Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ridiculous laws

We are clearly not morally required to obey laws that tell us to do something immoral. But what about laws that, while not requiring anything immoral, nonetheless have ridiculous consequences?

Here is a fun Texas example. According to Chapter 1702.104 of the Texas Occupations Code:

(a) A person acts as an investigations company for the purposes of this chapter if the person:
(1) engages in the business of obtaining or furnishing, or accepts employment to obtain or furnish, information related to: [...]
(D) the cause or responsibility for a fire, libel, loss, accident, damage, or injury to a person or to property; [...]
And according to 1702.101,
Unless the person holds a license as an investigations company, a person may not:
(1) act as an investigations company;
(2) offer to perform the services of an investigations company;
Consequence: Without a PI license, a historian may not apply for or accept a postdoc at a Texas university to work on a book on the causes of the Great Fire of Rome of 64AD.


jawats said...


D. A. Armstrong said...

One might add investigations of the Titanic or any other such accidents would also need licensing. Assuming a death is an injury of the most serious nature, looking for the cause of Alexander the Greats death would require a license.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yup. Basically, if you're a historian, you better get a PI license--if the literalist reading of the law is what matters.

Brandon said...

I suppose the Rome fire could be eliminated based on jurisdictional principles, which would limit the application of the law to things the commission could have jurisdiction over. But that would still leave anything in Texas itself. What's really rather funny is that the code spends forever at the beginning trying to pin down precisely the meaning of things like 'alarm' and 'alarm system' but never gives us a good definition of 'investigations company', which is one of the major things the law is made to regulate.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't the jurisdictional solution will work, though I'm not a lawyer. While there is no jurisdiction over ancient Rome, there may be jurisdiction over Texans who are investigating ancient Rome as long as the investigation takes place in Texas. After all, it seems right to say that a PI license would be needed for a Texan to investigate a murder that took place in Arkansas, as long as the investigation itself took place in Texas (e.g., witnesses were interviewed in the investigator's office in Texas).

It's striking just how badly written laws can be. There is another Texas law that says that, without written authorization of the educational institution, one may not possess "an illegal knife" (or gun or club) on the premises on which an official function of that institution happens. This could mean that if an official Departmental party takes place in a faculty member's home, then written authorization is needed--for, presumably, the faculty member does indeed possess illegal knives in the kitchen, since any knife over 5.5 inches in length counts as an illegal knife (I have two kitchen knives that are about 7 inches long).

Tim Lacy said...

Is your consequence documented or speculative? I didn't follow the last link since it was just Wikipedia.

Maybe there's a secret clause somewhere, or a regulation that offers clarification on the law, that exempts the work of historians?

Alexander R Pruss said...

No, it's just my interpretation--I have not seen this consequence documented. One would think that if there were an exemption somewhere, it would be in the same place, since this is, after all, the Private Security section of the Occupations Code.

Mike Almeida said...


By my score, what seems to have been shown is that there is an implicitly restricted quantifier in this portion of the code. They clearly want to restrict discussion to the domain of contemporary fires, etc., and they are clearly quantifying over certain sorts of investigations.
Spelling that out in more formal terms could be a chore, but what is interesting is how they manage to convey these restrictions.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The restricted quantifier reading is plausible.

But just how contemporary? Surely a historian could investigate JFK's assassination, or write a book about Saddam Hussein's war crimes, or maybe even investigate why one contemporary politician libeled another contemporary politician.

Alexander R Pruss said...

One thing no commenter has answered is this: Is the historian investigating one of these things really morally obliged to get the PI license as per the letter of the law?

jawats said...

The wonderful world of state codes. In the state where I practice, we have two entirely separate sections that deal with precisely the same thing - school finance law. Nobody knows why there are two, and they do not reference each other. Both specify processes for purchasing items for schools, and they are different processes.

jawats said...

And no, s/he is not morally obliged to do so. "The law compels no one to do vain or impossible things." "The law rejects superfluous, contradictory and incongruous things." Laws may be held void for being ambiguous or vague(such as this law), and those who cannot be aware that they are under the stricture of a law will not be held to it (generally).

Nick Fortescue said...

When thinking about moral obligations to obey laws, I assume the overriding obligation comes from "obey the authorities on earth" in Romans.

So I think a reasonable question is "if I were to disobey this law in front of a police officer (or DA, or director of public prosecutions) then would I be prosecuted?"

If the answer is no, then surely the authorities on earth don't object, and morally speaking the law is an irrelevant piece of paper.

I haven't really thought this argument through, so I'd be interested in what others think.

Alexander R Pruss said...


But maybe the police and the DA do not count as the relevant authorities. The relevant authority may be the legislature and governor.

Kyle said...

I think Nick is going along the right lines. It comes down to your relationshipe with the people who are in authority over you.

We are to submit to the authorities over us, which in must ordinary circumstances will mean obeying the law.

However, I don't think these are ordinary circumstances. You can still be respectful and obedient to the authority without following the law in the cases you describe.

We have to be careful here, because we could easily use such thinking as an excuse to reinterpret the law as we like.

However, Nick's example would be good evidence that you are not just reinterpretting the law for your own benefit. If the authorities wouldn't consider the historian to be breaking the law, then the historian is not breaking the law.