Breaking the Law to Do What’s Right …

So, I was reminded today of people who, in the name of social change and changing unjust and immoral laws, break the law to do so. Either they protest when protest is illegal, give out information they shouldn’t, or simply break the unjust laws to demonstrate their unfairness. And, in doing so and being tried and convicted for those crimes, they draw major attention and, if done right, outrage, which causes the laws to be repealed. And most of the time, a lot of time is spent talking about how they shouldn’t be in prison, and they are often released when the laws are changed.

To me and my moral code, this is what the ideal person should do in those cases:

Oppose the law by breaking the law.
Get the law changed.
Either present themselves for legal punishment, or insist on serving out the rest of their sentence. Although they can accept a legal pardon, at the very least they shouldn’t think that they’re owed one.

This is because of one of the things that really attracts me to the Stoic view, which is their hard-headed insistence on responsibility. Ultimately, in this case the person knowingly broke the law, and knew that the consequence of that was that they might be imprisoned for it. It therefore should not be a surprise to them when they are, in fact, imprisoned for breaking the law. Even if the law was unjust, they knew what the consequences of breaking that law were, and should be prepared to accept them. If they weren’t, they shouldn’t have broken the law in the first place.

Thus, that person — and all of us — should break the law when it conflicts with our morality, but be prepared to accept the consequences of the legal fines and even imprisonment that comes from that (although if we can avoid that legally, that would be nice). And this applies to any other circumstances we might have to face. If my doing the right thing will cause other people to hate me, then they’ll hate me. That’s just what has to be done.

Recall that for the Stoics one should give up one’s life before doing what is immoral, and so it seems that there could hardly be any consequences more severe than that. If we accept that view, then the other consequences surely are far less worthy of acting immorally, and so cannot be used as a reason to not act morally in all instances.

(And yes, I am aware that this is actually really, really difficult at times. Hence, why I claim that some moral lapses are understandable, even if they are still moral lapses).

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