Social Climate

Conscientious exceptions to the law

In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?”

I think that this question, because it was the very first item asked in the 2016 Role of Government Module of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), set the tone for the entire survey interview.  (For other pieces on the same survey, see “Attitudes toward government,” 4/14/18; “Attitudes toward government surveillance,” 4/21/18; “The Filipino desire for a welfare state,” 4/28/18; and “Convicting the innocent is the graver sin,” 5/12/18).


Before an interview starts, it is made clear to the respondents that their participation is completely voluntary, that their identities will be confidential for all time, and that there is no right or wrong answer to any question. To every question, they are also told that “can’t choose” is a valid answer; even silence is recorded, as “no answer.”

A survey question means whatever it plainly says. It asks whatever respondents understand by it.  It has no hidden meaning.


The first item in this ISSP survey is a simple challenge to respondents to state whether they could ever give precedence to their own personal values, in case these values conflict with the law.  The most that respondents might infer from it is the possibility of such conflict for some people.

Opinions are very evenly divided, across the globe. In the 28 countries (of a maximum 42) that by now have completed their national surveys of adults, and submitted the data to the ISSP archive, an average of 47 percent said that the law should always be obeyed, and an average of 46 percent said there are times when personal conscience should take precedence.  The small remainder could not choose a position or had no answer.

In 15 countries, the dominant answer is to follow one’s conscience.  In 13 countries, it is to follow the law. The latter side has slightly fewer countries, but slightly more people; thus, global opinion is evenly divided, in terms of the number of people.

The countries with somewhat more concern for the law are Venezuela (85 percent), Georgia (69), Thailand (68), Spain (65), Israel (60), Chile (59), Philippines (57), Slovakia (57), Taiwan (55), Czech Republic (52), Norway (52), Hungary (52), and Denmark (50).

In the survey of Filipinos, done by SWS in March 2016, a large minority of 41 percent said that sometimes one’s conscience should prevail instead.

The countries with somewhat more concern for conscience are France (71 percent), Switzerland (71), New Zealand (63), Sweden (61), United States (58), Latvia (57), Iceland (56), Japan (56), Finland (56), Lithuania (56), Croatia (56), Slovenia (55), Germany (54), South Korea (51), and Great Britain (47 percent—a plurality, with 7 percent neutral).

The two sets of countries above have clearly different opinions about conscientious exceptions to the law.  Whatever the explanation, it does not seem to be cultural.  Of the five Asian countries that have done this survey, three tend toward always following the law, and two tend toward allowing for conscientious exceptions.


Though China has been a member of the ISSP network since 2009, it has not submitted the role of government survey (2016). Neither did it do the ISSP surveys on the environment (2010), national identity (2013), and citizenship (2014).  China is very careful about revealing the social attitudes of its people to the world.

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TAGS: ISSP, law, Opinions, survey
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