After World War II, some Germans tried to defend venal behavior by claiming that they were “just following orders” from their government.
Governments in America have never done anything nearly as awful as the Nazis, but there certainly are some very unpleasant blemishes in our past – and some very bad laws today.
This raises an interesting moral quandary. To what extent are we – as moral individuals – obliged to obey (or help enforce) bad law?
As is so often the case, Walter Williams has strong feelings and compelling analysis.
Decent people should not obey immoral laws. What’s moral and immoral can be a contentious issue, but there are some broad guides for deciding what laws and government actions are immoral. Lysander S. Spooner, one of America’s great 19th-century thinkers, said no person or group of people can “authorize government to destroy or take away from men their natural rights; for natural rights are inalienable, and can no more be surrendered to government — which is but an association of individuals — than to a single individual.” French economist/philosopher Frederic Bastiat (1801-50) gave a test for immoral government acts: “See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” He added in his book “The Law,” “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”
I don’t pretend to know where to draw the line, but, as suggested by my posts about jury nullification, I fully subscribe to the libertarian principle that “not everything that’s illegal is immoral, and not everything that’s immoral should be illegal.”
So if you’re dodging taxes, cutting hair without a license, or smoking pot, the government better not put me on a jury if you get arrested. An if you have an expired registration sticker on your car, an unregistered gun, or a stockpile of normal light bulbs you plan on selling after the ban takes effect, you can safely confide in me.
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I would not be a very good juror, particularly if a judge expected me to suspend my moral judgments and narrowly follow the law. And I say this even though I realize that a good legal system should be based on that principle.
I’ve cited some tough cases in previous posts, dealing with thorny topics such as brutal tax collection stories, Sharia law, healthcare, incest, and vigilante justice.
Our latest you-be-the-judge story comes from Massachusetts, where a 57-year old man in a wheelchair is in legal trouble for slugging a 27-year old guy with a baseball bat because of allegations that he molested a little girl. Here are excerpts from a story in the Daily Mail.
A wheelchair-bound paraplegic grandfather could face up to 10 years in jail after using a baseball bat to hit a man he suspected of molesting his three-year-old granddaughter. Frank Hebert, 57, has been hit with a felony assault charge over the incident involving 27-year-old Joshua Hardy. …Computer salesman Mr Hebert said: ‘I’m not a hero, that’s for sure. I’d do it again tomorrow, knowing the consequence. …Mr Hebert, who was left confined to a wheelchair with only partial use of his arms after a car crash in Falmouth a decade ago, was summonsed to Edgartown District Court on March 25 and charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. …Mr Hebert claims it was over Christmas that the child began asking her grandparents to protect her. He said that on February 22 his partner took her daughter and granddaughter, who were visiting, back to the mainland to talk to police, while he lured Hardy to his Mac PC Sales and Service shop in Vineyard Haven. According to the Boston Herald, Mr Hebert said ‘fear’ prompted him to bring a baseball bat and to call state police to back him up. Mr Hebert said he pointed the bat at Hardy and ordered him to stay seated until police arrived. He said he used the bat after Hardy stood up and laughed at him.
If the government insists on bringing this case to trial, how would you vote?
I almost certainly would practice jury nullification and vote “not guilty.” To be sure, I say this with some hesitation because we don’t know for sure if the guy who got slugged, Mr. Hardy, actually did molest the child. And we also don’t know whether he was seriously injured or just bruised. It might also affect my decision if I found out that Mr. Herbert hit Hardy one time or twenty times.
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