Are we under an obligation to do as the law tells us to?

Feb. 25, 2016

Politics graduate student Benjamin Hofmann recounts this and other questions NYU Professor Samuel Scheffler addressed in the James A. Moffett ’29 Lectures in Ethics.

Are we under an obligation to do as the law tells us to? What about bad or unjust laws? Or just law made by a bad sovereign? And what is the relationship between membership in a political system and legal obligation – do only citizens have to obey? Why should we obey the laws of our own country, but not another’s?

As Samuel Scheffler – University Professor in Philosophy and Law at New York University – was quick to concede, the questions that motivated this year’s Moffett lecture have long haunted philosophers. Addressing an unusually crowded lecture hall – faculty from Princeton and elsewhere, graduate and undergraduate students, as well as the occasional outsider – Scheffler managed to reconcile and refine existing positions, which are prone to unwelcome side-effects.

A no-exceptions-duty to obey the law appears untenable in light of unjust or otherwise objectionable laws enacted by tyrants, monarchs, and parliaments (past and present!). Admitting even some exceptions, on the other hand, may put us on a slippery slope, at whose end, law is returned into the hands of individuals: private judgement replaces public morality and the duty to obey the law becomes a license to obey one’s own law. Either extreme, however, runs afoul of cherished intuitions about the scope of obligation. Fortunately, as Scheffler assured his audience, a middle ground is available.

Legal obligation, in his view, consists of a duty that is public and non-instrumental yet qualified. Members of a political community have reasons to do as the law says because they also have reason to non-instrumentally value their membership in that community. As Scheffler explained, this approach helps us to capture both the separation of legal obligation from content (we ought to do what the law says, no matter what it says) and the idea that there are limits on that obligation (membership gives us presumptive reasons to obey the law, but these may be outweighed by other reasons we have, e.g. not to contribute to injustice). What’s more‚ we can explain the particularity of legal obligation (that we ought to obey the laws of our community, but not another’s) without having to claim superiority. This kind of set-up, Scheffler suggested, is in fact quiet common. Many of our relationships – with individuals and with groups – rely on relationship-dependent reasons to act toward them in one way or another.

Addressing a moral philosophers’ favorite, Scheffler – during the Q&A – admitted that he would not help a friend bury a body. Just as our duty to assist our hypothetical friend does not oblige us to act immorally, our duty to obey the law does not oblige us to act unjustly. While it seems safe to say that Scheffler’s conclusion – that we ought to do what the law says, but not always – was as little surprising for the professionals in attendance, as it was for the interested civilians, he walked the often thorny road to that conclusion with equal amounts of clarity and common sense, making this Moffett lecture a yardstick for years to come.