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True Justice

January 19, 2011

Unjust laws?? How will you react?

On January 17, 2011, the nation celebrated the birth of one of the greatest leaders in American history; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After reading Socrates’ Apology, and Dr. Kings’ Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I couldn’t help but ponder on the essential ideas of justice. What is justice?  Are our ideas of justice malleable? Whose method of thinking is today’s justice based on?

Socrates and Dr. King obviously had different outlooks on the authorities, and the laws in which they must abide by.  On one hand of the spectrum, there is the Socratic western tradition method of justice. The Socratic ideal of justice revolves around citizens listening to the orders of the authoritative government figures. Socrates believed that if everyone abided by the law and did what they were told the city would experience peace and prosperity. Contrary to Socrates beliefs, Dr. King believed that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

Interestingly enough, both Socrates and Dr. King were in jail for almost the exact same reason, namely, CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE! In contrast to Dr. King’s views on just and unjust laws as they relate to civil disobedience, Socrates, upon considering Crito’s suggestion that he escape from confinement, rejects Crito’s proposal. First, Socrates declares that “to escape is neither just nor is it good” for himself; referring to his agreement with the officials in the Greek city of Athens to obey their laws at all times as a citizen. Socrates adds that escape is not to his benefit because “he who does wrong cannot live well” and “if one cannot live well, life is not worth living.” MLK was confined after being arrested for his part in the Birmingham Campaign (a planned nonviolent protest conducted by SCLC against racial segregation).MLK believed that “any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”Dr. King further explains that justice too long delayed is justice denied.

Both Socrates and Dr. King are widely considered great historic figures, but lived in two diverse eras. So, does are ideas of justice change based on time? Politics in the Socratic era were guided toward the benefit of all people. Through legislation came equity, therefore if one followed the laws it would seem to benefit everyone. Today’s societal standards would find that method quite hilarious mainly because not too many people in our culture actually believe that those in the political field are looking out for society before themselves. Dr. King showed us that we have the power to bring about justice when the laws of society do not, and that this is accomplished through living a just life, exemplifying it to others and taking personal responsibility to see that society does so as well.

Unjust laws?  How will you react?

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

  1. Michael Ambler permalink
    January 23, 2011 6:36 AM

    You raised some interesting points; the comparison between the two figures is certainly complex. However, there are a few points I disagree on.

    First of all, your argument that Socrates believed in obeying ‘authoritative government figures’ seems convincing to a degree, but it conflicts with your second argument that Socrates, like Martin Luthor King Jr, was in jail due to calculated civil disobedience. To clarify, either Socrates did not in fact break the law, and was imprisoned wrongfully- which would suggest they he did not in fact engage in civil disobedience- or he purposefully broke the law, thus engaging in civil disobedience, but contradicting your claim that Socrates believed in obeying all laws, just and unjust alike.

    The other point I’d highlight is that Socrates’ decision to remain in jail was very much in line with King’s view of civil disobedience (leaving aside the question of whether Socrates’ actions fit King’s other criterion). King opined that in addition to breaking an unjust law, one must be willing to accept the legal consequences in order to truly effect change through civil disobedience. If indeed your position is that Socrates was an early practitioner of King-like social action, than the decision not to flee on his part is further evidence of that position, not a contradiction.

    In the end, the entire question likely hinges on whether Socrates intentionally broke a law prior to his trial. The (heavily biased and unreliable) information we have seems to indicate that he did not, but I’m sure someone could make a convincing argument otherwise.


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