Friday, August 11, 2006

Bad laws

At work, we had a small email discussion about the Australian Census, during which I mentioned that people don't have any moral obligation to obey bad laws (although of course they have to be prepared to face the consequences).

One of the people on the mailing list, let me call him John (not his real name) replied that there are no bad laws, and that we all have a moral as well as legal obligation to obey all laws simply because they are the law. He wrote:

There is no such thing as a "bad" law. A law is a law and has to be obeyed. No matter if you dont [sic] agree with it.

Can you say "baaaa"?

"No such thing as a bad law" is the attitude of people who turned in their neighbours to the Gestapo because the law said that "mixed race" marriages between Germanics and Jews or Slavs was a capital offence. That's the attitude of those who treated black people as property, because the law said that those with black skin were property. That's the attitude of those who defend their war crimes with "I was only following orders" -- and I should point out that international law does not allow "following orders" to excuse crimes against humanity.

That's the attitude of those who let other people do their thinking for them, instead of considering the consequences of their actions.

It has been said that, for evil to triumph, all it takes is for good people to do nothing. That's bad enough, but when people actively help evil because "its the law", well, you can't do evil and be good.

In the history of human civilization, more lasting misery and harm has been done by people obeying evil laws than by people breaking good ones. Breaking good laws is self-limiting: there is no shortage of people prepared to try and stop the common criminal who breaks good laws, and there are penalties and punishments to encourage people to obey good laws.

But there are few who are prepared to stand up to the punishment for breaking a bad law. If John had said "I wish I could ignore or break bad laws, but I'm too scared" I could respect that. But to ignore the consequences of laws, to declare that all laws are equal, is worse than foolish. It's wicked.

There are countries, such as Nigeria, where it is almost impossible to convict rapists under their interpretation of sharia. For example, according to Jan Goodwin's Price of Honour, under Pakistani law rape can only be proven by the word of three good Muslim male witnesses. In these countries, a complaint of rape is treated as an admission of adultery unless proven otherwise -- and no amount of forensic evidence is sufficient to prove rape unless three men witnessed it and are willing to testify. And adultery is often punished by death.

John would have us believe that laws which punish the rapist are no better than laws which protect the rapist and execute the victim. John would tell us that if he lived in Nigeria, or Iran or Saudi Arabia, and he came home to find his grandmother beaten half to death and raped, he would see it as his duty to call the police to report his grandmother for the crime of adultery. After all, it's the law.

(And don't think that it is only those "mad bad Muslims" who create bad laws. Stalin, Mussolini, Pinochet, Pol Pot, to name just a few, were not Muslim. And even "good" societies make bad laws, like "Zero Tolerance".)

If you, like John, can live with that moral relativism, with the idea than any act no matter how heinous becomes morally beyond approach because some evil dictator or ignorant committee declares it the law, then you are actively helping make the world a meaner, crueler, badder place.

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