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"Situations involving civil disobedience must be approached on a case-by-case basis"

Interview with Timothy Murphy, UC3M CONEX research fellow


Timothy Murphy investigates the limits of reason from a legal perspective in the UC3M department of International Law, Ecclesiastical Law and Philosophy of Law, within the context of the CONEX program.  This talent attraction program is supported by the European Union, the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and Banco Santander. A graduate in law from the University of Cork, Ireland, and Warwick University in UK, he earned his PhD in Theology at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland.  He has held law school faculty positions in universities in the UK, France, Ireland, Iceland and Malaysia.  His current research project in CONEX is entitled: “Reason as a Limit to Authority in Law”.

La razón como límite a la autoridad del Derecho

What is the aim of your research?

My CONEX project addresses the limits that reason can place on authority. The traditional concept of legal authority suggests that state laws by themselves bind citizens to obedience but problems arise when subjects of authority reasonably consider a state law to be unjust or morally wrong or simply ineffectual or incoherent.  In these cases, there may be challenges to the authority of a law or set of laws. Civil obedience is the norm but challenges to authority are common. I am interested in what makes some but not other challenges legitimate, and what this tells us not only about authority but also about power, coercion, and obligation.

When is civil disobedience legitimate?

There is no fixed or easy answer to this question because situations involving civil disobedience must be approached on a case-by-case basis. What can be said generally is that each situation will include both legal and moral considerations. A law obviously imposes a legal obligation and to disobey it is legally illegitimate. But moral obligation is different, it comes only from one’s personal value judgement. A moral obligation may oblige an individual to disobey a law, and this would again be legally illegitimate but, for the individual concerned at least, it would be morally legitimate.

Could we consider the Catalan sovereignty challenge as a good example of this dichotomy between reason and authority?

It is a good example because a central issue is the Spanish state’s claim to both legal and moral or political authority regarding Catalan sovereignty. Spain has de facto legal authority over Catalonia and it also claims this authority is morally and politically justified. Generally, the current legal authority of the Spanish state in Catalonia is accepted by both sides to the dispute. Obviously, there are exceptions—anyone who argues in favour of secession without consultation, for example, would seem to dispute the basic Spanish claim to legal authority. But those who advocate that the matter be decided by referendum, whether in Catalonia or in Spain, these advocates accept the de facto legal situation. They do not like it but they accept it as part of Spanish constitutional reality. The deep conflict is in the moral and political domains, where there are reason-based arguments on both sides. Many in Catalonia and elsewhere argue that it is morally and politically wrong for Spain to have legal authority—in other words, they want their moral and political perspective to be acknowledged and established legally.

In your project, you place authority and reason as the main ideas of research. What do you understand by authority?

I think there are two basic modalities of authority. First, the authority that comes automatically with positions of power or status, and second, the authority that comes from the ability and willingness to be reasonable and just. Often you have the first but not the second.  Imagine a military coup d’etat, for example, after which an accepted, functioning constitution is replaced with a new constitution that allows a military junta to rule by decree and, if necessary, to violate basic human rights and other norms. Let us suppose that the junta do in fact issue several decrees violating human rights. In this example, the junta do have legal authority—the new constitution gives them this—but it does not have moral or political authority if its regular violation of basic norms is perceived as unreasonable and unjust. The two can of course exist simultaneously—this is authentic authority. Let us suppose that a resistance movement take power from the junta with huge popular support. Let us imagine that this new government introduces a new constitution that limits its own power and that the government seeks to rule reasonably and justly. This is authentic authority. But even when authority is authentic its reach is limited because, whatever legal obligations may exist, one is obliged morally only by one’s personal judgement of value. So, in the example of a popular movement taking power, even such a government cannot claim to impose a moral or political obligation to obey on everyone—it is simply not within any government’s power to do this.

And what do you understand generally by reason?

Reason is an epistemology, a way of knowing. It is also a way of investigating situations, of trying to understand them.  If we wish to make responsible judgements of value, to try to be just and to understand our own obligations, we need to think and act reasonably, and this applies whether we are in a position of authority or the subject of authority.

What motivations have led you to develop a project on this subject?

The nature of law’s authority has always been a central question in legal philosophy but recently the discourse has become very technical and this has undermined its relevance to contemporary developments. I became engaged with questions around legal authority when I lived and worked in Southeast Asia for some years before taking up my CONEX fellowship. That’s a part of the world where there is a prevalence of what is called “soft” authoritarianism. My philosophy of law opposes any forms of social organisation characterised by submission to authority, and with the appearance of greater drift worldwide to soft or “populist” versions of authoritarianism, I felt the authority-reason nexus was an appropriate subject for a research project since then the world has witnessed the further global spread of forms of populist authoritarianism, so the project, although it is theoretical, is quite relevant to contemporary events.

What methodology do you apply in your research?

I adopt a conceptually integrated approach that examines authority in relation to a range of other concepts, particularly morality, power, coercion, obligation, justice, and the common good. Because these concepts also constitute central concerns of disciplines other than philosophy of law, including ethics, political philosophy, political science, social anthropology and sociology, I also adopt an interdisciplinary approach in my research.

Where do you usually investigate? What is your "laboratory"?

My research is principally conceptual so the main part of my practical work involves a lot of reading and a lot of writing. Access to reading materials is particularly important and traditional libraries and university databases are crucial sources of these materials. I also attend and present working papers at conferences and workshops on the philosophy of law and related subjects. In facilitating this the CONEX project has allowed me to present and receive feedback on my ongoing work and I am very grateful for that.

What results do you expect to achieve?

To date I have been presenting papers and publishing articles that focus on the conceptual relationships between authority and coercion and between authority, justice, and the common good. For the remainder of my fellowship I will continue to present and publish my research and I hope to contribute to making the legal-philosophical discourse around authority less technical and more relevant to contemporary developments.

Do you think that these results could have an application in the current political or regulatory context?

Questions of legal and moral obligation and the relationship between the two are central issues in political life. Why do people obey the law? Why do people disobey the law? In what types of situation is civil disobedience justified? I think these questions are always important and they all come within the purview of my research project. Obviously, they have strong contemporary relevance because we live in a time when forms of populist authoritarianism are on the rise.

What are the advantages of investigating this issue within the framework of CONEX?

The advantages include the 3-year time-scale of the program and the research fund that allows for participation in conferences and workshops internationally. UC3M provides a stimulating intellectual environment and the CONEX program is managed excellently by Raquel Navalpotro Gil and Sara Cervilla Ferreiro at the OTRI office. It is also supported very professionally, in my experience, throughout all offices of the university. I am very fortunate to be working with the Research Group on Law and Justice (Grupo de Investigación sobre el Derecho y la Justicia – GIDyJ) at the Department of International Law, Ecclesiastical Law and Philosophy of Law (Departamento de Derecho Internacional, Eclesiástico y Filosofía del Derecho). I am very grateful to the group’s director, José María Sauca Cano, and the department’s director, Oscar Celador Angon, for their support of my CONEX research. Thanks are due also to María Victoria Cortés Bustos, whose administrative support at the department has been invaluable.

The CONEX (CONnecting EXcellence) Program is supported by the European Union (Marie Curie FP7 Actions, grant agreement no. 600371), from the  Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad (Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness)  (COFUND2013-51509) and  Banco Santander, through Santander Universidades.