The virtue of law-abidance

Philosophers' Imprint 6 (4):1-21 (2006)
Abstract
The last half-century has seen a steady loss of confidence in the defensibility of a duty to obey the law — even a qualified, pro tanto duty to obey the laws of a just or nearly just state. Over roughly the same period, there has been increasing interest in virtue ethics as an alternative to the dominant consequentialist and deontological approaches to normative ethics. Curiously, these two tendencies have so far only just barely linked up. Although there has been discussion of the question whether patriotism should be considered a virtue, and abstract discussion about the virtuous person’s relation to authority and justice in general, there has been little virtue-oriented discussion having specific reference to the kinds of difficulties that have motivated the ascendant skepticism about political obligation. This silence has persisted despite repeated calls for renewed work on “virtue politics”. This article proposes and defends a preliminary account of law-abidance (as contrasted to obedience) as a virtue. It argues that a virtue-theoretic account of our relation to the law offers advantages that are not contingent upon the independence or priority of the virtues with respect to consequentialist and deontological components of a complete moral theory. Chief among these advantages is the promise of an alternative to the deadlocked positions taken by apologists for the duty to obey the law and their philosophical-anarchist critics — positions which have tacitly been assumed to exhaust the viable possibilities.
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