The moral obligation to obey law

Journal of Social Philosophy 33 (3):464–482 (2002)
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Is it always morally wrong to violate a law and in doing so does one necessarily act badly? I argue that whether in breaking a law one acts badly depends on considerations unique to the particular act of lawbreaking. The moral judgment in question is deeply contextual and cannot be settled by appeal to blanket moral rules such as that it is wrong to break (any) law. The argument is made by focusing on the example of a runner having to decide whether to disobey the law against trespass. If in trespassing one acts badly it is not because there is a prima facie moral obligation to obey law. Theories of political obligation which ground an obligation to obey law in the principles of fairness or gratitude or in consent all fail to provide a persuasive reason not to trespass given a particular fact situation. I argue that when it is morally wrong to trespass it is morally wrong not because one has broken the law, but because and insofar as one has violated reasonable expectations of privacy. Whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in one's property depends in part on the character of the property in question.
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