Reasonable Illegal Force: Justice and Legitimacy in a Pluralistic Liberal Society

Alec D. Walen

Rutgers School of Law, Camden

January 23, 2001

Ethics, Vol. 111, 2001

Ideally, should liberals in a pluralistic society be able to agree to abide by a common legal system such that all their disputes are resolved without resort to illegal force? Rawls believes the answer is “yes.” I explain and defend his answer, but I also conclude, focusing on the example of abortion, that the truth is “not necessarily, not always.”

Rawls’s conceptions of reasonable citizens and public reason help explain why there is a strong prima facie duty to forswear illegal force. It is based on the duty to respect others, which requires that one be able to justify one's actions to them insofar as they are reasonable and matters of basic justice are at issue. One cannot justify using illegal force to those who reasonably think a law is just; to them it is a form of disrespect. Nonetheless, if one reasonably thinks that a fundamental injustice is tolerated or even established by the law, then one may be no less reasonable than one has reason to be if one uses illegal force, sacrificing this form of respect to right a greater wrong.

Keywords: justice, legitimacy, illegal force, civility, civil disobedience, Rawls, political liberalism, reasonableness, abortion

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Date posted: January 23, 2010 ; Last revised: November 17, 2013

Suggested Citation

Walen, Alec D., Reasonable Illegal Force: Justice and Legitimacy in a Pluralistic Liberal Society (January 23, 2001). Ethics, Vol. 111, 2001. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1540944

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Alec D. Walen (Contact Author)
Rutgers School of Law, Camden ( email )
217 N. 5th Street
Camden, NJ 08102-1203
United States
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