The following post is inspired by my re-reading Auberon Herbert’s 1884 essay “A Politician In Sight of Haven .”
A few years ago Jones joined the Blahblah Party. This group is full of politically aware people who loudly profess their love of humanity, their devotion to truth, and their dedication to public service. Yet most members – including all official spokespeople of the Blahblah Party – express some values and positions that Jones believes to be immoral. Jones agrees with most of the Blahblah Party’s statements and stances, but (obviously) not with all of them. But his heartfelt desire to be a good party member leads Jones to act as if he supports all of Blahblah’s positions.
An instance: Blahblah officially opposes homosexuality, believing it to be evil. In contrast, Jones personally has no objections to homosexuality and can’t see why anyone would have such objections. In fact, Jones believes that opposition to homosexuality is immoral. Yet he knows that a majority of the members of Blahblah, as well as Blahblah’s duly appointed leaders, do not share his views on this matter; those other party members object to homosexuality. So bending his will out of a heartfelt sense of duty to a higher purpose and to the will of the larger group – that is, to the majority of his party and its leaders – Jones refuses to associate with homosexuals. Led only by his desire to obey the party, Jones even disowns his gay brother and his bisexual daughter.
How many people would applaud Jones’s actions? Not many. In fact, almost everyone (including me) would regard Jones as a disgraceful and contemptible moral coward for acting in ways that he believes to be wrong. Almost everyone (including me) would be unmoved by Jones’s plea that he’s just one puny part of a larger group – a group whose overall goals and welfare are more important than are his personal preferences and beliefs. And almost everyone (including me) would think irrelevant Jones’s question – meant rhetorically to be trumping argument – “What if everyone in the party picked and chose to obey only those parts of the party’s platform that they individually found agreeable?”
Now change the example a wee bit. Suppose that Jones is a citizen of the U.S. Uncle Sam enacts legislation that Jones sincerely regards as immoral – for example, legislation that prohibits employers from paying any worker less than $7.25 per hour. Jones understands that such legislation, despite chalkboard demonstrations by clever economists showing how such legislation might in theory sometimes improve the welfare of low-skilled workers, is both economically misguided and morally offensive. Yet Jones is a proud American, so he obeys the legislation. In the firm he owns and manages, he raises his lowest wages up to at least $7.25 per hour.
One day, a 16-year-old from the inner city asks Jones for a job, but Jones cannot afford to hire her at an hourly wage of $7.25. So this teenager offers to work for $5.00 per hour – and she promises Jones, sincerely and believably, that she will never reveal to anyone that she is working for less than the government-stipulated minimum wage. Despite her pleas, Jones refuses to hire her, informing the luckless young would-be worker that he must “obey the law” even if he knows he’ll not get caught in this instance if he disobeys it.
How would most people evaluate Jones’s actions in the latter example? I’m quite sure that most people would applaud Jones’s actions. But why? As in the first instance, Jones here acts against his moral convictions, and in doing so he personally – and knowingly – harms people who are innocent of any wrongdoing.
I suspect that the justification people would give for applauding Jones’s obedience to “the law” would go something like this: ‘Jones is not entitled to pick and choose which laws he’ll obey and which he’ll disobey. The law is determined by a majoritarian government, and the majority of the populace – or at least of the voters – along with the duly elected leaders of the government have decided that it’s wrong for any employer to pay any hourly wage less than $7.25. Jones must act against his conscience. After all, if everyone acted according to his or her conscience rather than according to the government’s mandates, chaos would erupt.’
I’ll not here address the ‘chaos would erupt’ assertion, which is an understandable claim but one that I believe to be mistaken. (Readers interested in why I believe this claim to be mistaken should check out, for example, David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom ; Bruce Benson’s The Enterprise of Law ; and Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority .) I content myself here simply to pose a question posed by thinkers far more profound than myself, thinkers such as Auberon Herbert , Herbert Spencer , and Michael Huemer: if it’s immoral and disgraceful to act against your conscience when the likes of your club, family, gang of friends, fellow workers, or political party demand that you act against your conscience, why is it not equally immoral and disgraceful to act against your conscience when your government demands that you do so?
UPDATE: Regarding the question immediately above in this post, I meant to ask why is it not equally immoral and disgraceful to act against your conscience when your government demands that you do so and when you run no real risk of getting caught for doing so.
Or think of the matter this way: If we would (as most would) applaud Jones for refusing to join in his party’s homophobia – and if we would applaud him all the more loudly the greater are the personal ill consequences he suffers for not joining in his party’s homophobia (say, he loses his lucrative job because his boss is also member of the party) – why would we not applaud an employer who, insisting that minimum-wage legislation is immoral, refuses to obey that particular government diktat? We surely would understand, and not condemn, an employer who objects to minimum-wage legislation but nevertheless obeys it because he fears being fined or imprisoned. But why not praise those who, despite the heavy risks to their persons and property, would nevertheless refuse to obey the government?