The Value of Laws

A while back someone told me that they wanted to take a certain course of action but that it was technically against the rules so they didn’t think they should. In the end, they did, but they still regarded it as a selfish thing to do, even whilst doing it. I didn’t agree. I believe that there are certain rules (and certain laws) that deserve to be broken.

The value of a law can be seen in how much benefit or harm that law does. For example, I think we would all agree that it is more important to have a law against assaulting people than it is to have a law against dropping litter. They are both beneficial laws, and they both do no harm, but it is more beneficial to protect people from attack than to simply keep the streets clean. So, since the benefit of the law against assault is greater that that of the law against dropping litter, the value of that law is also greater. But that doesn’t mean you only obey one of them. Since they are both beneficial and both do no harm, you obey both of them, you just prioritise the most valuable laws first due to the benefit they give to society.

So what about laws that are both beneficial and harmful? For example, in Australia it is compulsory to vote and, if you fail to do so, you are fined. This law is beneficial in that it discourages political apathy and encourages society to be more politically aware in order to improve things. However, if a person does not agree with how the political system is run, or does not support the policies of any of the candidates standing in the election, isn’t it their right to decide that they should not have to vote for someone they do not support? And if it is their right then the same law that benefits society, also harms it. In that situation, would it not be acceptable to say that the value of the law should be determined by assessing how benefit compares to the harm? So, if someone says I disagree with the law against assaulting people because I think I should be able to do as I choose, we could all agree that the argument is absurd on the grounds that the harm of disobeying the law is too great. But if someone was to say that they should not have to vote because they should be able to do what they choose, then since it doesn’t truly hurt anyone else, we would find that more acceptable. And if you compare those two arguments, and the conclusions about which is acceptable, then you can see that the law against assaulting someone is more important than the law against failing to register a vote. And since it is more important, it can also be said to be more valuable.

Now what about laws that have different effects at different times? For example, I’m not sure if it is technically illegal but it is certainly against the rules for a doctor to date a patient. The doctor is in a position of trust and it would be improper to blur the boundaries. Most people would agree that it is necessary and right to maintain a professional distance. However, could this be a rule that loses value over time? Let’s say a doctor in a hospital starts a relationship with a patient whilst that patient is still receiving treatment from that doctor on their ward. That is clearly wrong. But what after the patient is discharged? The doctor is no longer treating the patient or in a position of trust, but something about it might still feel a bit wrong, purely by virtue of the fact that it was so soon after. How about a year later? Or two years? In fact, let’s say you are admitted to hospital for three weeks where you are treated by a certain doctor, you leave and never return, and two years later you bump into the same doctor in a bar and the two of you hit it off. According to the blanket rule the doctor should not allow the relationship to start. But why not? If the value of the law or rule can be assessed by measuring the benefit of it up against the harm that breaking it might do, then it is clear that there would be far more harm done if the doctor was still treating the patient than there would if they had not seen each other for two years and no position of trust remained in place. You could even go a step further and say that although breaking the rule would not harm anyone, following it might hurt both the doctor and patient by destroying their chance of happiness together. Since the benefit of the rule has decreased, and the harm of breaking it has decreased, the value of the rule has decreased too. It is now less important to follow than it was two years previously and the doctor should feel at ease with breaking it.

So let’s take an extreme example. Is it ever the case that a person has a responsibility to break a law? One example might be seen from Germany during the Second World War. It was a legal obligation to report any Jews in the area to the authorities. But it was clear what would happen if you did. In this case, the law has very little benefit. It benefited only those with a political agenda. One the other hand, it does a great deal of harm. It resulted in nothing but death and destruction. So the harm clearly outweighs the benefit. So do we blindly follow a law merely because it is the law? Or do we assess the value of the laws and rules we are subject to and follow those which are beneficial (to others as well as ourselves) whilst disobeying those which are harmful, and keeping an open mind with regards to those that lie in between? Personally, I’ll take the route of least harm and if that happens to contradict the rules, then so be it.

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