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A Critique of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Version of Natural Law Theory

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A Critique of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Version of Natural Law Theory

Paradoxically, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," initially uses classical natural law theory to defend his actions, but immediately thereafter contradicts a fundamental tenet of this theory and relies on a "weaker" version of natural law. In doing so, King must attempt to formulate a theory which justifies his illegal actions in view of his moral obligation to obey the law. King's failure to distinguish between legal obligations and moral obligations yields a logical paradox in his final formulation of natural law theory. However, King's theory need not be completely rejected if his argument is slightly modified to reject the moral obligation to obey laws.

King initially uses classical natural law theory as his rational basis to defend his actions. This theory has two main component claims according to Murphy and Coleman (Sourcebook, I-35), the first being, "Moral validity is a logically necessary condition for legal validity- an unjust or immoral law being no law at all" followed by, "The moral order is a part of the natural order- moral duties being in some sense "read off" from essences or purposes fixed (perhaps by God) in nature." According to this theory, morality ‚ law, but law = morality by definition. Thus for King to use this theory, two requirements are implicit. He must assert that an unjust law is not really a law, and he must provide a moral theory to distinguish just and unjust laws. King first quotes St. Augustine, "an unjust law is no law at all," to emphasize his agreement with the first claim. He then includes the "law of God" as his moral theory to provide the framework upon which to judge the law.

His argument using classical natural law theory at first seems to be a valid and necessary defense for breaking the law, i.e. disobeying segregation laws and orders to not march. Most people are initially supportive of his argument that an unjust law is not a law he can or should obey. King's comment that "one has a moral responsibility to obey just laws...one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws" (Letter, p3) therefore appears to justify his actions. However, a rational analysis makes apparent several difficulties associated with this argument.

Claiming that there is a moral responsibility to obey just laws actually forces a person to question the purpose of laws in general. King's statement that:

"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"

has two main problems associated with it. If a person takes the position that she will only obey "just" laws conforming to her moral code, then as Murphy and Coleman point out the law becomes accepted only in situations where it is least necessary. Thus a moral theory in and of itself does not provide a very good justification for obeying law since there is no reason to stipulate by law what the populace accepts as morally required. The other problem with this theory is that moral codes alone are not responsible for obeying the law. An obligation to do something can be generated by the act of creating an obligation (a promise) even though the content of that obligation may be morally questionable.

Additionally, King's claim that unjust laws are not really laws is strongly criticized by positivist theorists. He defends his actions by stating "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws... I would agree with St. Augustine that Њan unjust law is no law at all.'" To a positive theorist this is anathema for the reason that it forces natural law theory to be based either on dogma, i.e. religion, or on the subjective nature of human morality. As Alf Ross writes, "Like a harlot, natural law is at the disposal of everyone. The ideology does not exist that cannot be defended by an appeal to the law of nature." He basically says that determining an unjust law by virtue of an arbitrary moral theory will eventually lead to anarchy. Following King's theory, any "moral" person could claim exemption from the law based on their religion. It is interesting to note that this argument is precisely what Justice Frankfurter protested in his dissent (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette), "One may have the right to practice one's religion and at the same time owe the duty of formal obedience to laws that run counter to one's beliefs."

King realizes the absurdity of claiming that a law doesn't exist simply because it is unjust. He therefore immediately abandons the Augustinian version of natural law and acknowledges the existence of legal rules deemed to be morally wrong. He writes, "clear thinking would force us to acknowledge [them] as laws even if we believed them to be morally evil." (I-40) The nature of this statement is to directly oppose his previous argument that an "unjust law in no law at all." As Murphy and Coleman point out, there is nothing to be gained by failing to acknowledge the existence of a law, even a law deemed to be unfair, evil or irrational. In King's case, there would be no reason to march to fight an unjust law if he could dismiss the law by claiming that it does not exist.Thus King is compelled to modify his later theories into a justification of public civil disobedience. "In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty." This phrase seems to

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