The Sense of Entitlement to Violate the Law: Legal Disobedience as a Public versus a Private Reaction

Article excerpt

This study examined citizens' sense of entitlement to violate the law as a public response to an action of state authorities or as a private response to the harmful behavior of another person. Questionnaires examining sense of entitlement to violate the law, moral reasoning, political orientation and attitudes toward the law were administered to 329 Israeli students. The results show that respondents felt more entitled to violate the law as a public action than as an act of personal retaliation. Public law violation directed toward authorities was found to be most strongly related to political orientation. Nevertheless private law violation directed toward another person is related to the absence of a sense of obligation to comply with the law and to a lack of trust in legal authorities. Moral reasoning and religiosity were found to be indirectly related to both types of law violation. The results are discussed in regard to different types of triggers for law violation.

The obligation of a citizen to comply with state laws has intrigued scholars from various disciplines. Philosophers have argued for and against the obligation to comply with state laws that contradict an individual's private conscience. Social scientists have explored the factors relating to the commitment to the rule of law such as moral reasoning (Kohlberg, 1969), normative and instrumental compliance (Tyler, 1990), and legal culture (Bierbrauer, 1994; Gibson & Caldeira, 1996). In what situations do citizens who consider themselves law- abiding feel that they have the right to violate the law? Is there a difference between the violation of laws as a public reaction to the acts of state authorities and as a private reaction to another person's acts? This study explores the relationship of personal beliefs and attitudes toward the law with the sense of entitlement to violate state laws as a public or private reaction.


Kohlberg (1969) described several stages of moral reasoning representing the developmental changes in the individual's view of authority and the duty to comply with its laws. According to Kohlberg's theory, a person's view of moral principles is likely to be related to the sense of entitlement to violate state laws in cases when laws and moral beliefs come into conflict. Research has shown that values relating to religious beliefs also affect acceptance of the rule of law (Bierbrauer, 1994; Gibson & Caldeira, 1996). In Israel, lower levels of commitment to legal obedience were found among ultraorthodox Jews compared to the general Jewish population (Rattner, Yagil, & Pedhazur, 2001; Yagil & Rattner, 2002).

The relationship between legal obedience and political orientation has been examined with regard to the moderating effect of moral reasoning. For example, several studies show that right-wing ideology is related to conventional moral reasoning in which the rule of law is highly respected, whereas left-wing ideology is related to higher level principled reasoning drawing on abstract principles such as democracy and human rights (Lind, Sandberger & Bargel, 1985; Nassi, Abramowitz & Yousmans, 1983; Simplson, 1994). However, other studies have demonstrated that conventional and postconventional reasoning are found among both right- and left-wing voters (Elmer, Renwick & Malone, 1983; Sparks & Durkin, 1987). Yagil and Rattner (2002) found lower levels of acceptance of the rule of law among right-wing voters compared to left-wing voters in Israel. In most studies conducted in Europe and the US, the distinction between left and right parallels the distinction between liberal and conservative, based mainly on socioeconomic issues. In Israel, the distinction between left and right is more strongly related to political issues emphasizing matters of security (Ventura & Shamir, 1988). One can thus assume that in Israel, too, the distinction between left and right political ideologies will be mirrored in the interpretation of various other issues related to justice, equality, human rights, and state and religion. …