Martin Luther King Day today is a time for us to pay tribute and review King’s history. King is most well-known for his support of civil disobedience and, more broadly speaking, the notion that sometimes disobeying the laws of governments can be justified.
Jason Brennan from Georgetown, a philosopher, is a helpful summary of King’s thoughts on these topics. Brennan was also the author of ‘The Morality of Resistance to Government Power. Brennan highlights that King believed disobedience is sometimes entirely justified when unjust laws are being imposed on you.
Most people believe that there is an almost universal duty to follow the law. King claimed that laws which are not justifiable do not constitute laws. He argued that laws which are unjust do not have any obligation to be obeyed and cannot be enforced.
King argued that there may be many reasons why a law is not legitimate or authoritative. King denied the possibility that something bad could be allowed to pass if it was voted in a democracy. His belief was that we have genuine rights. These rights can’t be granted by social agreement or government fiat.
His belief was that law could be void of legitimacy or authority if passed using an unjust procedure. Many countries, including those in the South, were majority Black. However, only whites could vote.
King is correct about this. We are not required to follow unjust laws. In this piece from 2014, I explained why undocumented immigrant immigrants don’t have a moral obligation to comply with laws that deny them the right of movement to other countries. (See also the follow-up post). Similar reasoning can be applied to other unfair laws.
Brennan also has a right to point out that King views justified disobedience not necessarily entails accepting punishment. For tactical reasons, King preferred such acceptance in certain cases.
We will distinguish two types of reasons why you should accept punishment. Another reason is that you have broken an authoritative law. As King makes it clear, the authority of laws that he violated was not his. This was heroic and noble, not just permissible.
The second reason someone might accept punishment is to demonstrate their support for justice. It is possible to show they didn’t break the law due to criminal intent or convenience. It is possible for the public to feel sympathy with those who have been punished by accepting punishment.
A civil disobedience act is one in which someone not only violates the law but also makes it clear to others. Civil disobedience attempts to alter the law.
Sometimes disobedience does not have to result in a law change (which may be politically unattainable at that time), but rather to avoid injustice. For instance, not all offenders to Fugitive Slave acts in 19th-century did so willingly and accepted punishment. This was perfectly legal. Their efforts to rescue escaped slaves would be hampered by them accepting punishment. They had no hope, at least not for long, of convincing Congress to repeal Fugitive Slave Acts. They were capable of helping individual slaves escape from their clutches, however.
Brennan points out that, contrary to popular belief, King did not advocate absolute nonviolence but supported it tactically as a strategy for civil rights movements.
King was not a peacemaker. King was a firm believer in violence for self-defense, and the defense of other people. For self-defense, he owned guns and tried to obtain a concealed carry permit. We saw that he was constantly threatened with death and eventually killed.
King defended nonviolence on Strategical The law can be amended on grounds. He argued that if activists fought back against the police–even if they thought the police had it coming–by returning violence for violence, the public would probably side with the police and the government against the people. He believed the public would be critical of the activists and their cause. The victims of injustice, despite refusing to fight back could gain the support of the public and perhaps even “friendship” from those who are attacking them.
King opposed violence to injustice on principle. However, it is worth mentioning that he also supported violence against civilians including rioting. He warned, in 1968, that “riots can be socially destructive and debilitating.”[e]George Wallace benefits every time a new riot breaks out. On both moral and instrumental grounds, he opposed the riots that occurred in his time. We don’t know the exact reason, but it is likely that he would feel the same about last year’s riots following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
It is obvious that King’s views are criticised because many people have poor judgement about what laws are right and wrong. People who stormed Capitol in January 2021 believed enforcement of laws would not be fair because they thought Donald Trump was entitled to remain at the helm. Terrorists also often feel justified in breaking laws against assassault and murder.
However, the possibility that citizens might be misled about justice matters must be balanced with the potential for government to make mistakes about these things. There is an awful and long history of this happening even in democracy. In American history, there have been many people who were killed or oppressed more by illegal government powers than those acting in bad faith about the morality of certain laws. Slavery and segregation, both imposed under law, have a far greater impact than all other morally motivated violence. It is dependent on the quality of that government’s judgement on justice questions as to how far people are willing to defer to it. The answer to justice is usually very inconsistent.
Even if governments act unjustly there should be, for the reasons well-expressed by King’s criticism of riots — a strong presumption against violence that could harm innocents. However, the threshold of peacefully disobedience that can be defensible is significantly lower.
King’s opinions on ethics and disobeying laws are not conclusive. A great historical icon such as King is not perfect and can be mistaken on certain issues. His positions, while well worth exploring, are still relevant today, many years after King’s tragic passing.