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Why do individuals obey the law?

Why do individuals obey the law? Is it from fear of persecution, from genuine conviction or for prudential and utilitarian reasons?

In this essay, actually, I would like to highlight my understanding of the concept of obeying the law. The essay outlines the approaches followed in this essay. I defined that law as a phrase that means a role of conduct or policy established by custom, authority or agreement. During this essay, I would look briefly at the law definition to be clear. On political obligation, I used to put the question with which people are concerned as: Why do individuals obey and ought to obey the law? is the obeying of law comes from fear of persecution, or from genuine conviction or is it for prudential and utilitarian reasons.

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The aim of this essay is to draw attention to the people who are really worried and don’t aware of the question “why do obey the law?” First of all, in the first section, I defined law in general and how the people live long years ago and practice (obey) their law. Does the second section describe the question is there an obligation to obey the rules? and support my ideas with examples. In addition when people break the law?. Finally, clarified some people’s opinions for obeying the law and other people obey the law in limitation in some rules and finally my views.

I defined the law as a rule of behaving or policy established by custom, agreement, or authority. The law has existed before the dawn of the human race. However, no other species have adopted laws to fit their immediate needs more than humans. As groups of humans began living in larger and larger groups, competition for resources such as food, water, shelter, and even mating partners grew increasingly. Therefore, the leaders of these basic forms of society found it necessary to set guidelines for sharing and protecting these resources. As these societies grew in complexity, so did the need for laws. While in its initial stage law primarily protected substantial such as life, and property, the scope of laws has grown to encompass moral values as well.

However, these values often differed from society to society. With each passing year, more and more laws are coming into effect. Consequently, more and more people are growing unaware of the laws that govern them. In effect, this ignorance of the law stops its effectiveness as a deterrent to crime. Therefore, modern law as the state founded on a “social contract” among its citizens, follows that obeying the laws of the state is not legal, but as well a moral duty of obeying the laws, a binding obligation conferred upon its citizens by the terms of this contract.

This is essential, the so-called “voluntaristic” theory of political obligation, advanced in the early modern political thought of Hobbes and Lock to explain and justify why citizens do obey and ought to obey the laws of the state: it is “they want to” under the terms of the social contract which they accept in return for the security and the safeguards to their rights which the state provides them with. Somewhat differently, the Irish thinker Burke argued that political obligation is a duty conferred upon citizens of an orderly and organic community.

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Should we obey laws? It really all depends some laws aren’t worthy of obedience. And again asking, what kind of society would there be if people decided which laws they’d obey or disobey? That might be a problem but let’s look at it. For example South Africa, during its apartheid era, one of the remarkable discoveries was the widespread disobedience and contravention of its apartheid laws. Whites rented to blacks in open violation of the Groups Areas Act. Whites hired blacks in defiance of job reservation laws that set aside certain jobs for whites.

Would the whites obey apartheid law? In Germany, it was illegal to hide Jews or help them in escape. Some Germans broke the law, would the state prosecute them? In some countries, years ago prevent and set penalties for anyone aiding, abetting, hiding a runaway slave or interfering with his capture. Once again, how many people think that those assisting runaway slaves should have been prosecuted? For respectable people, laws shouldn’t be blindly obeyed. They should ask not whether the law has majority support, not even whether it’s constitutional (apartheid laws were part of South Africa’s constitution), instead, they should ask whether the law is moral.

Is there an obligation to obey the law? Is there a right to civil disobedience? How are the two questions related? There is a divide amongst legal philosophers over the fundamental question as to whether there is an obligation to obey the law. This is not merely over the question of whether there is a right to disobey the law at times, through civil disobedience or conscientious objection, or any other means, but in fact over whether there is actually any obligation at all. Whereas Dworkin and Finnis feel that there is such an obligation, at least prima facie, Raz argues that there is never even a prima facie obligation to obey.

These arguments need to be assessed. As Rawls argued in 1964 “I shall assume, as requiring no argument, that there is, at least in a society such as ours, a moral obligation to obey the law, although it may, of course, be overridden in certain cases by other more stringent obligations”. (Rawls 1963, p. 3)(1). Similarly, the right of civil disobedience has been hotly contested, with legal philosophers producing different theories as to whether or not it actually exists.

When do people break the law? Depending on the crime a person has committed, he or she may have broken a federal law, a state law, or both. However, the great majority of crimes committed are state crimes. Criminal laws and procedures vary from state to state, but in general, the following actions take place when kids and adults break the law. However, some people believe that citizens are obligated to break the law if it is unjust and that they must be willing to accept the punishment. This goes right alongside free will in society.

They think that in some instances, if a law is extremely unjust, then it is the highest respect for the law to disobey it. In these cases, civil disobedience is justified. It is a person’s right to fight for what they believe is right. On the other hand, I agree that breaking unjust laws is a way of fighting for one’s rights, especially in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. But, not all laws in effect in the US today are right either. Some of the laws are outdated and until someone does something to bring attention to those they will not be changed.

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Some people thought it is true that not everyone in a society would agree that all laws are just, citizens should still be obliged to obey all the laws of the state but that doesn’t mean if they don’t obey it’s from fear persecution. Whether a law is deemed just or unjust by an individual, that is merely one individual’s opinion. The reason of that because in some states for example US, the elect officials by a majority vote and by doing so give that official the power to decide what the majority feels is just and unjust. One law that many citizens disobey is the jay-walking law. Citizens may not feel that this law is unjust, but probably unnecessary. Although, they think by disregarding this law, people could be ran over and killed. Individuals who feel it is up to them to pick and choose which laws to obey could end up in jail or even dead.

On the other hand, some people believe a citizen is obligated to obey the laws of the country to a certain extent but also believe that some laws are funny such as the common law marriage and such that’s mean people obey laws in limitation from conviction not from force. Lawmakers need to go over laws and get rid a lot of them. This is a different time than the years ago were people are becoming more equal every day. There was a time in history called the Progressive era, when laws were made to help the people. Well, this type of people believes this country has been in a Progressive-era from the present. When laws disrespect the rights of citizens then they should not be upheld.

It’s hard to decide what is fair though because they believe a citizen should obey all laws. Laws are made for a reason and no one should be exempt. If everyone simply chose the laws they wanted to obey and ignored the others, this would be a rather anarchy world. If someone breaks a law because they think the law is unjust, it does not make it right. Many people break many laws, whether they think it is just or unjust. Some might break a drinking & driving law because they think that law does not apply to them or it does not count if you’ve only had a couple of drinks. If everyone broke this law, it is possible that our existence would stop.

Finally, I would give my idea, and it’s from utilitarian and prudential reasons which I believe that a citizen is obligated to obey the laws or be willing to suffer the consequences. I do not think that obedience depends on if the law is just or unjust, everyone’s idea of what is just or unjust is different. The government officials are the ones today that decide this and not everyone will agree with them. One example of a law that is disobeyed every day is drinking and driving. As Barbara declared to us and gave examples that “First obedience to the law is adequately explained without recourse to obligation. Habit, fear, incapacity to disobey (the non-motorists can hardly disobey motoring laws) and inclination to obey”. (2).

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I believe that people that choose to disobey this law are not only putting their own lives in danger but everyone else that are on the road with them. Because the state provides laws to stand with the people not against them. I think the consequence of everyone deciding which laws they want to obey would lead to a world of chaos. We all need one set of guidelines to keep peace and equality in our lives. In fact, Rules help protect you and keep you from harm. It’s important that you follow them. Furthermore, I think the people who obey the law from fear of persecution, they are complicated and weak thinkers and don’t care of their lives and rights.

To sum up this essay I would say truly that obeying the laws is necessary to the people nowadays because most of the people would consider that laws preventing equal rights in previous years as a completely unjust in contrast with today. Laws are created by the government, the government is made of the people, for the people and by the people. Laws are created by the state but, we are the state, so we should obey the laws we have created. From studying this essay I think that people should obey the laws (be patient) and work within the limitations of the system to remove the laws.

According to economists, severe legal sanctions deter violations of the law. In fact, there are some laws today that people disobey for example seatbelts, drinking and driving as I mentioned. However, how laws are enforced depends on the severity of people who have been pulled over for not wearing seatbelts. Either way, I don’t consider either law to be unfair or unjust. So, that is life there is the cause (reason) and consequence. Nobody around the world is completely (especially respect all the laws). Finally, in my point of view, I think we should obey the law for prudential, utilitarian and respecting reasons doesn’t practice it from fear of persecution.


1- Rawls, J., (1963)`Legal obligations and the duty of fair play, New York. P.3

2- Goodwin, B,(1994) Using political ideas. Chichester: Wiley. P.315


1- Goodwin, B. Using Political Ideas, Third Edition, Chichester: Wiley, 1994.

2- Rawls, J. Legal Obligations And The Duty Of Fair Play, New York, 1963.

3- Tom, R. Tyler. Why people obey the law, Yale university press, 1990.

4- Horton, J. Political Obligation, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992.

5- Pateman, C., The problem of political obligation: A critique of liberal theory, Cambridge: polity press, 1979.

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