Office Hours: Jason Brennan on the Ethics of MLK Jr.’s Resistance to Injustice

Office Hours: Jason Brennan on the Ethics of MLK Jr.’s Resistance to Injustice

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.… We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

These words were famously penned by Martin Luther King, Jr. from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama – an open letter that is widely recognized as one of the most important pieces of literature from the Civil Rights Movement. King’s leadership, powerful rhetoric, and nonviolent resistance tactics made him one of the most influential figures in the fight for equal rights.

King was arrested on several occasions for breaking the law during the Civil Rights Movement, and he believed it was necessary to disobey laws that conflicted with moral code. Is it justified to disobey the law when the laws themselves are immoral? 

In his book, When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice, Jason Brennan, Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor, discusses the morality of government protest and citizens’ role in fighting against injustice.

Brennan shared his thoughts on the ethics of Martin Luther King’s philosophy towards injustice; King’s willingness to accept imprisonment for breaking unjust laws; and his understanding of a moral obligation to do what is right.   

In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, King describes a moral responsibility to obey just laws and disobey unjust laws. How did this philosophy differ from traditional beliefs about a citizen’s role in government injustice?

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Ph.D. in systematic theology and an expert in political theory. He was well-versed in one of the central questions of political philosophy: when does government have legitimacy and authority?

Governments claim to have two special moral powers. “Legitimacy” refers to the supposed permission to create and enforce (using violence and coercion) rules over others. “Authority” refers to the supposed power to create in others an obligation to obey those rules.

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.

On several occasions, King received imprisonment for his acts of civil disobedience. Why did he willingly accept the penalties for breaking unjust laws?

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. They can show that they did not break the law out of convenience or criminal intent, but from concern for justice. Accepting punishment could also induce the public to sympathize with the victims of the law.

Civil disobedience is a public act in which a person not only breaks the law, but makes sure others see them doing it. The point of civil disobedience is to change that law.

Critics of modern social movements often say protests are being done the “wrong” way, and cite King’s nonviolent approach as the “right” form of protest. Is this a correct interpretation of King’s nonviolent position?

King was not a pacifist. He believed violence in self-defense and in defense of others is permissible. He owned firearms for self-protection and even tried to get a concealed carry permit. And, as we saw, he needed those firearms because he received constant death threats and was in fact murdered.

King defended nonviolence on strategic grounds for the purpose of changing the law. He argued that if activists fought back against the police–even if they thought the police had it coming–by returning violence for violence, the public would probably side with the police and the government against the people. He thought the public would condemn the activists and their cause. In contrast, but refusing to fight back, the victims of injustice could win the public’s support and possibly even the sympathy (or “friendship,” King says) of those attacking them.

Not everyone agrees with King. For instance, two recent books, Charles Cobb Jr.’sThis Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back argue that the later “non-violent” phase of Black civil rights activism succeeded (as much as it has) only because, in earlier phases, Black people armed themselves and shot back in self-defense. Once murderous mobs and white police learned that blacks would fight back, they turned to less violent forms of oppression, and Blacks in turn began using non-violent tactics.

What can we learn about morality and ethics from King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s?

Business ethics textbooks and classes often present ethics as if it’s what you do in addition to obeying the law.  

King shows us this view is mistaken. In the real world, political actors are often capricious, malicious, incompetent, ignorant, self-interested, or simply mistaken about right and wrong. Ethics often means refusing to follow the law when the law is wrong, and sometimes it means taking a public stand and making sure everyone knows you’re refusing to follow the law. 

King would say the same thing about other rules, including your boss’s orders, your colleague’s wishes, and the prevailing conventions and cultural norms. Indeed, his whole life was spent challenging the conventions and cultural norms of his day. In his view, we are obligated to do what is right, not what we are told to do, and not what society expects of us. Personal responsibility is inalienable.