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Can ethics be a sufficient condition for becoming a lifelong "law-abiding" citizen? What ethical standards could be there to ensure life under legal boundaries? Or if one needs some very basic legal knowledge to achieve that being, what combination of ethics and law is most sensible for someone not pursuing a career in law? Or perhaps the question should be posed as, "How much law do we need to know in our lives, and how much do we use ethics to fill the rest of our moral consciousness?" Thank you!

August 17, 2011

Response from Sean Greenberg on August 25, 2011
This is a very interesting nest of questions!! The relation between law and morality has received considerable discussion from philosophers and is a fascinating topic. I treat the first question that you raise, and then turn to the very different question with which you conclude.

I myself am not inclined to think that being law abiding has anything to do with one's moral consciousness. In order to be law-abiding, one need only obey the laws. And in order to do this, one need only know the laws, one needn't even understand them. So even basic legal knowledge is not a condition for being a law-abiding citizen. Indeed, it may even be the case that law and morality can come into conflict, in which case moral consciousness would not only not be a sufficient condition for being a law-abiding citizen, it might even lead one to break laws. (Cases of civil disobedience are relevant here. If you haven't read it already, I recommend that you take a look at Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government," just one of many pieces relevant to the topic, but a classic that merits being read.) Although one might respond that at least a minimal moral consciousness is necessary to recognize the authority of the state, I'm not even inclined to think that this is the case.

The question of how much law we need to know--or perhaps better, should know--in order to be good citizens, and what relation our moral consciousness has to being a good citizen, is a very different question indeed. I'm inclined to think that the more one knows about the laws of the land in which one lives, the better a citizen--because a better-informed citizen--one will be. However, one may not therefore come to be a law-abiding citizen, especially if one comes to recognize that there are conflicts between one's moral commitments and the law, in which case one may have to choose between obedience to the law and one's moral commitments. (This conflict receives an excellent treatment in Sophocle's play, Antigone.) Nevertheless, I'm inclined to think that being a good citizen--as opposed to merely a law-abiding citizen--requires that one recognize the possibility of conflicts between the requirements of law and those of morality, and to try to think through how those conflicts should be resolved, if and when they do arise. How to resolve such conflicts, though, is a deep and difficult question, that goes back to the very beginning of Western philosophy, for it is engaged in Plato's early diaglogue Crito: but regardless of how one resolves this sort of question, I'm inclined to think that reflection on it will actually make one a better, because more reflective and engaged, citizen (although, again, such reflection may not lead one necessarily to be a law-abiding citizen.)


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