During socialization, we learn to become members of society by internalizing the norms and values of society. It is during this process that the habits we acquire take shape into customs and then into rules. Just about everything we do in life is governed by some set of rules. There are rules for games, for social clubs, for sports and even within the workplace. There are also rules imposed by morality that play an important role in telling us what we should and should not do.
Eventually some of these rules became known as laws. In Britain, laws are 'the enforceable body of rules that govern any society' (Oxford Dictionary). 1 Laws resemble morality because they are designed to control or alter our behaviour. But unlike rules of morality, laws are enforced by the courts; if you break a law whether you like that law or not, you may be brought to court, charged and ordered to pay a fine, pay damages, or go to prison. However, what is the purpose of law and why do we need it?
If we did not live in a structured society with other people, laws would not be necessary. There would be no social order. We would simply do as we please, with little regard for others. Since individuals began to associate with other people and to live in society, laws have been the glue that has kept society together. For example, the driving laws in Britain state that when heading on to a roundabout, the rule is, we must 'give way to vehicles coming from your right'.
If people were allowed to choose themselves which way to drive onto a roundabout, driving could be dangerous and chaotic. In addition, Laws regulating our business affairs help to ensure that people keep their promises and Laws against criminal conduct help to safeguard our personal property and our lives. Law is not just definable as a system of rules equate with the legal process. Farrar (1977)2 suggested that 'law communicates and reinforces social values. Law has always enforced some morality'.
The state enforces a common morality, as a moral consensus is essential for social solidarity. To some degree, law and morality have always shared a common ground. Especially with sexual morality. In England there is laws 'against various forms of homosexual behaviour between males, sodomy between persons of different sex even if married, bestiality, incest, living on the earnings of prostitution, keeping a house for prostitution, and also, conspiracy to corrupt public morals'3.
The Wolfenden report (1957)4 declared the function of law in relation to homosexual behaviour ' is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation or corruption of others, particularly those who are specially vulnerable because they are young, weak in body or mind or inexperienced… ' This means that any type of homosexual behaviour at that time was illegal. However, by the 1967 Act parliament recognized and accepted the practice of homosexuality.
Nevertheless, to what extent is it acceptable for the law to enforce a set of values and shared beliefs? Is it not morally wrong of the law itself to make sexual preferences illegal? In addition, would this justify a person intentionally breaking the law because they believe the law in hand is a 'bad' one? Why should we obey laws? The 'social contract theory' is one of the theories why we should obey law. Social contract theory is the hypothetical agreement within a state regarding the rights and responsibilities of the state and its citizens.
All members within a society are assumed to agree to the terms of the social contract by their choice to stay within the society or by not violating the contract. Social contract theory best developed by John Locke (1632-1704) viewed that 'human beings are free by nature, and may take whatever action is necessary for sustaining their lives, consistent with a like right in all others to do the same. This includes the right to protect one's life and property from attacks by others.
The individual enjoyment of such a right carries with it the right of individuals to join together for mutual protection, creating an agency – the state – to act on their behalf in this regard' (Butler Shaffler). 5 This theory maintains that we have unconditionally pledged ourselves to obey the law and our pledge binds us. However, critics would argue that we are under no moral obligation to obey the law because 'we have never literally pledged ourselves to obey the law. If we have not done so, then we cannot be bound by such a pledge' (Lyons, D. Ethics 1984:211).
Therefore, one can assume that since they never pledged to obey the law, it must be assumed that law breaking is justified in this sense. However, it is not as simple as that. Socrates (470-399 BC) gratitude argument suggests that when you choose to live in a state, you are obliging to live by the laws of that given state and if you do not like those laws, you are free to leave. Although, no matter where you live, you have a legal and moral obligation to obey the laws of that state or you suffer the consequences.
There are many examples of people breaking the law because they feel the law in question is wrong. In America, Rosa Parks was prosecuted for violating Alamba race segregation laws in 1955. She was a colored woman who refused to get out of her seat on a bus to let a white person sit down. Because of this, she was regarded as a hero by the civil rights movement and received widespread support. This led to the US Supreme Court ruling on racial segregation in 1956. Rosa Parks was awarded the Congressional Medal in 1999.
However, was she justified in breaking this law just because this law was a morally wrong law? We have an obligation to obey the law whether we regard the laws to be wrong or not. Nevertheless, Rosa Parks breaking the law could be justified in the sense that because of her actions, many people benefited from the changes that were made in the law. This could be explained in terms of Bentham (1748-1832) theory of utilitarianism that the laws should always aim to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. People that break the law are often regarded as heroes for their efforts.
Freedom fighters believe they are not terrorists because and are justified in breaking the law because they are fighting a political cause. In addition, sometimes the government tends to give this conception also. A Bill allowing paramilitary fugitives to return to Northern Ireland without facing prison has been passed through the House of Commons. MPs voted by a margin of 48 in favour of the measures. 7 This means that the crimes that these criminals committed before the Good Friday Agreement will be forgotten and they will not face criminal charges.
It may be perceived that the government is giving the impression that these people were justified in breaking the law. Many people oppose the plans and not everyone agrees with the government's proposals. A national newspaper reported 'those who have so far escaped justice must be made to pay for their crimes. The so-called judicial process to which the Government is suggesting these people submit themselves is discredited in advance. Serving judges in the Province are refusing to have anything to do with it. It would, they know, destroy any notion of the rule of law' (Daily Telegraph)8.