Philosophical Issue of Following Unjust Laws

Are we morally obliged to obey even unjust laws? Think about what this means. This means that laws, regardless of how unfair, unjust, or immoral they may be, must be followed with no better reason that they are the law. To the thesis that we are obliged to obey even unjust laws, I will argue that the standard objections to Civil Disobedience, given by Singer, are incorrect To begin, however, I believe it is necessary to define an “unjust” law. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just.

Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. ” (King, 3) According to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority compels a minority group to obey, but does not make binding on itself. ” (King, 4) The definition I will take is a combination of these two. I define an unjust law as one that degrades human personality through the unfair suffering of a minority group at the hands of a majority group. Keep in mind that a majority can be in either power or number. A majority in number can be oppressed by a majority in power.

Any law that causes a person to suffer simply because they do not agree with this majority is an incorrect and unjust law. Singer gives two typical arguments in favor of obeying these unjust laws. I will address these arguments one at a time. The first argument says that, “By disobeying [a law] I set an example for others that may lead them to disobey too. The effect may multiply and contribute to a decline in law and order. In an extreme case, it may lead to civil war. ” (Singer, 297) I believe that, while this argument has a little merit, it is an extremely exaggerated slippery slope.

It is true that people may join in disobedience, but if the law is unjust and is disobeyed within the guidelines I put forth later, people joining the disobedience would be a good thing. It would show the support of a strong minority, and may even help the minority to become a majority. The second standard objection says, “If the law is to be effective ? outside the anarchist’s utopia ? there must be some machinery for detecting and penalizing lawbreakers. This machinery will cost something to maintain and operate, and the cost will have to be met by the community.

If I break the law, the community will be put to the expense of enforcement. ” (Singer, 297) I will concede this point. There is no argument against it. I would, however, pose that the moral cost of obeying a law that one thinks is deplorable is higher than the cost of enforcing the law. I would remind you that mass genocide of non-Aryan races under Hitler was legal. Would we chastise someone for disobeying that law? Also, realistically, the cost is not very high per taxpayer. It is especially small when compared to the cost of morally compromising the entire society.

This argument can be put down by a simple Utilitarian argument. The cost of maintaining and using an active police force is less than the cost of maintaining a morally compromised society. We are morally obliged to fix the problem. To continue along this train of thought, maybe putting taxpayers to the added burden will help the cause. Taxpayers will get tired of paying for the higher cost of enforcement of the unjust law, and will also begin to fight it. Socrates argued for disobeying unjust laws. His argument has special meaning, for he was set to die two or three days after this conversation with the student Crito.

Socrates was put to death on a trumped up charge of impiety (meaning sin). Plato wrote of the conversation between Socrates and Crito in the dialogue The Crito. Crito had come to Socrates to try to convince him to escape. Socrates first said, “One must never do injustice. Nor return injustice for injustice, as the multitude think, since one must never do injustice. ” (Crito, 49 b&c) Socrates also says, after Crito agrees with the previous statement, “Then one ought not return injustice for injustice or do ill to any man, no matter what one may suffer at their hands.

” Socrates, in his own style, was arguing that he had done no wrong and had committed no crime. Socrates was agreeing with Dr. King’s stance on Civil Disobedience. Socrates did not do an injustice by disobeying a law. In fact, Socrates did the law the utmost justice. King says, “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

” (King, 4) Socrates was not exchanging the injustice of escape for the injustice of his death sentence, regardless of what he would suffer. Socrates was showing the utmost respect for the law, while still showing it was wrong. He willingly took the punishment deemed necessary, and effectively made himself a martyr to his cause. King also says, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. ” It seems I have arrived at the same conclusion King has. It is not only moral, but a moral obligation to disobey

unjust laws. In fact, it seems King uses something similar in meaning to Kant’s Categorical Imperative. King’s quote, as I stated earlier, is, “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey, but does not make binding on itself. ” (King, 4) Kant’s Categorical Imperative says, “Act only on the maxim through which you could at the same time will that it should be universal law. ” This is also known as the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. ” To be a just law, it has to be universal in its application.

Another source of determination for the right to disobey an unjust law is the Declaration of Independence (an act of disobedience in itself). To quote the introduction, “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation. ” (Declaration of Independence, Intro) This is quite clear.

If you’ll notice, the words “Nation” or “Country” did not appear in the entire paragraph. “People”, however, was mentioned. The Declaration gives a specific right to overthrow an unfair or unjust government, if it is necessary. Why not the right to overthrow an unjust law? If the introduction was not sufficient, the third complaint against the King of England is another good piece to look at. “HE has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.

” (Declaration of Independence, Complaint 3) This complaint, in a general way, applies to what is now probably the least controversial act of Civil Disobedience, the Civil Rights Movement. The states refused to pass laws that would help the black community, which was a large class of people. Under the guise of negotiation, the Mayors and Governors would negotiate for concessions to the black people, and never come through. On issues brought to a referendum, the black population was either not allowed or not registered to vote.

In many areas of extremely high black concentration, not a single black voter was registered. These people had been denied their right to be represented. Small wonder they decided disobedience was the last resort. King makes a very good distinction between Civil Disobedience and breaking the law. He says, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with willingness to accept the penalty. ” This brings about some of the stipulations that go along with Civil Disobedience.

King himself says there are four steps to Civil Disobedience: Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. (King, 1) King also argues that the direct action must be non-violent, which I believe is an integral part of Civil Disobedience. The criteria of a valid Civil Disobedience movement, then, are as follows. It must: Have a provable injustice, fail at negotiation before action is taken, be a pure act of true belief, and then take non-violent direct action.

This point begs the question, “What about violent disobedience? ” This is a difficult question when confronted with the Revolutionary War, a large act of what could be called violent Civil Disobedience. I would argue that violent Civil Disobedience is never permissible. In an event like the Revolution, where there is no redress and there is no hope of non-violent Civil Disobedience achieving the desired goal, then the acts become a Revolution. Violent Civil Disobedience, to try and make myself clear, is the assassination of a doctor that happens to perform abortions.

This is the firebombing of buildings. This is the murder or harm of innocent people who have nothing to do with the law the people acting on the Civil Disobedience doctrine happen not to believe in. Revolution may occur in only extreme circumstances, and must be duly justifiable. As long as the principle of non-violence is followed, along with the other guidelines, and breaking the law is the last resort, Civil Disobedience should be expected in a Country that was founded on strict moral principles about how a government should run.

Any law that is contrary to those principles should be overthrown. The Declaration of Independence makes that abundantly clear. We must maintain Liberty. Thomas Jefferson said it best in a letter to William Smith, 1787; “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time blood of patriots and tyrants. ” (Patriots) To maintain liberty, we are obliged to stand up when there is injustice.