Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter VI


§4. But even in cases where we can ascertain clearly to what authority obedience is properly due, further difficulties are liable to arise when we attempt to define the limits of such obedience. For in modern society, as we have seen, all admit that any authority ought to be disobeyed which commands immoral acts; but this is one of those tautological propositions, so common in popular morality, which convey no real information; the question is, what acts there are which do not cease to be immoral when they have been commanded by a rightful authority. There seems to be no clear principle upon which these can be determined. It has sometimes been said that the Law cannot override definite duties; but the obligation of fidelity to contract is peculiarly definite, and yet we do not consider it right to fulfil a contract of which a law, passed subsequently to the making of the contract, has forbidden the execution. And, in fact, we do not find any practical agreement on this question, among persons who would not consciously accept the utilitarian method of deciding it by a balance of conflicting expediences. For some would say that the duties of the domestic relations must yield to the duty of law-observance, and that (e.g.) a son ought not to aid a parent actively or passively in escaping the punishment of crime: while others would consider this rule too inhuman to be laid down, and others would draw the line between assistance and connivance. And similarly, when a rightly constituted government commands acts unjust and oppressive to others; Common Sense recoils from saying either that all such commands ought to be obeyed or that all ought to be disobeyed but---apart from utilitarian considerations---I can find no clear accepted principle for distinguishing those unjust commands of a legitimate government which ought to be obeyed from those which ought not to be obeyed. Again, some jurists hold that we are not strictly bound to obey laws, when they command what is not otherwise a duty, or forbid what is not otherwise a sin; on the ground that in the case of duties prescribed only by positive laws, the alternatives of obeying or submitting to the penalty are morally open to us. Others, however, think this principle too lax; and certainly if a widespread preference of penalty to obedience were shown in the case of any particular law, the legislation in question would be thought to have failed. Nor, on the other hand, does there seem to be any agreement as to whether one is bound to submit to unjust penalties.

Since, then, on all these points there is found to be so much difference of opinion, it seems idle to maintain that there is any clear and precise axiom or first principle of Order, intuitively seen to be true by the common reason and conscience of mankind. There is, no doubt, a vague general habit of obedience to laws as such (even if bad laws), which may fairly claim the universal consensus of civilised society: but when we try to state any explicit principle corresponding to this general habit, the consensus seems to abandon us, and we are inevitably drawn into controversies which seem to admit of no solution except that offered by the utilitarian method. [2]

[ME, Laws and Promises, §3]
[ME, Laws and Promises, §5]