In Plato’s Crito, Socrates is presented as sitting in his jail cell awaiting his execution. His old friend Crito arrives to help him escape, but Socrates argues that he cannot escape because citizens must always obey the law. According to Socrates, the Law exists as a single body rather than individual statues, so to break one law would be equal to breaking all of the laws. Citizens who expect to enjoy the benefits of a particular society, as Socrates has enjoyed the benefits of Athens for more than 70 years, must expect to work within the bounds of the laws of that society.
If Socrates is to escape his execution, he must do so by persuading those who uphold the law to change their minds. If he were to simply escape and thus break the law, he would be unable to live anywhere else because he has already proven that he is unable to abide by the social contract established between the individual citizen and the state. This agreement is implied when the individual opts to live within the boundaries of the state and takes advantage of its protections.
Many years later, answering the contention by other ministers that it was morally wrong to break the law whether it was through peaceful or violent means, Martin Luther King Jr. begged to differ in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by calling on the codes of morality: “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that, an unjust law is no law at all.” One of the first points King makes in his letter is that the white people have not heard or perhaps even noticed the desperate no-win situation in which the black people were placed following the Emancipation Proclamation.
Now that they were free, they had to support themselves, but the segregation laws that had been enacted in the intervening years effectively prevented black people from escaping the extreme poverty in which they found themselves. By staging nonviolent protests, King realized that he could finally force the nation’s attention on the situation in the South. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
Because the segregation laws were unjust and were in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court ruling that granted equal rights to people of color, King did not feel his public demonstration could be truly considered breaking the law. He defined moral law as those laws designed, as all laws were intended to be used, as a means of protecting the people and the community. The segregation laws were used only as a means of subjugation, oppression and degradation and were therefore not moral.
Because these laws were not applied equally among the population, for example applying to all people below a specific income range (still immoral but uniformly administered) they were also unjust. To break an unjust and immoral law is thus acting in a moral and just manner for the good of the community, especially if this can be completed in a peaceful, kindly manner.
According to Aristotle in his book Politics, there are two types of good man. The first is the virtuous citizen, which is exemplified in Socrates’ bold stance while standing in his jail cell and knowing that death comes with the morning should he decide to reject his friends’ attempts to help him, a common practice in those days. Socrates is also a virtuous man in that he stands up for what he believes in even when this is not the common practice of his countrymen.
The other type of good man is the virtuous individual, which is exemplified in the actions and words of Martin Luther King. King understood that upholding the laws of his country, as they were written, was to do a tremendous injustice to thousands of citizens. Because the laws of the country did not apply to every citizen equally, King argued they did not constitute the type of law that Socrates was upholding in opting for death. However, because he was officially breaking the law, King could not be considered a virtuous citizen.
Aristotle. (1984). The Politics. Trans. Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
King, Martin Luther. (1963). “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Nobel Prizes. Web.
Plato. (360 BC) Crito. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Web.