Moral Obligation to Follow Law as a Matter of Discretion

For the most part, I do not believe that we are obligated to follow the law all the time. To be clear, I do not think we should take it upon ourselves to run amok, ignoring traffic lights and following whichever laws suit our whims at the moment. After all, laws allow us to coexist in large societies by maintaining the optimum amount of freedom for each individual while protecting each person’s respective rights. Laws against murdering, stealing, and other morally reprehensible actions should, in my opinion, be obeyed in all but the most extenuating circumstances because they cause direct and lasting harm to another party. However, other laws such as drinking laws and customs laws allow more leeway as far as obligatory obedience goes. I believe that these types of laws should be viewed in a more negotiable light, because many people are capable of using their discretion to determine what is and what is not appropriate under the law.

For instance, I know plenty of twenty year olds who know how to drink responsibly. The people I have in mind consume alcohol, but in a very cautious manner, including taking precautions to keep themselves and others out of harm’s way. They call cabs so that they do not have to drink and drive, alternate non-alcoholic drinks with alcoholic ones to ensure they are at a healthy blood-alcohol level, and only consume alcohol occasionally as opposed to binge-drinking. I would argue that these underage drinkers would be much safer and more pleasant to encounter than a person who recently turned twenty one and decides to have a night out on the town and consume copious amounts of alcohol just to commemorate such a special day. It seems to me that a responsible adult who has not yet turned the appointed age of twenty one would not be morally obligated to obey such a general law that was probably developed to place limits on the actions of a large population comprised of different beliefs and backgrounds, rather than the arguable exceptions of responsible parties. This concept is reflected in the fact that in Texas, a minor may consume alcohol as long as they are in the presence of their parent(s) or guardian. Clearly, this demonstrates the spirit of the law being one more of who will claim responsibility than anything else.

Another example is that of obeying customs laws. While I have addressed this topic in other work, I want to bring it up again here because I think it illustrates a good point about obligatory obedience of the law. For example, I was traveling around Argentina the summer after my senior year in high school on a choir trip, when we stopped in a small indigenous village. While we were there, we bought different trinkets from native artisans. Among other small items like jewelry, I bought a small bow and arrow set (the decorative type that could not possibly function as a weapon) that was about eight inches long. I had not thought at the time that bringing it back into the United States would pose a problem. For all intensive purposes, it was serving the same practical function as a necklace or earring.  I would not be wielding it or using it to threaten anyone. I wondered why I even “had” to declare my item. I never, to my knowledge, signed any form or gave any verbal agreement that I would do so. What harm was I doing myself, our country, or anyone else by bringing a toy bow and arrow set into the country where it would sit in my room as a precious reminder of an amazing experience? Furthermore, this was not a case of bringing a dangerous food or invasive species of plant into the country. It actually would not hurt anything.

In cases like these, I think that it should be left up to the discretion of responsible, informed, and well-meaning citizens to decide whether or not they decide to follow the law if it will not be to the detriment of anyone else.

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2 thoughts on “Moral Obligation to Follow Law as a Matter of Discretion

  1. While I agree with your argument and see the point that you make, I tend to have a more cynical view of society and people in general that makes me believe making these laws negotiable would have a detrimental effect on society. Because you, most of our peers, and I function at high intellectual levels, attend an elite institution, and have access to understanding law in this way, it is easy to see how some laws may not need such a strict obligation of compliance. However it is hard to distinguish what qualifies as a responsible, informed, and well-meaning citizen from a different kind of citizen who should have a strict obligation to obey the law. I do not think that those in the general population whom these laws were created for has the same conceptual understanding that we do. (I know this probably sounds elitist, but it seems to me pretty evident that America is filled with some incredibly ignorant people.) And so by allowing the law to be viewed as malleable and not universally applied to everyone I believe undermines the purpose of law. And so, we responsible, informed, and well-meaning citizens must suffer obeying laws that we may not need so that those other people in society do not end up creating harm for society.

  2. I agree with the above comment in that I think in theory it is nice to create exceptions, but the cases you discuss are very particular and very much based on individual qualities that are incredibly difficult to regulate. The only way in which (at least theoretically) we allow laws to exist in this nation is if they are fair and equal to all. Creating exceptions for those that are “responsible” or “informed” is an incredibly thin line to tread. How could you possibly regulate this without offending a huge group of people? Should police officers simply excuse all those twenty year olds they deem to be responsible individuals, while charging those they feel are reckless? Unfortunately this is simply not realisti. The fact is that in order for laws to restrict those that are not so responsible or logical, they may also effect those that are less deserving of restrictions.

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