Should We Always Obey the Law?

The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Caravaggio (1603).

According to the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855), a person can, deep down, lead one of three lives: the esthetic life, the ethical life, or the religious life.

A person leading the æsthetic life aims solely at satisfying her desires. If, for example, it is heroin that she craves, she will do whatever it takes to get hold of her next fix. If heroin happens to be cheap and legal, this need not involve any illegal or immoral behaviour on her part. But if  heroin happens to be expensive or illegal, as is generally the case, she may have to resort to lying, stealing, and much worse. To satisfy her desires, which, by definition, she insists upon doing, the æsthete constantly has to adapt to the circumstances in which she finds herself, and, as a result, cannot lay claim to a consistent, coherent self.

The person leading the ethical life, in complete contrast to the æsthete, behaves according to categorical and immutable moral principles such as ‘do not lie’ and ‘do not steal’, regardless of the circumstances, however attenuating, in which she happens to find herself. Because the moralist has a consistent, coherent self, she leads a higher type of life than that of the æsthete.

But the highest type of life is the religious life, which has something in common with both the ethical life and the æsthetic life. Like the ethical life, the religious life recognizes and respects the authority of moral principles; but like the æsthetic life, it is sensitive to the circumstances. In acquiescing to universal moral principles yet attending to particularities, the religious life opens the door to moral indeterminacy, that is, to ambiguity, uncertainty, and anxiety. Anxiety, says Kierkegaard, is the dizziness of freedom.

A paradigm of the religious life is that of the biblical patriarch Abraham, as epitomized by the episode of the Sacrifice of Isaac.

According to Genesis 22, God said unto Abraham:

Take now thy son, thine only only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

Unlike the æsthete, Abraham is acutely aware of, and attentive to, moral principles such as, ‘Thou shalt not kill’—which is, of course, one of the ten commandments. But unlike the moralist, he is also willing or able to look beyond these moral principles, and in the end resigns himself to obeying God’s command.

But as he is about to slay his sole heir, born of a miracle, an angel appears and stays his hand:

Abraham, Abraham … Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

At this moment, a ram appears in a thicket, and Abraham seizes it and sacrifices it in Isaac’s stead. He then names the place of the sacrifice Jehovahjireh, which translates from the Hebrew as, ‘The Lord will provide.’

The teaching of the Sacrifice of Isaac is that the conquest of doubt and anxiety, and hence the exercise of freedom, requires something of a leap of faith. It is in making this leap, not only once but over and over again, that a person, in the words of Kierkegaard, ‘relates himself to himself’ and is able to rise into a thinking, deciding, living being.

In the Milgram experiment, conducted in 1961 during the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann [one of the major organizers of the Holocaust], an experimenter ordered a ‘teacher’, the test subject, to deliver what the latter believed to be painful shocks to a ‘learner’. The experimenter informed the teacher and learner that they would be participating in a study on learning and memory in different situations, and asked them to draw lots to determine their roles, with the lots rigged so that the test subject invariably ended up as the teacher.

The teacher and the learner were entered into adjacent rooms from which they could hear but not see each other. The teacher was instructed to deliver a shock to the learner for every wrong answer that he gave, and, after each wrong answer, to increase the intensity of the shock by 15 volts, from 15 to 450 volts. The shock button, instead of delivering a shock, activated a tape recording of increasingly alarmed and alarming reactions from the learner. After a certain number of shocks, the learner began to bang on the wall and, eventually, fell silent.

If the teacher indicated that he wanted to end the experiment, the experimenter gave him up to four increasingly stern verbal prods. If, after the fourth prod, the teacher still wanted to end the experiment, the experiment was terminated. Otherwise, the experiment ran until the teacher had delivered the maximum shock of 450 volts three times in succession.

In the first set of experiments, 26 out of 40 test subjects delivered the massive 450-volt shock, and all 40 test subjects delivered shocks of at least 300 volts.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt called this propensity to do evil without oneself being evil ‘the banality of evil’. Being Jewish, Arendt fled Germany in the wake of Hitler’s rise. Some thirty years later, she witnessed and reported on Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. In the resulting book, she remarks that Eichmann, though lacking in empathy, did not come across as a fanatic or psychopath, but as a ‘terrifyingly normal’ person, a bland bureaucrat who lacked skills and education and an ability to think for himself. Eichmann had simply been pursuing his idea of success, diligently climbing the rungs of the Nazi hierarchy. From his perspective, he had done no more than ‘obey orders’, even, ‘obey the law’—not unlike Kierkegaard’s unquestioning moralist.

Eichmann was a ‘joiner’ who, all his life, had joined, or sought to join, various outfits and organizations in a bid to be a part of something bigger than himself, to define himself, to belong. But then he got swept up by history and landed where he landed.

Arendt’s thesis has attracted no small measure of criticism and controversy. Although she never sought to excuse or exonerate Eichmann, she may have been mistaken or misled about his character and motives. Regardless, in the final analysis, Eichmann’s values, his careerism, his nationalism, his antisemitism, were not truly his own as a self-determining being, but borrowed from the movements and society from which he arose, even though he and millions of others paid the ultimate price for them.

Whenever you’re about to engage in something with an ethical dimension, always ask yourself, “Is this who I wanted to be on the best day of my life?”

Neel Burton is author of The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide


  • Kierkegaard, S (1843), Fear and Trembling.
  • Kierkegaard, S (1849), Sickness unto Death.
  • Milgram, S (1963): Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67(4):371–8.
  • Arendt, H (1963), Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.