Accounting for Change

“And we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgments (which include synthetic judgments a priori) are the most indispensible to us”- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.

The claim above resonates the fact that nothing in the world can be truly known and that society has come to use a priori reasoning as a crutch to further argument and knowledge. Although this philosophy is existentially devoted, it does hold broader implications. I do believe that the above quote is fairly relevant to M.B.E. Smith’s work on the absence of a prima facie obligation to obey the law.

Smith is not interested in discovering whether there is a standing moral obligation to obey a specific law. He questions whether the obligation applies to the law in general.

Actions that happened in the past may be used to dispute this obligation, but it must be recognized that the law is a constantly changing entity depending on current social norms. A priori arguments are fixed and stem from a given, they follow a system independent of experience and aim at an end goal.  So, as long as law is changing and social norms are changing, no a priori standard could fit the law without running into contradiction. Thus, evaluating obedience to the law via moral theory will never maintain consistency.

Let us use the argument from government benefit. An appealing defense of the standing moral obligation to the law is that from fair play. This obligation states that a citizen’s obligation to obey the law is owed to his fellow citizens rather than to his government. Rawls advocates this issue of fair play and claims adherence to it is fundamental, rather than utility driven or from mutual promise. Smith claims that adherence for this reason only works in small communities and does not necessarily require obedience or a natural duty.  Let us use a concrete example in the legal system. Take for instance a person who runs a traffic light at an empty intersection. This action has no negative implications to the society as a whole, nor does it exhibit a negative effect on the members of society from which a particular citizen benefits. Smith claims that Rawls’ argument is simply an extension from his central philosophy where he puts forth particular duties and obligations, which is argument a priori.

Secondly, we traverse the utilitarian argument for a prima facie obligation to obey the law. The utilitarian claim holds that a citizen is morally obligated to follow the law because the law is necessarily designed to protect society from some ‘great evil’. For our purposes, the utilitarian thinker posits an obligation to choose an act that yields more positive consequences than its alternatives. The problem arising here is that which provides the most good is not of the law. There are many cases in which acts against a particular law have produced better consequences than obedience, for instance civil disobedience. For example, the Civil Rights Movement was marked by African-Americans disobeying laws that were aimed at their demise. Ultimately, this civil disobedience resulted in the African Americans gaining rights. It is important to note that the utilitarian theory diverges from a priori moral theory and focuses on the empirical data, consequent- a posteriori. For this reason, it appears as if this view is not all grounded in morals. It looks to a consequent rather than from an antecedent. We do learn from Smith that a utilitarian viewpoint cannot guarantee a prima facie obligation to obey the law.

I believe the contrasting nature of these arguments is obvious. Smith successfully defeats both viewpoints and dismisses all notions of a prima facie obligation to obey the law. Smith simply carries every argument to a contradiction but provides no other option. So, if you had to pick one, which is better. In reference to the Nietzsche quote above, are the a priori judgments the most indispensible?


I will conclude that a person who believes in a prima facie obligation to the law through duty or a priori will never be able to change it, because their views are stuck as well. Contrarily, the utilitarian theory requires foresight. As states earlier, social norms are constantly changing. Therefore, the idea of what is good is constantly changing. Because the utilitarian looks to the outcome of certain decisions for relative goodness, I believe it to be the most adequate form of standing obligation. The law will eventually change with social norms and the utilitarian view is the only system that accounts for any of this change.  In summation, the a priori judgment should be the most dispensable.





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