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Is Dr. King’s Justice ‘Universal’?

September 21, 2010

It is undeniable that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a powerful and moving appeal which highlights Dr. King’s political beliefs. In particular, King addresses the idea of ‘civil disobedience’ and his view of Justice. He intricately explains the difference between a ‘just’ law and an ‘unjust’ law, stating that a just law is one that is moral, has equal application to both the majority and the minority and “uplifts human personality”.

This perception of justice makes sense in many ways, as justice should not be discriminating and should always try to cater to everyone, morally and equally. After reading the letter I felt inspired by Dr. King’s version of justice. This was a man of great influence, a man who has inspired so many others with his passion and a man who is known as an American Hero.

As I thought more about Dr. King’s version of Justice, however, I began to wonder if Dr. King’s idea of a just and unjust law is truly applicable universally. What came to my mind was the recent ban on wearing burqas in France. This issue constitutes a challenging debate, with both sides presenting their reasons for why the law is just or unjust. On the one hand, the law ensures the equality of sexes and security for the country. On the other, women should be allowed to wear whatever they want.

So how would Dr. King’s definition of justice classify this law?

“A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

If a just law is one that abides by the moral law, then this law would be a ‘just’ law as equal rights between men and women is morally right. If law is one that abides by the law of God, however, then this law would be unjust. Although the burqa is not a requirement from the Koran, which instructs for ‘modesty’, many Muslims see it as a necessary way to maintain the modesty. Moreover, it can also be argued that it is ‘moral’ for Muslim women to have the right to wear what they want to.¬† Even so, if an unjust law is, as Dr. King then says, one that is not coherent with the moral law, by which standard of morality should this case be judged by?

“An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

This statement is, again, a little debatable. Wearing a burqa is, for many women, a choice and they would prefer not leaving their house to not wearing a burqa. Therefore, in that sense, this law is unjust as it ‘degrades’ their personality. On the contrary, a law that is advocating women’s equality to remove the burqa which ‘discriminates’ women should be uplifting to them – especially to those who were forced to wear burqas against their own will.

“An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.”

By this measure, this law would not be ‘unjust’ as this law is one that applies to all people in France.

“By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself.”

This point further suggests that this law is ‘just’, as in this case the French majority is compelling the Muslim minority (they make up around 6% of the population) to follow, and are agreeing to follow it as well. The French senate passed the law by an overwhelming vote of 246 to 1 and according to a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project conducted earlier this year, French people supported the law by a margin of around 4 to 1 and around 82% of people polled supported it.

“A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law”

Although it’s hard to tell if the elections in France are absolutely ‘fair’, there certainly doesn’t seem to be news of the French Muslims being banned from elections.

Overall it seems that the definitions of justice provided by Dr. King classifies the law as a ‘just’ one. Although there are certain parts that are slightly ambiguous, in general this law seems to satisfy the requirements for a ‘just’ law rather than an ‘unjust’.

This is where I feel very confused. Personally, I don’t agree with the passing of the law. Maybe it’s because I am a religious person, I can relate to the Muslim women’s desire to express herself. I feel that it is morally wrong for the Muslim women to be denied of their rights to wear what they want and express their religious beliefs.

I understand that the circumstances are slightly different from the situation Dr. King was in at his time. The segregation laws against the African Americans, a significantly larger percentage of the population in America than Muslim women in France, and I feel that there was a much clearer distinction between what was ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ with Dr. King’s circumstance, than with the case here.

But how would one judge whether a ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ law in a circumstance like this then, when there are two very different judgments of morality?

Perhaps, as detailed as Dr. King’s definition of Justice is, it doesn’t encompass all the circumstances, all the types of laws and all the possible views of morality. After all, there are always going to be conflicting views based on our culture, religion and upbringing in the world. Can there truly be a distinctive definition to Justice, that is universal and all-encompassing?

It’s a question discussed by many, and the complexity of the issue is probably why even now, in the 21st century, we have yet to come to a satisfying answer.

What is great to know, however, is that Dr. King presented his suggestion of what defines justice, especially in terms of segregation laws, and that this idea helped shaped our perception of laws and justice in a better way.

As I end, I can’t help but wonder what Dr. King’s response to this issue would be.

What would Dr. King say about the banning of wearing burqas in France be? Which side will he support?

One Comment
  1. September 22, 2010 1:43 PM

    The French law does not mention the burqa. In simple terms it states that no one should cover their face in public for security reasons and others.
    Also, France has a strick rule of separation of state and church. The secular runs the government and all religious intrusions are not allowed.
    Your article is writtent with passion and I like it. However, I argue with the core of the debate.

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