Can humans ever be justified in breaking a law made by man?
I believe the answer to this question is yes, especially when the law that is being broken is itself morally unjust and if the injustice built into the law requires one to act in an unjust manner to fellow citizens. To put such a possibility in historical context, one can consider the laws made in Nazi Germany.
Some of these laws required citizens to report other citizens as being Jews so that they could be removed from society. To act in a manner that would have been morally just and assist Jewish people would have been against the Nazi regime’s manmade law but would have been perfectly in line with most people’s perception of natural law. Accordingly, it seems that the only answer to whether or not one is justified in breaking a manmade law is if such a law violates more important, overarching laws that govern essential human rights. In the Nazi case, for example, one could argue that breaking Hitler’s law is acceptable on a theoretical level because moral law trumps that which is constructed by a regime. In the case of Nazi-era laws, in the act of complying with such laws, the obeying party would become an agent of injustice by the act of capturing, torturing and killing other innocent human beings—even if not directly and even if only because one is obeying a law. On no moral grounds can such a law that violates every basic right and freedom to which all humans are entitle can ever be justified. Therefore to regard this law as being morally authoritative and to obey such law would be unreasonable.
Justice is defined in the dictionary as being “consistent with what is morally right”, and the laws that comprise notions of justice are defined as “rules of conduct” as opposed to being termed as supreme law. Contained within this very definition of justice is where the uncompromising defense of the absolute theory of obligation begins to crumble. The rule of law is man-made and is thus fallible, as in the example presented above. Certainly, there have been laws implemented by governments that have been wrong and unjust, thus on what grounds are we morally obligated to obey these unjust laws? To say that a citizen’s moral duty is to always comply with all laws no matter how discriminating, corrupt, or immoral they may be would be akin to condoning some of the greatest crimes in history. Thus it seems that Montesquieu was partially correct in his assessment that “the spirit of the law is justice. The letter must be broken at some points to achieve it.” While the concepts of law and justice Montesquieu makes reference to are themselves flawed and imperfect since they rely on morality and ethics (which themselves are not entirely stable) the main idea is that it is incorrect to rely on manmade notions to guide us blindly as citizens. Laws should be made to establish standards of conduct in the best interests of all people and to this end, any law that does not meet this requirement would cause the persons it is imposed on more harm than it would cause society at large if it were not imposed, thus may be justified in disobeying.
What is legal is not always a morally justified path of action and all laws themselves require justification that addresses questions that are higher than the political structures or officials that construct them. Undoubtedly, a non-controversial justification can be provided to laws requiring people to conform to fundamental requirements to respect life, equality, freedom and properties of others. Any law with aims that are contrary to such; Nazi law, the fugitive slave act and some racist laws, for example, that forces individuals to directly inflict harm onto others, discriminate and de-humanize a group of fellow human beings, ought never be obeyed and basic rules of human rights (outside of Judeo-Christian or other standards of judging morality) should be obeyed. Although the most extreme example, the Nazi-enacted genocide is not at all an isolated historical incident of justice creating clear violations against natural human rights. For instance, segregation laws in the United States are another instance of a morally unjustified law as they clearly violate basic human rights and freedoms. By violating basic freedoms and not allowing people to eat in the same restaurants as others, making people sit in certain areas of the bus, and many more degrading rules all by putting restrictions towards colors of skin these laws caused citizens to continue a cycle of injustice. While the violations of human rights that made this law unjust were localized and non-violent, they serve as another example of how laws govern our understanding of moral (and by moral I mean how something is aligned with basic human rights and freedoms) issues and how disobedience to these based on the higher calling of humanity’s rights is justified. Whether one is discussing massive and violent events such as mass genocide or smaller, more localized “legal crimes” the issue is still the same—by obedience to manmade laws that violate higher laws that govern more permanent, abstract ideas such as basic human rights, one is complicit in a crime against humanity. While the term “crimes against humanity” is associated with war crimes and tribunals, it should also be applied to our discussions about legally sanctioned crimes that are written code and policy but that violate essential components of human freedom.
A discussion related to the smaller, less wide-ranging “crimes against humanity” (which again, have been defined as legally-sanctioned codes that require us to violate someone else’s basic human rights) is also necessary about laws that conflict with our moral permissions. By this I mean law which forbids people to do what their morality permits, while failing to produce a greater good for the society overall through the enforcement of such law. It is important to recognize that this class of unjust law is distinct in that it only brings direct damage and/or trouble to the individual himself had he complied with the conducts dictated by such law. Examples of this type of law range from being plain absurd (barring someone from opening a fortune cookies on the grounds that they are amateur practice of fortune-telling), absolutely illogical (Law in Louisiana that actually forbids barbers from cutting hair on Sundays) to actually being counterproductive and downright inconvenient (the pro-missionary position law, which allegedly states that couples can only have sex in the missionary position). Simply put, these laws do what they have no business doing, by restricting morally permissible actions in a way that is not morally nor logically justified. Generally speaking then, morality and law should always be guided by another important component of justice, which is reason. Philosophers from the ancient Aristotle to those of the Enlightenment all argued this point—that without reason as a central component in our actions in society, we are misguided and cannot expect to have reasonable, sustainable laws. This means that if laws violate both morality and reason, they should absolutely be discarded and disobeyed as they are counter-productive to individuals and society alike.