“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” When we think about justice, this is the first thing that comes to our mind. There is justice in our society when we get what we deserve. When somebody suddenly hits us on the face that causes pain, our natural reaction is to look around and find out who did it and demand for an explanation and apology. Sometimes, our instinct for justice gets the better of us and in a fit of anger we either hit the person back or shout at the person.
When something bad is done, something bad should happen to that person who did it. This is the reason why we have laws. Laws are rules that protect us and provide justice to those who have been hurt, to those who are oppressed in society. When someone kills someone, the law gives justice to the death and to the family of the dead by punishing the murderer.
The murderer spends the rest of his/her life outside of society inside the prison. Laws and government policies are important in the functioning of a just society but there are instances when laws themselves become unjust. Sometimes, they are inhumane, impartial and they even force people to perform unjust actions. In this paper, I will argue that the implementation of law does not always mean that justice is served. Many times, the implementation and acceptance of laws are the causes of the continuity of injustice in society.
Injustice through Inhumane Laws
In our society, there have been a number of inhumane laws that cause injustice. They do not take into consideration the well-being of the people that will be affected by the implementation of the law. They are good only as means to get what the powerful wants that it does not matter whether innocent people are hurt or die as long as the laws are carried out.
This is what happened with the U.S.-Mexican War during the 1800’s where the US government uses its military power to get hold of Mexican lands. Henry Thoreau, in his essay, “Civil Disobedience” violently opposes this policy because, in the first place, it causes death to a lot of people in Mexico and because having a bigger land to till will produce more demand for slavery. He compares the US military as mere machines that only follow orders even if the orders are for the selfish agenda of the government at the expense of the lives of the slaves and the Mexicans:
All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer (Thoreau, Part 1 Par. 8).
When laws and state policies are created to produce suffering to people or to continue the oppressive status quo, the laws lose its element of justice. This is the reason why Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. urge the people stop obeying the law. Thoreau says that we should not tolerate the injustice that inhumane laws and government policies bring to other people:
If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if such a nature it require you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. (Thoreau, Part 2 Par. 5).
Injustice through Discriminatory Laws
Martin Luther King, Jr. believes that there are two types of laws: the just laws and the unjust laws. He says that it is the responsibility of the citizens to obey just laws but it is also the responsibility of the citizens, a “moral responsibility” to disobey the laws that are unjust.
What are the laws that Martin Luther King, Jr. are opposed to? The social law of segregation of the whites and blacks in society. It was in 1963 that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter while in Birmingham jail to express his condemnation of the oppressed plight of the blacks under the segregation policy. During these times, the blacks could not enjoy the amenities and social infrastructure that the State provides white Americans. They have their own communities. They cannot mingle with the whites.
They cannot eat in the restaurants that the whites eat in. They cannot go to parks where the whites stroll at. The policies and the laws during these times do not see them as equals of whites. Lady Justice during these times was not wearing blindfold because she sees the color of the skin of the people in carrying out her laws. In this way, the laws do not serve justice but inhumanity and discrimination against the blacks. The segregation policies and laws during the 1960’s are unjust laws because they are “out of harmony with the moral law” (King, Par. 32).
Stanton seems to be saying the same thing as Henry Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. about the laws of the United States that are concerned with the rights and liberties of women. In her “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” Stanton declares that even men and women are equal the laws that govern them are not (Stanton, Par. 2). It was written in 1848 and during these times, women are not yet given the right to vote by the law. The law limits their participation in society and this causes injustice to women.
Aside from this, the laws of the 1800’s do not give women the opportunities for higher education and public participation in church. When a woman marries, she becomes “dead” in the eyes of the law because it is only her husband who is acknowledged in legal documents. She also cannot have property for herself.
The laws during the 1800’s are discriminatory to women and thus do not serve as the arms of justice to women. They limit the lives of women to objects and wives; to a half-human or a child who do not have the capacity to act or think on their own. The women of the 1800’s who do not fight to alleviate their oppression are like the government officials and soldiers of the US-Mexican war who continue to obey US policy even if the policy is not just. Stanton echoes Thoreau’s urging that if the law in unjust, it should not be obeyed and the government should be tolerated:
We hold these truths to be self - evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it (Par. 1).
Instruments of Justice
Aside from being inhumane and discriminatory, there are laws that force people to be instruments of injustice. Because of this, instead of creating justice, some laws produce more injustice to society.
This is the reason why Thoreau is opposed to blind obedience to the law. Instead of just following whatever law is shoved at his face, Thoreau looks at his conscience and makes it the barometer for his actions:
It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and by means of their respect for it even the well-disposed are daily being made the agents of injustice (Thoreau, Part 1 Par. 4).
This is a revolutionary idea from Thoreau. What he is saying here is that since laws do not serve justice but instead force people to be agents of injustice, then, the laws should not be the guiding factor in the actions of the citizens. For Thoreau, the government officials and members of the military and the legislative who implement unjust laws should resign from the government so that they will not be agents of injustice. For the part of the citizens, they should not fight violently but they should not also retaliate when they are being forced to be instruments of injustice. They should hold their ground and peacefully boycott the unjust laws created by the government.
In expressing her sentiments to the injustice that women are suffering during the 1800’s, Stanton also bravely contends that if the government that they have do not work hard to provide equal liberty for women, then that government should not exist:
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security (Stanton, Par. 1).
Thoreau and Stanton are both angry at the injustice that they are seeing in their society and they both want a society with no government than a society with a government that creates and implements unjust laws.
Martin Luther King, Jr. suggests on how one can get out of the perils of being instrument of injustice and fighter of justice by following four things: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist, negotiation, self purification, and direct action. Like Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr. openly advocates civil disobedience.
But unlike Thoreau, King, Jr. has a self-awareness activity before the action. Being a religious leader, King, Jr. reports that before his supporters perform civil disobedience like eating in a restaurant where the blacks are not allowed, the supporters are made to question themselves first about their inner motivations. The suggestion of King, Jr. in fighting the injustice that is brought by unjust laws is not by hatred but by love (Par. 23).
We often see justice being symbolized as a blindfolded woman with a weighing scale in her hand. We always see her statue in law courts because she gives the message that laws should always be at the service of justice. This paper has shown that in the history of our country, laws and justice do not always go together. Injustices in our society like racial discrimination, gender inequality and slavery are caused by the unjust laws created and implemented by the government. Laws are meant to be followed for the order and good functioning of society but if laws are unjust, people should listen to their conscience. If there are laws that do not aim at justice, they should not be followed because they destroy the definition of a law which is to be an arm of justice.
King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from Birminghan Jail.” African Studies Center
University of Pennsylvania. 24 Feb. 2008. <http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html>
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. “Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions.”
Sunshine for Women. 24 Feb. 2008. <http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/book-sum/seneca3.html>
Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau Reader. 23 Feb. 2008. <http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil.html>