Personal convictions and the law
On the convenience of distinguishing our personal convictions from the laws of our country. Even in the case in which they should happen to be the same—but especially when they are not. Conscientious objection should (and usually does) have a price.
I contribute the following commentary to a Facebook conversation concerning the Kim Davis case (Kim Davis is a public employee jailed for obstructing gay marriages in the USA), and this article by Lawrence Krauss, who according to some is close to a totalitarian view in his assertion of the universal obligation to follow the law.
Personal convictions are indeed a justification to break the law, but not in the eyes of the lawgivers or the law enforcers. These also have personal convictions, backed by democracy and the law, which prevent them from tolerating any personal appropriation of the law. One is justified in front of oneself to break the law, all the more so if one disagrees strongly with the laws and wants to draw attention to their injustice. But the price of this public statement is public punishment, otherwise there's no sense in the very notion of law.
It is only logical, therefore, that the result of a personal conviction strongly asserted beyond the bounds of the law should be... a personal conviction after a prosecution. That there should be some punishment is only logical; whether the specific punishment is just or unjust, excessive or too lenient, is another question for debate (although a not altogether unrelated one).
Conservative moralists (including such mavericks as Montaigne or Hobbes—or Krauss) have always asserted the convenience of following the laws of one's country, and the wisdom of shaping one's ethics in accordance to them. But that gives too little scope to human diversity, interaction and creativity, and it underestimates the role of opposing ideologies, human interests and of social conflicts. As to myself, I try to distinguish between personal ethics, or ethics generally, and the laws governing the public sphere, even if those laws are "democratic" or "progressive". The laws will always be, to some degree, in conflict with personal desires or convictions, or with those of most specific interest groups or ideologies. Being the result of a consensus (of a elaborately constructed consensus in the past) the laws cannot be expected to mirror our personal beliefs or the principles of our party. That is their very essence, and thence the desirability of trying to think like the law, promoted by these moralists, in order to minimize social conflicts. Not to mention accepting and following the law whether you like it or not. But sometimes the conflicts will out, and this only reflects the basic state of affairs: that our personal ethics (or the ethics of our group) is one thing, and what the laws establish as lawful, desirable or reasonable is another. It is often interesting to watch these conflicts coming to a head, as they represent social conflicts and they are often the engine of social change, or of resistance to change as in the Kim Davis case.
The archetypal case of such conflicts between the law and personal ethics was the trial of Socrates, and Socrates himself accepted (rather infuriatingly in my view) the justice of his punishment. Or rather, and this is a paradox, he established the justice of accepting an unjust sentence; a logical position in his own case, as Socrates was illogical himself; he was not trying to change the laws of Athens, as can be seen in his calm acceptance of punishment and his refusal to escape. Instead, he was setting himself as a paradoxical figure, the thinker who may step beyond the bounds of what is acceptable to his society, and yet remain faithful both to his thought and to the laws of his country.
Kim Davis is another case—she is a militant who refuses to accept what she sees as an immoral law. As she is trying to make a political statement, it is all the more necessary that the conflict be carried to a head, and that involves both punishment and the rejection of the justice of that punishment. There is freedom of conscience indeed, but it is not a political freedom when it involves political decisions. And it comes with a price tag. Not that one cannot bargain, that's also a part of the political game. The very notion of personal ethics under the law is a kind of bargain, and an uneasy compromise, but it is one we cannot renounce—however much we may seek a desirable accomodation.