Is it ever okay to break the law?

It can be moral to break the law in situations where the law is itself immoral, or when there is a more important moral consideration which supersedes the law.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Sometimes it's not just okay to break the law; it's actually essential. There are certain circumstances where laws need to be broken in order to ensure that justice is realized.

An obvious example from American history would be the actions of the civil rights movement. Civil rights campaigners like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. routinely broke racist laws, as this was the only way they could get them changed. The entire structure of Southern society was so steeped in racism and white supremacy that there was no other way that unjust laws that discriminated against African Americans could be challenged.

Critics of King's approach argued that the civil rights movement should use exclusively legal means to secure the end of racial injustice. But as King and his defenders would always point out, the very legal system itself was riven from top to bottom with racism and white supremacy, and so relying on the law to end the scandal of racial oppression was never a live option.

Whether or not it is ever right to break the law is not a decision that can be reached in advance. It is not an abstract question, but a practical one. The specific facts on the ground will determine whether or not it is right to break the law.

Generally speaking, it is best for society as a whole if everyone adheres to the law. However, in cases where it is impossible to change the law through normal democratic means, as it was in the Deep South in mid-twentieth century America, then it is not just okay to break the law; it is a moral imperative to do so.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The short answer is yes, it can be moral to break the law. Such eminent jurists as Lord Sumption, a former justice of the British Supreme Court, have even opined that there is no moral obligation to obey the law in the first place. This becomes clear when you examine the laws of past regimes, which often appear monstrously unjust. Those who helped slaves to escape from slavery in the Antebellum South or those who helped Jews to avoid the concentration camps in Nazi Germany were breaking the law. Most people would now consider those lawbreakers morally superior to the people who obeyed the law.

Laws are made in various ways, by kings, dictators, and elected legislators. All these people are fallible and may pass laws which it would be immoral to obey. However, there is also the problem of the good law which impedes a greater good in special circumstances. Imagine, for instance, a situation in which you see a man dying of thirst. There is a shop nearby selling bottles of water, but you do not have the money to buy one, and the storekeeper will not allow you to pay later. In such circumstances, most people would agree that it is moral to break the law against theft and save the man's life. This does not invalidate the law, but it does mean that, in these specific circumstances, it was morally better to break it than to follow it.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The word ok seems to imply a moral question.  I do think there are cases where you have to break the law in order to make a moral decision.  You have to have a higher conscience.  The law cannot see every possibility, and is intentionally over-arching.  People have to make their own choices and be willing to accept the consequences.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One must live by the dictates of conscience, act accordingly, and accept the consequences. That includes adherence or rejection of law.  It is possible, in the US, to break a law, be brought to trial, and still be acquitted, but only if the jury feels the law is bad, in which case it can be removed from the books, or nullified.

From Civil Disobedience, courtesy of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862):

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?


Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I agree with the first response. It can be morally right to break an immoral law, although of course one must accept the consequences of breaking the law. The best option is to try to change the law before breaking it, but history is full of highly ethical people who disobeyed unethical laws -- laws that were later repealed partly because they had been broken by people who answered a "higher law."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

People can disagree on this issue, but my view of the matter is that it is permissible to break the law in certain instances.  (I am assuming that we are talking about breaking the law in a democratic society.)

First, the way in which one breaks the law must not hurt other people.  Breaking the law by stealing from others or by assaulting others is never acceptable.

Second, one must be breaking the law for the correct reasons.  A person must break the law not because it is convenient to do so, but because they sincerely believe the law is unjust.

Finally, they must be willing to take the consequences of breaking the law.  If you truly believe the law is wrong, you should break it in a public way so that people can see what you are doing.  You should then prove your sincerity by taking the punishment for your actions.

If all of these criteria are met, breaking the law is acceptable.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial