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Martin Luther King on the Ethics of Resistance to State Authority


Georgetown philosopher Jason Brennan offers a valuable summary of King’s thought on these issues.
Today is Martin Luther King Day, an appropriate time to honor and examine King’s legacy. One of the things King was most famous for was his advocacy of civil disobedience, and – more generally – the idea that disobeying laws enacted by governments is sometimes justified. Georgetown philosophy Prof. Jason Brennan, himself the author of an important book on the morality of resistance to government power, has a useful summary of King’s views on these issues. As Brennan points out, King believed that disobedience to unjust laws is often entirely justified, even the laws in question were enacted by democratic governments: Many people assume that we almost always have a duty to obey the law, even unjust laws. King argued that unjust laws are no laws at all. Or, more precisely, he argued that if a law is unjust, there is no obligation to obey it and no right to enforce it. He argued there could be all sorts of reasons why a law lacks legitimacy and authority. King denied that something evil could be rendered permissible if a democracy voted for it. He thought we had genuine rights and these rights are not created by government fiat or social agreement. He also thought laws could lack legitimacy and authority because they were passed by an unfair procedure. For instance, many countries in Southern states were even majority Black, but only the white minority could vote. I think King was right about this, and that, for many unjust laws, we have no obligation to obey. I outlined some of the reasons why in this 2014 piece about why most undocumented immigrants have no moral obligation to obey laws denying them the right to move to another country (see also follow-up post here). The same reasoning applies to many other unjust laws, at least those that inflict great harm on their victims. Brennan is also right to note that, on King’s view, justified disobedience to unjust laws may not always require accepting punishment. He favored such acceptance, in some cases, for largely tactical reasons: Let’s distinguish between two different kinds of reasons for accepting punishment. One reason could be that you deserve punishment for breaking an authoritative law. But, as King makes clear in his writings, he generally thought the laws he broke lacked authority. Breaking these laws was not merely permissible, but heroic and good. So, a second possible reason to accept punishment is strategic; by accepting punishment, a person can engage in a public act of protest.

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