The Natural Duty to Obey the Law

Though scholarly skepticism has been expressed during the past two decades, lawyers and others have often supposed that people have a moral obligation or duty to obey the law. This article is about one possible basis for that moral constraint, a natural duty. The article has a number of interrelated objectives. In it, I try to show briefly why theories of natural duty are so important in this context, how these theories differ from other moral bases for obedience, what the strengths and weaknesses are of particular arguments about a natural duty, what features unify apparently disparate approaches, what assumptions need be made for an account based on natural duty to succeed, and how far the range of a plausible account reaches. The discussion is directly aimed at illuminating the narrow topic of a proper public conception regarding obedience to law, but I believe it teaches much broader lessons about how to analyze the existence and extent of debated moral duties.

This article proceeds in the following steps. In Part I, I introduce the concept of a “natural duty” to obey the law and contrast it with certain other proffered sources of duty. In Part II, I investigate five theories about obedience to law that I group together as ones of natural duty. This investigation involves both exposition and criticism and eventuates in a drawing together of the common threads. In Part III, I explore the critical assumptions that are necessary to support a natural duty to obey. I conclude that such a duty does exist but explain why it does not reach even all applications of just laws under just regimes. I then turn, in Part IV, to unjust laws and unjust regimes, concluding that for application of the duty no sharp line can be drawn on the basis of the justice of a law or a regime. Finally, in Part V, I consider the power of the natural duty when it is in competition with beneficial effects of disobedience. I conclude that the duty to obey should not be conceived as invariably overriding conflicting considerations of consequence.