UHD Philosophy Letter from A Birmingham Jail Video Discussion
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For today’s lesson, you need to read Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King, Jr., in Chapter 18 of Gordon Marino’s Ethics: The Essential Writings. Once you’ve completed the reading, move onto the next part of today’s lesson.
Here’s an audio recording of King reading the Letter, along with a montage of images of Dr. King. Although I don’t recommend listening rather than reading the text, I find it especially moving to read along with Dr. King.
Our reading for today is truly a classic, not just in the history of ethics, but in American history in general—and world history, for that matter. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes very clear (and in eloquent prose that is simultaneously poetic, prophetic, theological, political, and philosophical) not only the good reasons he thinks all persons have for engaging in civil disobedience for the sake of civil rights—but, in addition, the principles he thinks justify such action. As he notes, no one of good conscience could blindly or haphazardly support the view that the laws can be justifiably broken. If he is going to break the laws (in this case, of the City of Birmingham, Alabama), and if he is going to ask others to join him in doing the same, Dr. King needs to be able to provide himself and his followers (as well as his opponents) sound principles upon which to base the belief that some laws (what he calls “unjust laws”) can legitimately be broken on moral grounds, while others (what he calls “just laws”) cannot. Among other things, what King is trying to do with this letter is to provide, once and for all, arguments against two competing antagonistic positions: first, against the view (held by frightened, mostly middle-class, mostly white society) that he is an anarchist; and second, against the view (held by angry, mostly poor or working-class, mostly Black society) that he is too respectful of law and order. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is thus not simply an autobiographical artifact of one of our modern saints. It’s also an ethical treatise on the relationship between morality and social order, between justice and the law. And—given the many recent racially motivated crimes in the United States, the LGBTIQ+ rights movements’ prominence in recent years, the ongoing crisis of transphobic discrimination and violence, the continuing presence of sexism in our society, the anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric that has overtaken a segment of contemporary politics in the Western world, and so on and so forth—it seems King’s words and thoughts on these issues remain profoundly relevant to us, today.
On one level, the letter is meant to chide other Christian clergy for their inaction in the face of racial oppression in Alabama, as well as for their public criticism of King and his movement for engaging in and advocating for civil disobedience. That’s a crucially important level that was no doubt very close to the heart of Dr. King, a Christian clergyman himself. But for our philosophical purposes—and philosophy was, I think, very dear to Dr. King as well; we see how he refers more than once to Socrates and other philosophers in the “Letter”—what’s most of interest is the general argument he makes for engaging in active civil disobedience. (Although King’s approach—which he developed in part on the basis of his understanding of the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, in part on his reading of the New Testament, and in part on his familiarity with the actions of Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa and India—is sometimes called “passive resistance,” there is good reason not to think of his actions or those of the people inspired by him to fight injustice non-violently as in any way “passive.”) The argument is relatively straightforward and simple: When (1) a law is unjust, either in principle (the law is essentially discriminatory) or in practice (the law is not discriminatory by nature, but is applied in a discriminatory fashion), and when (2) peaceful demonstration and/or negotiation with those in positions of power cannot result in a change in the unjust law, then one is not only morally justified but morally required to disobey the law. Such disobedience must remain non-violent, King argued, as it is always morally wrong to fight an evil by doing evil (and, for King, violence—even against one’s oppressors—is always evil). And it must be public, with full acknowledgement of the illegality of the disobedience and full acceptance of the legal consequences of such disobedience of the law. Otherwise, King argues, it becomes altogether too easy to conceive of one’s disobedience as self-interested lawbreaking, rather than as active non-violent resistance to an oppressive and immoral law or system of laws.
On this argument, as King himself notes, the most important thing to try to understand philosophically is how one might determine those instances wherein disobedience to the law is justified. He is quick to point out (contra anarchism) that there are many laws which it is not only legally but morally obligatory for us to obey; not every law is unjust; even in a corrupt and morally bankrupt society, laws against theft or murder are perfectly just, and ought to be obeyed by everyone, oppressed and oppressors alike. So, the question we must answer is, “How do I know a law is unjust?” As you can probably see, that is a philosophical question on two levels: it’s an ethical question (about justice), and an epistemological question (about knowledge). King addresses both the ethical and the epistemological levels in his letter.
The basic principle underlying King’s approach to the justice or injustice of a law is, in fact, medieval: he cites both Augustine and Aquinas in the “Letter.” He writes:
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.” (Marino, p. 364)
Of course, as we’ve already seen, it’s one thing to distinguish between just and unjust laws; another thing altogether to know how to distinguish between the two. And again, on this point, King cites medieval philosophy—specifically, the natural law tradition in ethics.
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. (Marino, p. 364)
This is, as we saw yesterday in our reading of Aquinas, the heart of natural law theory: when something is out of accord with (human) nature, then it is morally wrong. King’s argument here is that segregation is unnatural and inhuman—both in its social effects, as well as its consequences for individual human beings. King’s term for this here is “distortion”: when a law distorts the personality of a human being, it is unjust. One of the most poignant examples he gives us is taken from a long list of such poignant examples and which helps to point out the consequences of unjust, racist laws in the South. How do we know that the statutes establishing segregation are unjust? He notes that we can know this, among other ways, “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people” (Marino, p. 363). Again, here, we see what’s centrally important for King: that segregation distorts the human personality. It’s no wonder he cites Aquinas on the next page; concern about the distortion of human nature is a natural law concern.
King goes on, then, to show that his concern for the integrity of human personality is shared across various lines—that it’s a deeply Christian concern, but also a non-Christian one; he offers us a brief argument in the terms of Martin Buber, a twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, that segregation is unnatural, as well. And then he turns his attention to the secular, legal argument against segregation, rooted in the conception of human nature established in the nature of democracy, and the U.S. Constitution:
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. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. (Marino, p. 365)
Thus, without even referencing his religious beliefs or the history of natural law thought in ethics, King can help us to begin to see how we might distinguish between justice and injustice on legal, democratic, governmental principles alone. When the majority (importantly, not just a numerical majority—but, as King notes, we could be talking about a “power majority group” as well—a numerical minority with disproportionately more power than others) enforces through either the enactment or the application of a law their difference from minority groups, when it enshrines social difference in law, then the law is unjust. Just laws, he goes on to say, treat all members of the society as effectively equal—regardless of other, differentiating characteristics.
Laws that deny such equality are not only unjust; they are not really laws at all, and they do not compel obedience on moral grounds. In fact, moral concerns might compel us to disobey such laws. In opposition to critics of civil disobedience, who argue that lawbreaking is a disrespect for law as such that leads inevitably to anarchy, King responds: “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 law” (Marino, p. 365). The idea here is that, since King has already established that unjust laws are not really laws at all, the individual who openly disobeys an unjust law demonstrates his or her respect for the law by enacting his or her belief that only just laws are laws—and, in willingly accepting punishment for so acting, this individual shows they are not advocating for mere lawlessness. It is not anarchism, which would be a total disrespect for and disobedience of all laws because they are laws; it is instead the merging of law and morality into a single construct wherein only laws that reflect the moral law are laws at all—a view which, as we’ve seen now multiple times, has its roots in the natural law ethics of the Middle Ages. The idea of the natural law has inspired many thinkers over the last millennium, and was the inspiration for at least some understandings of what we today call “human rights.” If a nation today enacted a law that we perceived to be a violation of basic human rights, we might be inclined to say (echoing Augustine, Aquinas, and King) that it wasn’t a law at all—that is, that no one is morally obligated to obey that law.
Using the resources of King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” I’d like you to explain what you think someone who agreed with King would say about a matter of contemporary social concern. If you need help identifying how King’s philosophy might apply today, you are welcome to consult “The King Philosophy,” a summary of the approach to social and moral matters of justice inspired by Dr. King and taught and implemented by The King Center in Atlanta. You can read about it here: https://thekingcenter.org/about-tkc/the-king-phBECAUSE/.