Beyond Neutrality and Perfectionism
As we saw in chapter 2, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, civil disobedience was justifiable from a legislative point of view. His principle was that persons should disobey (openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept punishment) those laws that are unjust. This was a principle he advocated knowing full well that persons with deficient conceptions of justice would sometimes apply it. The requirement that we accept the punishment for breaking the law was a way to temper the anarchy that might result if fallible people were at complete liberty to disobey all laws that they thought unjust. King's case is particularly interesting because he justified his views about which laws were just and unjust by appeal to a moral position that was not held by all at the time and is rejected by most contemporary political theorists. His case raises the question of what counts as an adequate political justification, of whether one may simply appeal to a principle because one believes it to be true or whether one must also believe that others will accept the principle.
King appealed to a theistic natural law theory to justify his actions. He defined a just law as “a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”1 The sources he quoted were theologians: Augustine, Aquinas, Buber, and Tillich. Following Buber, he claimed that the pattern of racial discrimination indicates that whites in their relationship with blacks have substituted an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship.2 King's opponents treated blacks as objects rather than as persons who are equal moral agents. Because Locke's original argument also used a theistic natural law theory, a synthesis of the two is fairly easy. But insofar as King makes a religious appeal, he seems to be making an appeal on grounds that persons from some other religious (or irreligious) traditions cannot accept.
1 King, Jr., “Letter From the Birmingham City Jail,” p. 529.
2 The named audience for King's letter was other clergymen, but as a public letter
published in newspapers it was clearly aimed at the larger public as well. In any case, King
frequently used religious arguments in public settings.