How do we choose which laws are just and which ones are not

In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights activist, claims that "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws" (King, Jr., 1963, p. 5).  These sentiments have been shared by some of the most recognizable names throughout history, including America's forefathers, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and so on. Dr. King, as well as other from our list, were practicing civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience does not advocate a lawless society. Civil ddisobedience is not the same as someone simply breaking the law.  Civil disobedience is an organized process of law breaking that follows very strict guidelines:

  • Conscientiousness generally aimed at creating or restoring a certain freedom or liberty for all members of that society,
  • communication with the governing body,
  • publicity,
  • and non-violence.  

Practitioners of civil disobedience. more often than not, take aim at laws considered to be unjust.  

  1. How do we choose which laws are just and which ones are not?
  2. What laws do you see that seem to fit the model of what King would call unjust? 

King goes on to explain that those who are "more devoted to 'order' than to justice" were the real enemy of his movement toward civil rights (p. 7).  To do nothing, King implies, is to err on the side of the status quo. Think of some unjust things you have witnessed, yet failed to act on. 

  1. Had you acted on it alone, would your involvement have changed anything?
  2. What if we all reacted too swiftly and jointly to matters of injustice?
  3. How does the act of exercising of our first amendment rights, especially when we work together, help to shape the world we live in? 
  4. How did the Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS) use civil disobedience to further its cause?
  5. Considering the outcomes associated with the OWS Movement, could we claim that the days of effective civil disobedience are over?

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