Reasonable illegal force: Justice and legitimacy in a pluralistic, liberal society

Ethics 111 (2):344-373 (2001)
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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.

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Alec Walen
Rutgers University - New Brunswick

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