Bryan Caplan  

Six Theses on Extremely Unjust Laws I Dare You to Dispute

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David Stockman's Time Horizon... Nullification or Nothing...
Here are six theses on extremely unjust laws that I dare you to dispute:

1. Extremely unjust laws are conceivable.

2. Extremely unjust laws exist.

3. It is morally permissible to break an extremely unjust law.

4. It is morally permissible to evade punishment for breaking an extremely unjust law.

5. It is morally impermissible to enforce an extremely unjust law.

6. It is morally permissible to punish a person for enforcing an extremely unjust law.

The laws underlying slavery or the Holocaust are obvious examples of extremely unjust laws.  To dispute my six theses in any fundamental way, you have deny them for these notorious cases.  To reject #4, for example, commits you to the view that it was morally impermissible for slaves to hide from runaway slave patrols.  To deny #6, similarly, commits you to the view that the Nuremberg Trials were morally impermissible.

Why bring this up now?  Because Obama's semi-amnesty predictably provoked the complaint that his action violates the "rule of law."  Yet if you accept my six theses, any discussion about the rule of law is premature.  The first question on the agenda has to be the justice of the laws Obama has decided to undercut.  If we're going to argue about his decision, this is what we should be arguing about.

My position on the justice of immigration laws, not coincidentally, is already on the record.


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COMMENTS (43 to date)
Steve_0 writes:

The problem I have here is one that often crops up when economists switch between moral/Kantian/absolutist stances and economic/trade-off/cost stances.

For the purposes of trying to "break" the constraint of your format, let me pose this. Let us PRESUME for the sake of argument that an influx of immigrants produced a known good (I would guess we're all on the same page here). Let us also PRESUME that it produces a specific known bad/cost, in this case we will say specifically a massive hit to the social welfare system.

This seems to require evaluating the net benefit from the ratio of these two: the gain from immigration good, and the loss of immigration cost.

The way your funnel argument is structured, there is no place for someone to object on the grounds of net loss if the bad/cost outweighs the benefit. (This doesn't begin to touch on the different effects to the different parties).

James A. Donald writes:
The laws underlying slavery or the Holocaust are obvious examples of extremely unjust laws.
There were no laws enforcing the holocaust, because officially it was not happening and officially there were no orders to make it happen, even though everyone knew it was happening and had been ordered.

With race based slavery in society with no welfare, it is probable that a substantial proportion of slaves would be too feckless and stupid to take care of themselves except by crime if they had to make their own decisions. With debt based slavery in a society with no welfare, it is probable that most slaves would be too feckless and stupid to take care of themselves except by crime if they had to make their own decisions.

James A. Donald writes:

These are wonderfully PC examples of immoral laws. How about something more contemporary, as for example laws that take away a man's children and deny him access to those children even in those cases when his ex wife's sexual activities expose those children to great and grave danger, indeed, in practice, especially in those cases? How about property confiscation laws?

You are saying Obama's actions are OK, because though illegal Obama's actions are PC and the laws are not PC

If that is sauce for goose, let us have some sauce for the gander. How about some laws that are PC, and some moral actions that are not PC.

Otherwise, your argument sounds like the popular left wing argument that political correctness trumps law.

Michael Labeit writes:

Why "extremely" unjust laws. Aren't unjust laws still contemptible, or did you add "extremely" just for emphasis?

Dave Shroomer writes:

Sounds like typical Jew Propaganda to Me . I Will believe differently when Israeli's are Prosecuted for the Holocaust of the Millions of Palestinians Occurring NOW! But from where I sit They -Mossad -Cia- mi5- are the Jackals Behind a military coup in Egypt NOW! The Illegal invasion of Libya and it's Military takeover. All the turmoil in the Middle East is deliberately contrived to harm Israels Enemies (which is everyone but the previously mentioned jackal countries and Australia )and add profit to the warmongers.The 9-11 murders and the subsequent wars from it Iraq,Afghanistan,Pakistan .But, He's a Kaplan and you know those Nazi taught them well.Don't Read too much about Poland still to this day .Wonder why?

Peter H writes:

James,

Re: your example regarding what I presume to be a family law situation you or a close friend/relative are involved in, the law requires that children in a home where they are exposed to great danger be removed. You are presumably reacting to an enforcement (or lack thereof) of that law you believe to be incorrect, which is not the same as the law itself being unjust, but is rather an error on the part of a particular judge. Erroneous application of just laws is not the same as application of unjust laws.

Bryan,

I doubt there exists any person who a.) adheres to your view on the wholesale immorality of immigration restrictions while simultaneously b.) thinking Obama's instruction to DHS regarding immigration enforcement should be reversed solely upon rule of law grounds. Your argument therefore requires one to accept your premise on the immorality of immigration restrictions before it has any force, and as an argument against someone who thinks immigration restrictions are morally defensible, is question begging.

Vipul Naik writes:

The key word is "extremely" -- your six theses may not hold for "mildly" unjust laws. Probably, most people, even those in favor of more expanded immigration, do not view immigration laws as extremely unjust.

John David Galt writes:

I don't buy any of the objections so far.

But the fact that a given law sometimes produces results so unjust that it isn't wrong to defy the law in those cases, doesn't automatically mean that the same law is not morally binding in cases where it doesn't produce injustice.

And the same logic can go the other way too. No one objects to the law against murder (although some feel the punishment should be greater or less than it is). But innocent people do sometimes get accused and convicted of murder. If I knew for sure that such a person was really innocent, I would help him escape, even though that law taken as a generality is a just law.

The point of all this, I think, is that the law is not a source of moral right and wrong. Wherever one may derive his/her moral compass, one wishes that the law followed it; but if it does not, the moral compass does not change to point the way the law says it should.

The above ought to be acceptable to any rational person whether or not s/he has a religion, and whether or not his/her moral compass agrees with any brand of "PC" view.

Sean writes:

James, James, James...

There were no laws enforcing the holocaust, because officially it was not happening and officially there were no orders to make it happen, even though everyone knew it was happening and had been ordered.

How delightfully obtuse. Hint: Nazi Germany had an awful lot of anti-Jewish laws on the books, and i'm quite confident this is what Bryan had in mind.

With race based slavery in society with no welfare, it is probable that a substantial proportion of slaves would be too feckless and stupid to take care of themselves except by crime if they had to make their own decisions. With debt based slavery in a society with no welfare, it is probable that most slaves would be too feckless and stupid to take care of themselves except by crime if they had to make their own decisions.

Let's assume these unsupported assertions were true. Surely you're not suggesting that the ostensible 'fecklessness' of slaves is sufficient to overturn Bryan's theses 3-6?

These are wonderfully PC examples of immoral laws.

What they are are wonderfully uncontroversial examples of immoral laws. And that's just good pedagogy, isn't it?

You are saying Obama's actions are OK, because though illegal Obama's actions are PC and the laws are not PC.

That's quite clearly not what Bryan is saying. His theses explicitly deal with extremely unjust laws. He (correctly) regards immigration restrictions as extremely unjust.

Otherwise, your argument sounds like the popular left wing argument that political correctness trumps law.

It might sound that way to someone who didn't actually read it.

Sonic Charmer writes:

One can agree with 1-6 but still think it is a priori bad to violate the rule of law. Process matters, and intentionally violating a law because (one thinks) it is unjust is serious business, with consequences. There is no symmetry or level playing field, the person claiming a law to be unjust might be right but does and should have a heavy burden of proof.

Has President Obama met that burden? Did he even try? I'm not aware that he justified his policy announcement on the basis of some sort of deep injustice of the laws themselves. Moreover if he sincerely finds them so unjust, he could direct his Justice Department to challenge their constitutionality in the Supreme Court (if he thinks they're unconstitutional), or campaign to amend the constitution to disallow such unjust laws (if he doesn't). Why wouldn't he do one or the other, if he is motivated by the sort of opposition to 'unjust' laws you imply? Indeed not to do so would be irresponsible and inexcusable. It's not as if he is powerless, he IS the President after all.

Steve Z writes:

As an above poster stated, the Holocaust did not occur under the rule of law. In fact, the Nazis ditched the rule of law, instead turning the purposivism: instead of legal texts, they just tried to read the Furher's "will." Sound familiar?

(Re: Godwin's law - hey, you started it.)

Jonathan Carp writes:

What does "morally permissible" mean?

Justin writes:

If you read a post like Arnold Kling's, the objection is not to the morality of Obama not enforcing an unjust law, but to the consequences of not enforcing an unjust law. If I help a runaway slave, the precedent is insignificant. But Obama refusing to enforce the immigration law could set a significant precedent. In light of this, why not compare the morality of the bundles of policies we might receive dependent on Obama's actions instead of the morality of this one decision?

For example, you would think it immoral if Obama decided to enforce the immigration law. You'd also find it immoral if Obama did not enforce the law and as a result decided to sidestep congress and, say, torture a suspect, because he set the precedent. So why not include the results of the precedent in your judgement of morality?

MikeDC writes:

Yet if you accept my six theses, any discussion about the rule of law is premature.

Good grief, no. If I accept your six theses, I must call this law manifestly unjust.

The primary clause of Obama's amnesty is itself the real law here. Law in the practical sense of forward precedent for governmental operation. And this law is put forth by decree and clearly at odds with the established, agreed upon means of creating law and states the President may continue to do so at his discretion going forward.

That, sir, is exactly the sort of extremely unjust law right-thinking people should refuse to enforce.

Coupling this extremely unjust law with a morally pure stated motive, be it "young immigrants may stay" or "cute kittens for all" doesn't obviate the extreme injustice and immorality of the law's prime effect.

(More succinctly, you have it precisely backwards. The rule of law is the first thing. The current situation, in which we've successively weakened it, then use that weakness as reason to further erode it, has repeatedly shown itself to come to no good end).

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

I will sidle lightly past the amusing rapidity with which Godwin's Law has been validated here.

------------------

1. Anyway, and I ask this in a collegial spirit: who is to decide which laws are extremely unjust?

If people disagree as to whether some law is extremely unjust, how shall social peace be maintained?

If a law is extremely unjust, you write, then (#3) breaking it is moral and even (#6) punishing those who enforce it is moral. Do you countenance assassination, or merely retrospective trial and imprisonment like Milosevic got?

Sometimes people who disagree about policy nevertheless commit, for instrumental reasons, to adhere mutually to some scheme for managing their differences short of open violence. Like, say, Robert's Rules of Order, or the US Constitution.

Can adherence to some rule of law, adopted to avoid internecine violence, be moral even if it obliges one party to stand by while other parties commit acts which appear immoral to the first party?

Is morality satisfied by working within a rule of law to change a particular extremely-unjust law?

Consider that Constitutional processes would have abolished American negro slavery without war if the pro- and anti-abolition parties had remained within the Constitutional order. The South seceded specifically because it foresaw impending legislative defeat. Then with the Constitutional compact broken, the issue was finally decided by horrific violence with hideous side-effects.

You have proclaimed your devotion to pacifism. As a pacifist, don't you want people to settle large disputes by means other than war? If so, don't you think people should honor social compacts to decide "big questions" without war, even if such schemes may allow injustices to persist for a time?

---------------------------------------------

2. Although I don't fully agree with "moral discussion first, rule of law discussion second," I will address your moral issue:

I don't think immigration laws are extremely unjust. You do. I mostly accept your generic analysis of "extremely unjust laws," but since I don't think immigration laws are extremely-unjust, I don't think #3, #4, #5, or #6 apply to Obama's actions.

On the other hand, I think Obama's actions are ("ordinarily") unjust. He took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and so to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." In other words, he's a magistrate of the social compact we accept to avoid Hobbesian war of all against all, and he's betraying it. In point of fact, Obama is acting on behalf of some Americans only-- the ones who have so far lost the legislative contest according to the rule-of-(Constitutional)-law, so he ought to be removed because he's pushing the country, bit-by-bit, toward civil war.

As for the question of immigration, your heart-tugging example of the citizen unjustly exiled is inapposite. The question isn't whether citizens may be exiled, but whether foreigners with no claim on this country may be excluded from entering it. Since foreigners have no right to entry, admitting them is a matter of discretion which citizens acting through their government may exercise in their own interests, expressed via the Constitutional order. The government itself is a mere agency; Obama is the chief agent, and if he acts contrary to his principals' instructions and interests he is simply a malefactor.

(Like most Americans I reject the notion that telling foreigners to stay away is the same as injuring them in their homes. By your logic, Paul Allen does me an injury every day, excluding me from his mega-yacht.)

Jack Davis writes:

I know this is an economics site, not a legal one, but this is an important point: Obama didn't violate the law. He exercised prosecutorial discretion, which law enforcement officials do all the time. As Republican attorney general Mark Shurtleff (Utah) said:“Law enforcement makes decisions based on the resources available to them — until Congress acts, we’ll be left with too many people to deport.”

Back to Bryan's arguments:I agree with statements 1-6, but I'm not convinced our immigration laws fall into the "extremely unjust" category..While I think our immigration laws are foolish and often cruel, they're of a vast difference of degree from the slavery/holocaust laws. The presumption should be in favor of using legal means except under extreme circumstances. There's no reason a pro-amnesty Congress can't be voted into office in 2013, making this discussion moot.

Evan writes:

Like Vipul Naik, I think the key point is the definition of "extremely." I agree with all of your theses, of course, and I agree with you that the net consequences of immigration restriction are bad. But are immigration restrictions "extremely" unjust, or just "really" unjust?

I think any sane person would agree that laws that sanction the government killing innocent people (except maybe unavoidable collateral damage during a just war) are extremely unjust. Ditto for laws that sanction lifelong enslavement of people who have not been convicted of a serious crime.

But laws that "merely" impoverish people, while definitely unjust, might not be quite unjust enough to cross the "extremely" threshold. I'm not saying for sure they aren't, that would require more moral deliberation than I have time for, but it is a possibility.

Lars P writes:

Someone actually accused Bryan Caplan of being PC??

John Voorheis writes:

Not to swing the hyposcrisy hammer too much, but the set of people blustering about the rule of law in June 2012 and the set of people who were blustering about the rule of law when several Bush administration regulators decided to stop enforcing regulations are approximately disjoint.

Peter writes:

President Obama previously respected the law enough to not take action. It is only now that he is using the moral argument of "This is the right thing to do". I personally find it hard to believe he would be making the same executive order if polling showed it would cost him votes.

Jeff writes:

Take out "extremely" and these theses still hold.

James A. Donald writes:
Re: your example regarding what I presume to be a family law situation you or a close friend/relative are involved in, the law requires that children in a home where they are exposed to great danger be removed.

No, I am not reacting to a personal situation or that of a friend, no such situation applies to me or anyone that I know personally. I am referring to the legal reality that dangers to children caused by female sexual misbehavior are not acknowledged by the law or the courts, that only dangers to children caused by male misbehavior, or female non sexual misbehavior, such as doing drugs, are acknowledged by the law and the courts.

If you want to find laws that are obviously and outrageously unjust, but which are politically correct, family law has a rich supply of them.

If the only obviously unjust laws you can think of are those that are insufficiently PC, then the true claim that morality trumps law becomes the blatantly untrue claim that PC trumps law.

Ted Levy writes:

Nice point, Bryan. Kling was obviously wrong and I'm glad you called him on it.

But you ARE padding a bit. Six? Who could possibly agree with (2)--that such laws exist--without already implicitly agreeing with (1)--that such laws are conceivable?

The claim that Obama, as President, must set an example with respect to the rule of law is extremely silly. First, if one means OBAMA, his entire Presidency has been one large evasion of the rule of law. Look at the maneuvers to pass Obamacare! Second, if one means Presidents in general, the head of the Executive branch must per force determine how the Executive's finite and therefore scarce budget will be most effectively used. Not all laws can be fully enforced. Choosing as among those not rigorously enforced laws that are manifestly and extremely unjust is a simple economic optimization solution in the use of scarce resources.

BTW, as I'm sure you know, many libertarians at the time DID argue the Nuremberg trials WERE unjust. Not because the people being prosecuted didn't deserve it, but because the prosecutors (or the States they represented) were themselves guilty of similar crimes against humanity. Humanity could readily use a better class of prosecutors...

James A. Donald writes:
These are wonderfully PC examples of immoral laws.

Sean writes:
What they are are wonderfully uncontroversial examples of immoral laws.


They are only uncontroversial because disagreeing with PC, is always "controversial", whereas agreeing with PC, no matter how outrageous and blatantly evil the PC, is never "controversial".

Suppose Bryan had used as an example artificial famine in China, Russia, Ethiopia or some such. That would have been "controversial", but the example of slavery is "uncontroversial", even though one can defend slavery far more plausibly than artificial famine.

Abolishing slavery was highly controversial a couple of hundred years ago, and if no longer controversial, only because certain thoughts have become unmentionable.

> And that's just good pedagogy, isn't it?

Is Bryan Caplan arguing that PC trumps law, or morality trumps law? I cannot tell. And if I cannot tell, not good pedagogy.

If PC trumps law, then we have a totalitarian state.

James A. Donald writes:

Sean writes:


Nazi Germany had an awful lot of anti-Jewish laws on the books, and i'm quite confident this is what Bryan had in mind.
What he had in mind was the holocaust, which was not a law openly on the books, nor enforced nor legal by any openly admitted law on the books.

And if Bryan did have in mind the overt and openly admitted anti Jewish laws, they were, on paper, not markedly more discriminatory and oppressive than VAWA is, or, to provide a more politically correct example, not markedly more discriminatory than the laws against employing illegal immigrants, hence a poor example for his argument.

(You don't think VAWA is discriminatory and oppressive? Let us imagine the exact same act where W stands for White instead of Women)

What I am reacting to is that to be "uncontroversial", Bryan has produced examples consistent with the position that PC equals goodness, non PC equals badness, and PC trumps the law. I suppose it is a lot safer for me to be "uncontroversial" than Bryan, and if I was in his shoes I would be "uncontroversial" also.

Nonetheless, the proposition that PC trumps law is totalitarian, as we are seeing the Zimmerman and Kimberlin cases. If I did not dare draw the distinction between morality and PC, and if I was in Bryan's position I probably would not dare, I would refrain from arguing that morality trumps law.

James A. Donald writes:
Someone actually accused Bryan Caplan of being PC??
He is a is a college professor. If he neglected to maintain the somewhat plausible pretense of PC, he would very shortly cease to be college professor.

He is, however, as unPC as it is safe for college professor to be - which is still rather PC.

A cynical reading of his writings could suggest he recommends abandoning democracy and the welfare state, and indeed expects democracy and the welfare state to collapse in the not very distant future - whereupon unrestricted immigration would indeed cease to be a problem, but you will notice that he has not quite come right out and said such things. I suspect that if he was twitted for saying such things, would deny them - he has said them, and he has not said them, much as Copernicus said the earth went around the sun, and did not say the earth went around the sun.

James A. Donald writes:

John Voorheis writes:


Not to swing the hyposcrisy hammer too much, but the set of people blustering about the rule of law in June 2012 and the set of people who were blustering about the rule of law when several Bush administration regulators decided to stop enforcing regulations are approximately disjoint.

And what set of regulations did the Bush administration neglect to enforce?

Derby writes:

Steve_0, I think Mr Caplan was making an moral argument, while you are asking us to evaluate on the grounds of net economic effect. These would be compatible in a utilitarian moral system, but I hope we don't subscribe to utilitarianism.

Kurt writes:

Bryan,

Suppose one is able, by breaking the unjust law, to exact monopolistic profits made possible only by the barriers to entry caused by the fact of criminality. What then? Is this a case of dirty hands? Should the, e.g., drug dealer charge more reasonable prices, or is he at moral liberty to take advantage of the supply shortage and maximize monopoly profit?

Regarding the rule of law: I would prefer a tyrannical government that respects the rule of law, understood as a formal ideal, to a tyrannical government that exercised coercive power willy-nilly. This is the very point of the (formal) rule of law as a political ideal: whatever else may be wrong with a regime, the rule of law at the very least provides one with the opportunity to conform one's behavior to the legal requirements (see Raz, Waldron, Fuller).

Paul Crowley writes:

I'd be interested to hear people's examples of laws they consider unjust but not extremely unjust in the sense above.

Joe Cushing writes:

John Voorheis,

I get your point but those people are not here. Libertarians were never fans of Bushes actions. Some of us discovered libertarianism because of our distaste for Bush. There is a reason why independent is the fasted growing political classification, people are disgusted with both parties.

Tom West writes:

The first question on the agenda has to be the justice of the laws Obama has decided to undercut. If we're going to argue about his decision, this is what we should be arguing about.

The problem is that the vast, vast majority of people, including most of those who favor more immigration or even open borders, feel that a country *does* have the right to set laws on immigration.

You want a debate about a point that, in the minds of most people, is settled morality. It's perhaps not a bad things to keep hammering at (I think of arguing against slavery in the Roman empire), but I doubt it will be particularly productive.

I suspect that the main problem is that most people feel that as citizens of a country, they feel they "own" it in joint, and thus have the collective right to say who may enter. For most, it's a simple matter of (collective) property rights, and this time you're on the wrong side...

(Indeed, you've addressed this, but the argument was fairly weak in comparison to your main thrust.)

Mike Rulle writes:

Too clever by 5. "Extremely unjust laws"? There is hardly a law on the books that is not perceived as "extremely unjust" by someone.

In any event, I believe this whole kerfuffle created by Obama was the ultimate magic trick----and a good one at that. The fact is that the law he just "nullified" is basically unenforced anyway. It has already been nullified. It certainly has not been enforced by any previous administration.

Empirically, the overwhelming majority of Americans appear to support immigration, legal or otherwise----despite rhetoric. If this were not true, why wouldn't we see more local law enforcement discovering illegals? Because the locals, i.e., the country as a whole, does not really want it.

Hypocrisy can be useful. Obama show boated by "nullifying" the already nullified. In doing so, he supported breaking the law for "extremely unjust laws". The fact you can support a President doing this is beyond belief. There are no boundaries. If you think sending illegals back (which I do not support) is "extremely unjust", I am amazed you have not put forth law nullification as a policy to be applied to all sorts of laws.

Dave Everson writes:

Mr. Obama is the chief law enforcement officer of the US. Also, there are multiple legitimate paths to changing or correcting these laws. By bypassing the constitutionally correct processes he has stepped out of the role of the chief law enforcement officer and is now the chief fairness decider. It is one thing for an individual citizen to disregard the law on moral grounds but potentially disastrous for the president to do so.

Andy Hallman writes:

Good post, Bryan.

I hear a lot about the "rule of law" too, and I don't know what this means. Is it supposed to mean that if the government doesn't enforce all the laws on the books, that people will break other, more important laws?

I think people can tell the difference between overstaying your visa and committing murder, or theft, or some other act that actually violates someone's rights.

Not only that, but people realize the police care about enforcing some laws more than others, so they're not going to start breaking laws willy-nilly just because the government won't enforce one of its laws. I've lived in cities that were very lax about enforcing their lawn-mowing ordinances, but I'm pretty sure the police in those towns would have chased me down had I mugged someone.

VangelV writes:

It is always good to hear jury nullification promoted. I only wish that we got even more of this.

Curt Doolittle writes:

*UN-PC PAINFUL TRUTH WARNING*

1) Do a group of people have the right to exclusion? To deny trade, habitation, and spatial access, to others based upon some property of the others' group?

Moral norms, traditions, and even differences in language and ability impose a cost on groups. Morals are largely expressions of property rights, and differences in morals are expressions of conflicting property rights. Norms are a form of shareholder property in themselves. So differences in norms impose costs on both sides and in many cases constitute attempts at fraud and theft.

For example, I regularly write about the difference between Bazaar Ethics and Warrior Ethics, and how externalities and implied warranty are a product of high trust warrior ethics and not a property of low trust Bazaar Ethics. And a high trust society is very rare, and very complicated to build. It's also very productive and innovative. But it requires that sellers exhibit symmetrical transparency, be constrained from imposing external costs and required to provide limited warranty.

While I'm a pretty big fan of Brian's I just see this post on immigration as yet another attempt to express jewish cultural bias as a truth or moral principle when it's just a byproduct of the fact that jews are a diasporic people with a small population and the memes, morals and narratives of a diasporic people that are unable to hold land, when land holding is necessary for the establishment of norms and formal institutions, and land holding is necessary in order to enforce the right of exclusion, in order to reduce the costs of cooperation.

So no, immigration poses high costs on host countries and peoples where there is a high trust moral code including a requirement for symmetric honesty, warranty, and a prohibition on external involuntary transfers, a nuclear family, with a homogenous language.

I realize that this is a painful truth. But it is a truth none the less.

2) Secondly, norms are not governed as brian suggests by extreme examples. This is just faulty logic in the extreme. In fact, using extreme conditions as examples of norms is the source of most false criticism of moral statements using moral dilemmas - which turns morality into a victorian parlor game.

I agree with Brian on a lot of things. But on this topic both his argument and it's justification are nonsense.

[url removed for 500 Internal Server Error. --Econlib Ed.]

MG writes:

The thought experiment (how ugly a law can I think of) obscures a key issue in the semi-amnesty debate. The issue is almost the opposite of whether the defied law is beyond a certain degree beyond immorality. It is whether the defier has no other way to effect change than by deiance. I suggest that by solely defying a law that is eminently being debated in a civil manner, debates that are amenable to good intellectual and emotional arguments, and with all the power of the bully pulpit, the Administration is showing no respect for the case that someone like Bryan would rather debate and persuade. Moreover, it is choosing a path least likley to make lasting change. Like Arnold Kling put it, an act of civil disobedience that one would expect from the plebes, not a President. Unless, one suspects the act is simply short-term, politically motivated.

Evan writes:

@James A. Donald

If you want to find laws that are obviously and outrageously unjust, but which are politically correct, family law has a rich supply of them.

If the only obviously unjust laws you can think of are those that are insufficiently PC, then the true claim that morality trumps law becomes the blatantly untrue claim that PC trumps law.

I find it plausible that there are many unjust laws which are not sufficiently opposed because to do so would be un-PC. However, the fact that people do not oppose those laws with sufficient vigor does not make other unjust laws, unjust laws which it is PC to oppose, any less unjust.

Imagine that I encountered a child drowning in the water and rushed in to save them. Would you reply: "You didn't do anything good, because if the water was full of hungry tiger sharks you would have been too scared to save the child."? Of course not. Helping people is good, even if you wouldn't help them in a situation where there was greater personal danger. Opposing unjust laws=saving child, tiger sharks=PC enforcers.

He is a is a college professor. If he neglected to maintain the somewhat plausible pretense of PC, he would very shortly cease to be college professor.
Kevin MacDonald has been spewing anti-semitic garbage for more than a decade and still hasn't gotten fired. If he's safe then I think that most college professors can afford to be a lot less PC than most usually are.
Andy writes:

I have no dispute with any of the 6 theses. I think the key is, as has been stated repeatedly above, what makes an "extremely unjust law" and "who gets to decide that its extremely unjust?"
I also believe that deportation of illegal immigrants does not rise to the level of "extremely" unjust.

But I do appreciate, as always, the thoughtful nature of the post.

Wade writes:

In setting up this problem and daring people to dispute it, you're assuming that there is a "right" and a "wrong" answer, when in reality, there are only perspectives.
Most people in society believe in obeying its laws, simply because they are the laws. That is the basis for accepting Supreme Court decisions. However, a small percentage believes in obeying the laws only if and when they make sense, and are also willing to accept the consequences of disobedience.
A simple case in point are the views of my wife and myself. She unquestioningly obeys the law. I obey it when it makes sense. She hates it when I drive through a stop sign, even if I've looked around and determined that it is safe to not stop. If I crash or get a ticket, I don't complain. Of course, the person who crashes into me may complain.
Did I mention that she is German, and a better human being than I am?
The ratio of law abiders to law questioners is everywhere about 5:1, which makes for a relatively stable society that can still evolve.
If you believe that the highest law is the continued survival of life in (mostly) human form, then the answer to your dare is 5:1.

John B. writes:

I dispute this one:


6. It is morally permissible to punish a person for enforcing an extremely unjust law.

I can easily envision myself as a minor official in an evil state presented with the choice of "enforce horribly unjust law or die horribly" and in that situation I don't think it's reasonable for us to require people to be self-sacrificing saints to be moral.

I have similar issues with point 5, but point 6 is the more vividly disputable one for me.

Josh S writes:

You're basically arguing that the ends justify the means--that if a law is unjust, if someone destroys republican government and the separation of powers to undermine it, we have no right to complain about the destruction of the checks and balances in our government that are designed to prevent far worse tyrannies, because hey, immigration law sucks.

The fundamental problem is precedent. If Obama successfully establishes the precedent that the executive branch can modify laws at will, the President comes closer to becoming a dictator. Even if each step toward dictatorship involves the suppression of an unjust law, you still end up with a dictator, who is very unlikely to be just for very long.

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