Do you agree with the distinction King makes between "just" and "unjust" laws in "Letter From Birmingham Jail?"
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In this letter, Martin Luther King, Jr. says that just laws are laws that are moral. They are laws that are in accordance with natural law and God's law. As he says,
Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
I agree with this thought and I would point out that it is completely in line with the thinking of such people as John Locke, on whose ideas the Declaration of Independence was based.
King is saying that laws are just when they promote people's rights and allow people to live fuller and happier lives. In this idea, you can hear an echo of Jefferson's words in the Declaration. Laws are just when they protect people's lives, their liberties, and their ability to pursue their happiness. This is essentially what King is saying in his letter. He is saying that unjust laws, like those of segregation, do not protect these fundamental, God-given rights.
I completely agree with his definition of just and unjust laws.
King is very specific in this reference. He doesn't just claim his cause is just because of inherent morality, he explains the difference between just and unjust. He backs it up with philosophy and history. He tells us why all segregation laws are unjust. He even goes so far as to explain how some laws can be just on the surface (like requiring a permit to march in a parade), but unjust in their application (the denial of his free speech rights). It is "Dr." Martin Luther King Jr. He was an educated man, an enlightened man, and a religious man, and his letter from Birmingham demonstrates these qualities clearly, convincingly and well.
Whilst I agree with Luther's definition on the whole, I do wonder if there is a difficulty in how we determine whether a law is "just" or "unjust." Luther uses broad categories to determine this, but how do we precisely define whether a law "uplifts human personality" or not? In addition, how do we distinguish between laws that meet the needs of the majority by infringing upon the rights of the few? I agree with the principals behind his definition, but at the same time I wonder whether it presents us with definitions that, whilst they sound great, are not necessarily practical for the modern globalised world. Or maybe I am just being too cynical.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong. (King,
Letter from a Birmingham Jail).
To disagree with King's distinction between just and unjust laws would be to simultaneously disagree with St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich--and probably others! The case King makes distinguishing just and unjust laws is not only soundly backed up, it is virtually universally agreed with in that most peoples and nations agree that supreme demands of moral and spiritual law supersede human vision of codes (recall I said "virtually" acknowledging there has been by no means absolute agreement). The preservation of the human "personality," as King puts it, takes supreme precedence over human aspirations for power and of economic greed. Therefore, yes, I very much agree with King and his legion of precedents.
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