In terms of whether or not we have a standing moral obligation to follow the law, Smith says it best: “For most people, violation of the law becomes a matter for moral concern only when it involves an act which is believed to be wrong on grounds apart from its illegality” (975). Although there seems to exist an inherent relationship between laws and morality, it does not extend so far as to imply that people are morally obligated to obey the law; morality and obligation are different facets of law and legality–or illegality, as the case may be.
If laws were to dictate, sanction, and uphold only that which is morally good, this kind of moral governance would mandate (and obviate) a moral obligation to adhere to said laws. However ideal, this is not the case. The many instances of civil disobedience that comprise our history of the United States–the Boston Tea Party, Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, to name a few–prove that laws are not inherently moral in their jurisdiction, for there exist opportunities when disobeying the law is more morally sound than obeying it would be.
Similarly, illegality does not mandate immorality. As Smith posits, “the most conscientious men at times violate trivial and pointless laws for some slight gain in convenience and, when they do so, they do not feel shame or remorse” (975). It seems impossible and altogether radical to contend that individuals who break the law are immoral beings making poor moral judgments. I find it hard to believe that making a U-turn or jaywalking has moral implications, or that a person who forgets to feed a meter or accidentally runs a stop sign has compromised their moral integrity. While these are all instances of laws being violated, the laws, and subsequently the act of breaking them, have no moral propriety.
Instead of morality existing within our dutiful obligation as law-abiding citizens, I maintain that morality falls on the side of the consequences of obeying (or disobeying) the law. Because our legal system exists to ensure the protection and security of society, actions regarding to–and in disregard of–the law inevitably have consequences, some good and some bad. Because the ramifications of people’s actions can be detrimental to others, I argue that in only this regard are moral judgments on breaking the law appropriate.
Smith says that the character and consequence of an illegal act provide grounds for determining “the rightness or wrongness of lawbreaking” (975) as opposed to the act of lawbreaking itself. In terms of morality, legality, and our obligation therein, I could not agree more.