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University of Basel

Should we always obey laws, Markus Wild?

Text: Markus Wild

Anyone who breaks an existing law must face the consequences. What reasons are there for not obeying the law in spite of this?

Prof. Dr. Markus Wild. (Illustration:Studio Nippoldt)
Professor Markus Wild. (Illustration:Studio Nippoldt)

In September 2020, activists held a demonstration on the Bundesplatz in Berne. Their aim was to urge parliament to act quickly and adopt far-reaching measures to tackle climate change. Given that rallies are prohibited on the Bundesplatz while parliament is in session, the demonstration was a form of deliberate, politically motivated civil disobedience. As I stopped to watch the events unfold, a man said to me that by behaving in this way, the activists were squandering significant public sympathy for their cause. When I replied that I agreed with them, the outraged gentleman remarked that «We have the best government in the world!» His argument seemed to be that there is no place for civil disobedience in a robust democracy founded on the rule of law, such as Switzerland. Is that true?

Let’s consider some of the good reasons for obeying the law. I fear that most people are motivated solely by upbringing, conformism and the threat of sanctions. There are, however, sound moral reasons for obeying the law. Laws should be obeyed because they respect all of us as free and equal individuals. They should also be obeyed for reasons of fairness, because they ensure that burdens and gains are evenly distributed within a society. Moreover, they enable a society to provide support for its weaker members. It’s only right that laws are obeyed as long as they elevate the natural duties of respect, fairness and help (Samaritanism) from the individual to the societal level.

Obeying laws is even more appropriate when society is involved in the making of those laws (through elections or referendums) — and, I might add, when this process is informed by the best of our knowledge.

A democracy is entitled to expect people to obey laws if its decision-making processes are based on information that doesn’t result in correct decisions purely by chance and that satisfies the natural demands for respect, fairness and help.

Markus Wild is a professor of philosophy. His research deals with the philosophy of mind — including the concepts of intentionality and awareness — as well as animal philosophy and animal ethics.

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