Breaking the Law by Moderately Speeding

Ilya Somin has an interesting post arguing that the fact that illegal immigrants have broken the law should not lead one to conclude that they have engaged in an immoral act. His basic argument is to question the claim that people have a strong obligation to follow the law, based on the argument that most people appear to believe that breaking some laws is acceptable.

The question of whether someone has a moral obligation to follow the law is an important one. Under indirect consequentialist approach that I advocate, I believe that there is a strong argument for following the law under a reasonably desirable legal system.

The laws under such a legal system operate to the benefit – ex ante at least and in most cases ex post – of the great majority of people. If people follow the law, then the government can reduce enforcement costs and people can place trust in the system. These are significant goods that justify at least a relatively weighty argument for following the law.  However, exactly how weighty the consideration is, what would outweigh it, and how it applies to illegal immigration, I am not sure. 

Here I do not want to disagree with Ilya’s view generally, but instead to question the force of one of his examples – speed limits – an example often used to suggest that breaking the law is no big deal. Ilya writes:

Many people implicitly assume that there is only a relatively weak moral presumption in favor of obeying the law. If obeying a law is inconvenient and violating it is unlikely to harm anyone, they believe that violation is morally justified. That explains why most people believe it is morally permissible to violate the speed limit laws, so long as you don’t drive so fast as to seriously endanger other drivers and pedestrians. Strict compliance with the speed limit would be annoying and inconvenient, and make it harder for us to get to our appointments on time.

Speed limits, however, are unusual laws. The government, including police officers, assume that people will violate these laws by a certain amount. It is often said that on a highway, one is “allowed” to travel 10 miles over a 55 mph limit and the police will not ticket you. While 55 is technically the law and you can be ticketed for that amount, one generally is not.

In this situation, people do not really regard the 55 limit to be the law in the relevant sense. People are not generally conforming their behavior to that amount. And the government is not really expecting them to do so. Therefore, this is a not a good counterexample to the claim that people should conform their behavior to the law.

Less strong, but similar arguments apply to other technical violations of unimportant laws. Parking in violation of parking regulations is also a violation of the law, but such laws are widely violated and there is an understanding that the ticket for the violation is in a sense a price that one pays for violating them. The violation, after all, does not harm anyone, but just involves an allocation of scare space that one pays for with the ticket.

If one is going to test the claim whether people have an obligation to follow the law, I think other examples are needed. People have varying views about these other examples. Some people believe it is fine to cheat on your taxes, others believe it is ok to violate stupid or undesirable laws. Of course, that people believe it does not mean it is true, in the sense of being justified under a consequentialist approach. Still, I think that these other matters need to be addressed rather than relying on speed limits or parking violations.