Moral Responsibility to Disobey Unjust Laws?
A person's decision whether or not to obey an unjust law will be determined by his or her own moral beliefs. And a person's moral beliefs will be formed according to their religious beliefs and/or their personal convictions. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. argues that there are two types of laws: just and unjust (King, 721). He contends that while one has a legal and moral responsibility to obey just laws, one also has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws (King, 721).
King states that an unjust law is no law at all (King, 721). He defines a just law as a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. On the other hand, an unjust law is a human law that is "not rooted in eternal law and natural law" (King, 721). In defining what are eternal and natural laws, King states that any law that degrades human personality is unjust. He offers the specific example of segregation statutes, which he argues are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality (Kin, 721). By relegating people to the status of things, segregation statutes are politically, economically, and sociologically unsound as well as morally wrong and sinful. In King's words, "[s]egregation is an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness" (King, 721).
Notably, however, the drafters of the segregation codes would likely argue that the segregation statutes were legally and morally sound because they were intended to prevent the contamination of the superior white race by the inferior black race. Staunch segregationists believed in the moral superiority of whites. Consequently, to them, the segregation statutes were just laws that it was their moral responsibility to uphold and protect. Significantly, they relied on the same God to which King referred to justify the segregation statutes.