Whether we should obey the law is a question that affects everyone’s day-to-day life, from traffic laws to criminal laws to requirements to pay our taxes. Even if most people obey unreflectively or out of habit, the question remains: why we are morally required to do so. If we fail to obey, the state may well enforce compliance, but is it right that for it to do so, and if so, why?
In this book I probe these questions. I consider prominent theories of obligation and show why they are unpersuasive. More than this, I argue that traditional ways of conceiving of political obligations are misleading and pose obstacles to convincing answers to these questions. My position is that only an approach that interweaves multiple principles, rooted in the principle of “fair play” can provide a satisfying explanation. On this view, our requirements to obey the law follow from essential benefits society provides, which result from cooperative efforts of our fellow citizens. We are required to do our fair share in producing these benefits, while this requirement is supplemented by others rooted in our duties to other people and others that follow from membership in our societies. Although the resulting theory is more complex than one based on a single moral principle, it avoids the difficulties that beset these others and provides what I believe is a satisfactory account of why we should obey the law.
George Klosko is the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. His new book Why Should We Obey the Law is now available from Polity.