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When the Law Should Be Broken

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

During his imprisonment, Socrates had a chance to escape his arranged execution thanks to his followers. However, he declined their proposal for him to escape, citing the importance of the law of the state to the formation and preservation of society, so going against it would be wrong and inconsistent with his morality. He argued that if everyone did whatever they wanted, especially if their actions were against the law, the institutions of society would be futile, leading to anarchy and the dismemberment of the state.

This raises the question of whether the law should be obeyed at all costs, simply because obeying it will ensure the functioning of society. Do we need to obey the law, even when obeying it plays against us and, at times, our values?

Here is my proposal on the topic of the law: I believe that the law should be obeyed at all times, except when the law plays against your very own survival. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what Socrates would think. That's because Socrates put the law on a pedestal, and seems to forget that not all law is moral or even beneficial. For example, rules that encourage or lead to genocide can definately be regarded as immoral, correct?

The reasoning behind my proposal is as follows: The state, after all, was created for its individual citizens—to provide them with safety, education, and reasonable living conditions. Any country that does not adequately, or at all, take care of its individuals, the same individuals that serve, even with their very lives, is ultimately a morally-incompetent country that lacks the power and resources to ensure its social contract, or does care very little of its citizens.

It would only be beneficial to mutually care for each other when it comes to the state and its citizens. The taxes we pay should be there, ultimately, for the state to provide public services, a national defense budget, and so on.

In a situation where obeying the law would put your survival at risk, it is my belief that you have a moral obligation to disobey the law. Why obey an authority that goes against your very interest to live? More specifically, why obey an authority that tries to weed you off?

The law is not an absolute authority, and it does not supersede your right to life. In fact, the law itself is supposed to protect your right to life. Alongside other rights, of course, especially in a country that is supposed to be democratic.

The exception for that can easily be in the fields of security and military. It is then when you are, in theory, obligated to protect the lives of your fellow countrymen. Then, you become an agent of your country; an extension of its arms. Police officers, for example, are but an extension of the law.

Of course, there are many factors to consider when deciding whether or not to disobey the law. It is important to weigh the risks and benefits carefully, and to make a decision that is in your best interest. However, I believe that, in general, it is better to disobey the law when it puts your survival at risk in an unjust way. Not when it uses your protection services.

It can be said that the relationship between a person and their country is one of "all for one, one for all." In other words, all citizens give the state its power by obeying its laws, and in return the country provides them with certain services. However, if the state does not provide its citizens with the essential things all human beings require, such as safety and access to food, even if that country is a dictatorship, then it is technically reasonable to disobey its laws when the very act of disobedience contributes to your survival.

It is why some revolutions and rebellions are justified by the very fact that the people at large need food and shelter, but do not have them, and live in poverty regardless of their efforts to live. Should one be able to overthrow an incompetent government in favor of a more efficent government... then why not, if it's beneficial for the people?

Why would you obey someone who is intentionally starving you, locking you somewhere where you cannot sustain yourself, or exposing you to disease without providing medical care? After all, survival comes before the state. The state is a business that is there to provide for you, and you technically, work for it.

Therefore, according to this logic, there are some countries where you should obey the laws completely and other countries where you should not obey the laws at all, even if disobedience puts you at certain risk.

For example, if you are to escape from a country like North Korea, you put yourself at the risk of being shot. However, by attempting to escape, you can increase your long-term survival by having a more reasonable life in South Korea, where you can have not only greater freedoms but also greater access to food, money, and shelter.

Wouldn't it be more reasonable to live the rest of your days in peace than in constant jeopardy of whether or not you will be able to see the light of day? To live in a future where you won't get beaten up by the authorities for very minor offenses? The authorities that should be there to care for you, not to oppress you?

The most extreme example of when the law should be broken is in WWII concentration camps (and of course, escaping meant better survival). It is interesting to consider what Socrates would do if he was imprisoned in such a camp. Would he actually promote the same argument about the law of Nazi Germany as he did to the State of Athens? Why would you stay when you can attempt to run, given that you are brave enough to do so, have a strong willpower, and so forth?

Of course, there are also cases when you may be forced to break the law in order to survive. For example, if your business is ordered to be closed due to a COVID lockdown, and you have no other reasonable source of income to help you survive, you are then left with two options: you can either suffer in hunger with the risk of dying because of it, along with other state-enforced consequences; or you can try to gain money in any other way, even if that way is illegal.

Of course, some people become thieves simply because they have no money and they need food. Not all thieves commit theft wholeheartedly.

As previously mentioned, given that survival comes before the state (unless you are in service of the state such as in security or in the military), then things like theft or black market businesses are actually justified if it means you won't be able to sustain yourself -- to live, even -- in any other way. Would you prefer to die, when "above-ground" employment is absent for you? In such cases the ends justifies the means, unfortunately.

Breaking the law should be the last result before your very death. It should be a product of desperation. And some of us do not only live for ourselves, but for others, too.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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