Legal obligation as a duty of deference

Law and Philosophy 27 (6):583 - 597 (2008)
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An enduring question in political and legal philosophy concerns whether we have a general moral obligation to follow the law. In this paper, I argue that Philip Soper’s intuitively appealing effort to give new life to the idea of legal obligation by characterising it as a duty of deference is ultimately unpersuasive. Soper claims that people who understand what a legal system is and admit that it is valuable must recognise that they would be morally inconsistent to deny that they owe deference to state norms. However, if the duty of deference stemmed from people’s decision to regard the law as valuable as Soper argues, then people who do not admit the value of the state would have no duty as such to defer to its norms. And, more importantly, people who admit the value of the state would have a duty not to defer to particular norms, namely those norms which violate the values that ground their preference for a state. This critique of Soper operates within his parameters by accepting his claim that moral consistency generates reasons to act. Even on those terms, Soper’s defence of legal obligation as a duty of deference is unpersuasive.



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Kimberley Brownlee
University of British Columbia

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