King on Civil Disobedience

Class notes for 6 March

Main points

Martin Luther King, Jr. has a different opinion about the obligation to obey the law than Socrates did. As Alex pointed out, they are similar in their willingness to accept legal punishment (see the update). But King clearly held that it is appropriate, and sometimes even mandatory, purposely to break unjust laws. Socrates did not.

We looked at King’s implicit philosophy of law. This feels a bit strange, insofar as King wasn’t writing legal philosophy. But it’s still appropriate because King’s letter raises fundamental questions about how we should regard the law.

Three points

I talked about three specific points.

What is the relationship between justice and law? That is, did he think that an unjust law is law or not?

Does he make a case for disobedience in the name of improving the law? It seems to me that he did and that this is an improvement on Socrates.

Legal authority. See the next section.

Legal authority

Does King recognize legal authority?

On the one hand, there is an implicit distinction between respect for the law and legal system. Both Dante and Alex emphasized this. King was very clear on the importance of accepting legal punishment. He also seems to have been committed to the legal system as a whole. He claimed that the laws he violated were unconstitutional, that is, contrary to the fundamental law of the country.

On the other hand, his statements of natural law leave out legal authority. They leave little room for the thought that we have reasons to do what the law (or legal officials like judges) say to do simply because it is the law (or they are the legally recognized officials). Instead, everything turns on what conscience tells us about the higher law.

I suspect that, in practice, King did recognize legal authority. But his theoretical statements don’t accommodate it.

I don’t want to overstate the case. As Victor pointed out a long time ago, even those who want to separate out law and morality merely push individual judgment out of the law. They don’t push it out of decisions about what to do. Unless you’re going to adopt a position like Socrates’, you will still have to judge whether a law is so immoral that it can’t be obeyed even if you think that there can be such a thing as an unjust law.

One last remark. It’s useful to compare authority based on knowledge with legal authority. An authority in the first sense is someone who has special knowledge. I believe what this person tells me about the area of her expertise because she is an authority. The fact that she says it is a good reason for me to believe it, apart from what I think about the merits of the case.

A legal authority is a bit different. Legal authorities have authority over our actions, not our beliefs. That is both a bit easier and a bit harder to accept. It’s easier because it’s easier to regulate your behavior in response to a command than it is to regulate your beliefs on command. Just try believing something because someone orders you to!

It’s harder because a legal authority may require you to act contrary to deeply held beliefs. That’s what happened to King. It’s also the position of those who are conscientious objectors to military service and those who think that abortion is immoral in countries where it is tolerated.


Whoops, I forgot to discuss Smith! The nice weather is making my head soft. Smith makes two basic points.

First, there are good reasons for denying that there is an obligation to obey the law. Some laws are morally reprehensible and others are violated without any reason at all to feel guilt or remorse. His not so hidden assumptions are that no one is obliged to do the reprehensible and all genuine cases of broken obligations are cause for feelings of guilt or remorse. (I’m not sure about either, I should say. Why can’t you have a promise to do something lousy or appropriately feel great about ditching a burdensome obligation?)

Second, there is little to be gained from insisting on an obligation to obey the law. We can assess the morality of laws independently from deciding whether they are genuine laws. And we can distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate governments, that is, governments that have the right to rule a given society, even if we think there is no obligation of obedience correlative to a legitimate government’s right to rule.


It just occurred to me that what King might have meant in describing Socrates as practicing civil disobedience was that he, like King, accepted legal punishment for breaking the law, despite disagreeing with the legal decision. Indeed, this might have been what Alex was trying to tell me in the first place.

That still rings a little odd in my ear. To disobey is, well, to disobey, not to accept. And Socrates certainly didn’t set out to disobey.

Perhaps what King thought made disobedience civil as opposed to merely criminal was the fact that it involved accepting the legal system’s punishments.

Here’s an argument for construing civil disobedience my way, as a conscious decision to disobey the law. I can accept my punishment for breaking the traffic laws. But my disobedience in speeding is qualitatively different (to say the least) from King’s disobedience of the segregation laws.