Over at Willow Tree, Rachel Ann asks:
Under what circumstances is it okay to break the law? I don’t mean jaywalking, or grand theft auto either, I mean something in between.
Pretty much whenever I think 1) there’s virtually no chance I’ll get caught, and 2) I don’t believe that by breaking the law I’d be making a significant contribution to hurting another person. (Breaking the law in the context of a political protest is a different matter; there sometimes I’d find it worthwhile to break a law even if there’s a significant chance I’d be caught. But I don’t think that’s the sort of thing Rachel Ann was thinking of.)
So, for example, I don’t hesitate to get stoned (or when I do hesitate, it’s not because I’m disturbed by the law-breaking). Nor would it bother me morally to shoplift from a huge corporation. (I don’t shoplift anymore – haven’t for years – but that’s not a moral decision, I’m just not as fearless as I once was. Or as needy).
Of course, I realize that shoplifting – and, for that matter, smoking pot – does contribute in a small way to harming other people. If I was the only person in the world to shoplift, it would be pretty harmless; but the cumulative effect of millions of shoplifting incidents is to raise prices and unemployment by some degree. But to me, this sort of “cumulative” harm is similar to the harm caused by driving when you could walk, or flying across the country, or failing to protest my government vigorously, or not buying the most fuel-efficient car available, or any other activity in which some of the costs are externalized. Yes, it’s the wrong thing to do; but being one of millions who contributes a tiny bit to a larger social harm is something I’ve learned to live with on a day-to-day basis.