Let us begin with something that seems true and necessary on the face of it: everyone should follow the law. It seems a fair and useful rule because in its absence we can imagine all kinds of chaos and rampant conflict at every level of society — traffic laws abandoned, looting and pillaging, persecution of minorities, and so on. However, history provides us with numerous, vivid exceptions to this rule, and, in many of these cases, we might agree with the violation of the law(s) that was undertaken.
Consider the case of Henry David Thoreau—one of the more eloquent law-breakers—who not only went to prison in support of his principled resistance to what he felt was an unjust law, but was to be an inspiration through his writings to later figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. In the book Civil Disobedience, Thoreau is recounting his stint in jail and is providing a reasoned articulation of his beliefs in the matter.
In the course of this, he provides the following sort of backbone to the skeleton of his views: “Why has every man a conscience, then? [ . . . ] It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. ” From this, we are able to take a very clear contrast between the dictates of what a person believes to be right and what the law believes to be right.
The contrast is hardly unique to Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes to support the practices of slavery and the war against Mexico. Look at the smuggling of slaves by members of the underground railroad, Oskar Schindler’s work to help smuggle Jews out of Nazi Germany, and even the actions of the colonial militia at Lexington and Concord against the properly instituted laws of Britain.
Thoreau’s succinct expression gives a summary to the limits of the rule we started out with, but suggests a possible solution to the dilemma by offering us a new rule . . . REVISED RULE: Everyone should follow the law unless it conflicts with their conscience Upon reflection, this revision would seem to take into account the problems or exceptions created by the original version of the rule. Unfortunately, however, this revised rule, itself, then falls prey to numerous exceptions as well, and seems to create a vicious circle.
Again we have history to thank for numerous examples which will illustrate the problems of holding to this rule any more than we were able to hold to the previous one, including the assassination of political rivals by Hitler (acting on his belief in “right” versus “legal”), Timothy McVeigh’s demolition of the federal building in Oklahoma, and, as a more direct contradiction to the examples of Thoreau and Schindler, the modern persecution of Jewish and African Americans (or any other minority) by white supremacists.
In their world view, we find a kind of religious sincerity and heartfelt faith that would mirror that of the abolitionists. In fact, the Aryan Nation, a particularly large and active group, was actually formed as the political arm of a religious group called The Church of Jesus Christ-Christian.
Most of us would agree that no matter how strong their conviction that this is “right” might be, though, their conviction is in error and should not be used as an excuse for setting aside the law. It would seem that we should be reluctant to have people follow either version of the rule wholeheartedly.
“A Brief History: The Legacy of Aryan Nations” <http://aryan-nations. org/about. htm> Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997.