On the principle of legality
An article from Georgy Lukyanov, Professor at l'Ecole Polytechnique
(Translated with the help of J. Gershman and T. Lukyanova-Gershman)
All my fellow citizens living in the Russian Federation are now struggling to decide: Should I overcome my fear and take part in an unauthorized anti-war rally? More generally, the question may be posed as follows: Should I act strictly within the framework of the rule of law while the government of my country engages in blatant lawlessness? Should I obey the law or my conscience?
Everyone who thinks for themselves is asking these questions. When we are outraged by blatant injustice, reason tells us: The law is still the law, and it should be obeyed in all circumstances. But in our moral indignation, we chase those thoughts away and put the voice of conscience above the law. When we are confident of our moral authority, we equate those who place the rule of law above their own notions of morality with those who execute criminal orders.
Sure, once Russian legislation was quite sound and sane, we tell ourselves. But since the unruly printing press of the State Duma began churning out arbitrary laws, legislation was no longer worth the piece of paper it’s printed on. If the law contradicts my principles, should I be governed by principles or by the law? And what am I compromising when I put strict law enforcement at the heart of my morality?
We don’t have the luxury to ratiocinate because the blood of the innocents is spilled every second. In such circumstances the attempt to keep a level head is seen as a kind of desertion: while you’re sitting here in your cozy office, shells are exploding in urban areas across the border.
Back to unauthorized protests. Our fear is not only that we may be crippled by members of the security forces, but also that we may be charged with an administrative or even a criminal offense. Concerned citizens all over the country are now asking human rights defenders this shameful question: "Under what article can I be charged for participating in an unauthorized protest?"
People really think it’s a very embarrassing question: When you put it that way, you feel like a helpless kid who wants to be naughty, but is also afraid to piss off the caregiver. However, the same question can be formulated in a positive way: “How can I express my objection within the confinements of the law?” There’s no shame in asking that question.
We can ask human rights defenders many other questions, some of which at first glance seem quite preposterous and absurd. For example: "Is it legal to call on others to obey the law?" (because we know that public appeals of any kind are treated with great suspicion by our government) or: "Do I violate the law if I ask an organization deemed a foreign agent to interpret it?" (because not all of us think about the legal status of such organizations - and how, for example, a foreign agent is different from an undesirable organization or from an organization recognized as extremist).
But no matter how arbitrary, the law is still on our side. It is important to remember that it’s much easier to follow your conscience when it’s pointing in the same direction as the law. And we can stop this catastrophe by using the law in our country: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2022/03/09/unlawful-even-by-russian-standards
The French Revolution raised slogans on its banners, inspired by the Enlightenment. But Immanuel Kant was horrified to hear that Louis XVI had been beheaded. Some short-sighted followers of his philosophy attribute this to the humanity of the Königsberg thinker and the abandonment of his main principle - to think consistently. However on the pages of "Metaphysics of Morals," we will not find an appeal to humanity for the sake of humanity; as we know, Kant was tolerant of the death penalty. No, Kant was outraged by the inconsistency with which the original act of lawlessness forms the basis of subsequent legitimacy.
The only demand that the citizens of the Russian Federation can justifiably make at this time is that all those responsible for the present bloodshed should be held accountable under the law in force in the territory of our country. The uncompromising decision to act strictly within the law is the only way we can prevent our return to barbarism.