Disobedience to the Law in Force: When Is It Justified?


In 1970, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article entitled “How to Respond to Unfair Laws”.

Author Ilmer Tamero says that defying laws that are supposedly “unjust” can “make it very difficult to see what’s fair and what’s unjust at critical moments.” It argued that this would lead to “troublesome practical consequences” because the

In contrast, other commentators have argued that we have a right not to obey unjust laws. St. Augustine of Hippo believed that “an unjust law cannot be counted as a law at all.”

These conflicting views pose the question: “Do we have a right to violate the law in force?” If so, what requirements must be met to justify disobedience to a valid law?

The COVID-19 pandemic and Australia’s response to it provide a poignant example of what these questions mean in practice.

During the pandemic, protesters often deliberately violated strict emergency regulations. They viewed the COVID-19 emergency law as incompatible with the right of association, freedom of movement and many other supreme rights.

They wondered if Australia could be explained as still a liberal democracy because the government had introduced vaccine and mask mandates and prevented citizens from entering or leaving the country.deployed an army We enforced these rules, banned protests, and arrested and fined dissenters. ”

Epoch Times photo
Police and Australian troops patrol the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia, 23 July 2020. (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

determined by reason

Defiance may be measured on its “reasonableness”.

Specifically, an act of defiance can be judged by its effectiveness, or likelihood of success. Conversely, ineffective acts of civil disobedience are unlikely to be rational, as they may not result in social change.

A commitment to rationality also requires that the higher principles we rely on as justification for rebellion are balanced with others. This balancing requirement ensures that respect for the rule of law is maintained, with people not following all laws they disagree with.

Moreover, a lawbreaker’s willingness to accept penalties imposed for violating the law in force demonstrates loyalty to the legal system. It also expresses their disapproval of certain laws.

Finally, the requirement that an act of civil disobedience be reasonable also presupposes that the act is proportionate to the alleged injustice of disobeying the law.

According to the proportionality principle, government decisions must be logically and persuasively related to their objectives.

Many of the emergency measures adopted by governments around Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic were unnecessarily authoritarian, so the protests may have been a fitting response.

These requirements go a long way toward ensuring the “reasonableness” of defiance.

deeper social issues

Civil disobedience becomes a social problem whenever the normal channels of social change cease to function properly or serious complaints go unheard.

The system does not work properly when some groups establish positions of power in society and use their influence to impose their will on weaker or vulnerable classes of people.

Civil disobedience is often an effective and quick way to challenge the law when the opportunities for change provided by the legal system are scarce.

Epoch Times photo
Police clear a park to disperse an anti-lockdown protest in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick on September 19, 2020. (William West/AFP via Getty Images)

Therefore, civil disobedience professed intent to challenge the law should be considered within the political sphere of a democratic country.

But repeated acts of civil disobedience indicate something is wrong with society. This is a mistake that can only be rectified by strong medical care that makes society more responsive to its problems.

For these reasons, Ilmar Tammelo’s controversial claim that “political turmoil created by massive defiance of existing law and order is a precarious way to social and political change.” I think I have to disagree with the statement that

Civil disobedience has an important role to play in Australian society. In times when government power is virtually uncontrolled, people have the right to civil disobedience.

Martin Luther King Jr. provided the perfect answer to the question, “How can you advocate breaking one law and obeying another?”

The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of law: fair and unfair. Not only is there a legal responsibility to follow fair laws, but there is also a moral responsibility. Conversely, we have a moral responsibility not to obey unjust laws. I agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law. Now what is the difference between the two? A just law is an artificial code of law that conforms to the moral law or the law of God. Unjust laws are not in harmony with moral laws. An unjust law, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a human law that is not rooted in eternal natural law.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Epoch Times.