Imagine a world where everyone followed the law exactly as written, regardless of his or her belief that the law was right. We would exist in a crimeless utopia, making the law enforcement system obsolete. Everyone would live in peace and harmony and sing “Kumbaya” around a giant campfire.
Could this world actually exist though? Aside from the question of who would create the laws and how they would acquire that power, could we, as humans, exist without questioning whether what we are told to do is right?
The number of decisions we make in a day is indeterminable, but subconsciously we are always choosing the option that will lend towards our own happiness and wellbeing. Therefore, when we choose to obey a law that counteracts that principle, we naturally must be harming ourselves. It seems illogical then that we blindly obey the law without questioning its rightfulness.
However, we are an advanced species that can also take into account others aside from ourselves. We have established the concept of the “greater good” and from there we realize the necessity of following laws that contradict our desires.
But now suppose a law exists that, on the surface promotes the greater good, but in effect is unduly harmful. We have already examined Martin Luther King Jr.’s argument as to why these laws must be disobeyed, but I would like to elaborate with the example of civil disobedience from Sophocles’ Antigone.
Following the death of her brother, Polynices, Antigone hears of a decree from King Creon mandating his body be left in a field to be eaten by animals as punishment for his treason. However, Antigone is pulled by her familial and divine obligations to disobey Creon’s orders and instead give him a proper burial. “No one will ever convict me for a traitor,” she maintains, “I will bury him myself./ And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory,” (57, 85-86). Mirroring MLK, Jr.’s sentiment, Antigone blatantly disobeys the law, and though she recognizes there will be consequences, she is willing to accept them and believes in the morality of her actions. Though Creon believes by punishing Polynices he is maintaining his city’s honor, the harm he causes to Antigone, and on a higher level, to the gods, places the situation in the realm of occasions warranting disobedience.
There are four things I would like to note from this example: firstly, when choosing to disobey the laws, one must do so openly; secondly, one must be willing to accept the consequences; thirdly, disobedience must be civil and non-violent; and lastly, the moral reasons causing one to disobey may not be acceptable to everyone. I believe that only when these conditions are understood is the decision to disobey the law justifiable.