With the recent conversation about the lack of indictment over the killing of Eric Garner (and Poncho Schmidt’s excellent post yesterday), many people have been arguing that respect for the rule of law and the police would have prevented the death. They say that even the law may be unjust or the police officer wrong, there is an obligation to comply with the knowledge that you will have your day in court. Maybe that would have kept Garner alive even though he didn’t actually do very much to resist, but this argument places the ethical burden on the wrong party.
I’m not suggesting physical resistance against the police—remember they’re all pretty well armed and very likely to be able to outnumber you. The chances of you winning a physical confrontation with the police are low. That said, it is normally a good idea to verbally (and calmly) resist the unjust acts by the police especially since most people almost always have the ability to record the exchange with their cell phones. The recording places some accountability on the police and will make them think twice about acting abusively.
So in order to help solve these problems, people should stop asking the police to enforce ridiculous and petty laws such as the law preventing the sale of loose cigarettes (and let’s face it, the law only exists so that the government is guaranteed a cut of the profit). If there is no victim, there is no crime. As for the police, they have no special rights or privileges that allow them to violate the natural rights of others. In other words, if they’re doing something that would be deemed unacceptable if you or I did it, their supposed authority to do it is an illusion.
There are unjust laws that exist and there is no obligation for anyone to comply with them. In fact, there is an ethical obligation for the police to not enforce them. We need more officers who think their orders through instead of making the excuse of “Sorry, I’m just doing my job.”
The police in Florida were recently placing people under arrest for feeding the homeless because that’s what the law said to do. Should that be a law that is followed and enforced? Even if you want to respect the rule of law, does that trump your basic duties as a human being? To make it even clearer, would it have been wrong to capture escaped slaves and return them to their plantations to adhere to the rule of law in the form of the fugitive slave laws? Surely the only ethically permissible action would be to disobey such a law.
Using someone else to be your automatic conscience is a dangerous endeavor. Moral intuitionism is far superior to mindless adherence to the law.