By now the internet has had quite a time discussing Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. I always feel sorry for the people who wind up in Kim Davis’s position, though I am sure part of her probably enjoys the attention for what she perceives to be a heroic stance against what she considers to be an immoral law.
This question–should you obey laws that you don’t agree with–is an oldie and a goodie in political theory and philosophy, where people make a distinction between law and justice for good reasons. What is lawful may not be just, and what is just may not, currently, be lawful. But the absence of any sense of justice in the law robs the law of its moral legitimacy, or why people will go along with the laws in the first place.
I’ve always maintained that the point of theory is to help people empathize with different ways of thinking about the world, particularly ways that differ quite a bit from their own. Towards that end, I put together a little reading list for students who want to think about Ms. Davis and her problem, which is: she believes same-sex marriage violates natural (divine) law (physis), but her professional legal role in enforcing man’s law (nomos). (My computer seems to want to insist on turning nomos to gnomes. What the actual hell? Does the word gnomes come up more often than the concept of nomos? Really??)
Laws and Justice, on the duty to obey laws, or not, and sublimation of the self to political community in classical studies:
Cicero: On Duties
Augustine: City of God
Aquinas: Selections from the Summa–get a reader that curates for you
Areopagitica by John Milton
Machiavelli: The Prince; The Discourses
Locke, First Treatise of Civil Government
Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
Bentham, Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation
Burke, Empire, Liberty, and Reform
Marx, On the Jewish Question (this one right here, if you can read no other; this is why conservatives should read Marx).
Mill, On Liberty
Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil
I’ve got to run off to class but I will come back later in the week with some contemporary writers and thinkers who have been riffing off the concepts from the classics, but you can’t actually get at an answer for any of this without Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Antonio Gramsci, and some of the writings of Mahatma Gandhi.