have different worldviews on fundamental matters present tend to fail eventually.

I'm sorry, but I really find this to be a ridiculous statement. So you condone the actions of any person who breaks the law so long as they are doing so because of their own subjective morality? Of course you don't. You only endorse lawbreaking when that person's conception of morality aligns with your own. Would you give a blanket license to jihadists to kill heretics because the law against murdering non-believers "doesn't agree with their moral views?" I know that's an extreme example, but if you're going to condone unlawful behavior based on your own subjective morality, then logically you have to condone it for the subjective morality of all others as well. That is, unless you claim to have some sort of monopoly on knowing what is and is not moral, in which case you should have no trouble explaining how that standard works, objectively speaking.

Of course it is. Don't be a bootlicker.

What objective standards do you set for when it is and isn't moral to break the law, then?
That’s a tough one. Honestly I can’t give a clear answer to that. It’s gonna depend on the person obviously.
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TML
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« Reply #22 on: February 17, 2020, 01:45:18 am »

I don't think there's a clear cut answer to this question, since not everyone has the same definition of what constitutes an "unjust" law.
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Statilius the Epicurean
Thersites
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« Reply #23 on: February 17, 2020, 11:43:17 am »

Ironic that the guy with the libertarian avatar has the most totalitarian legal philosophy on the forum.
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Sacrifice Your Jobs for the Lives of Your Boomer Overlords
John Dule
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« Reply #24 on: February 17, 2020, 01:43:24 pm »

Ironic that the guy with the libertarian avatar has the most totalitarian legal philosophy on the forum.

I don't like it any more than you do. I made this thread because I am trying to find an alternative to my argument here. So far no one has presented one.
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