Monday, January 29, 2018

King-02: The First Obligation of Civil Disobedience - Gather Information

So, you want to engage in some civil disobedience.

There are rules, at least according to the model of Martin Luther King.

A cornerstone of King’s argument is his use of Natural Law Theory - presented through the slogan, “unjust law is no law at all.” What this means is that people have no moral obligation to do that which is unjust, or to submit to injustice, even when commanded to do so by an unjust law.

However, there is a flip side to this coin, moral law remains binding on all of us.

King himself wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.

He reinforced this by writing:

One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

On this note, the actions of Edward Snowden, who fled to Russia after leaking sensitive documents, do not measure well. Unlike Chelsea Minning (the person who leaked several Iraq documents to Wikileaks), and Daneil Elsberg (who leaked The Pentagon Papers), both of whom remained in the United States and were willing to accept punishment.

This moral law is binding, even where human law fails to enforce it. Slavery does not become legitimate when commanded by unjust law. Nor does it become legitimate because the law is silent on the issue - thus permitting it. That which is wrong remains wrong regardless of what the law says on this issue.

Thus, we have King’s commitment to non-violence. The laws against assault, arson, vandalism, theft (looting), and the rape and murder of innocent people are “just law”, and King’s insistence that we have a moral obligation to obey just law applies to these acts. When he advocates obeying just law, he applies this principle not only to obeying the 1954 Supreme Court decision, but to his fellow demonstrators obeying the laws against vandalism, arson, assault, theft, and other forms of violence.

This leads to the first requirement of morally legitimate civil disobedience - to ensure that one's cause is just.

You can open up a newsfeed, or go through any social media, to find people who are outraged about atrocities that never took place, or who are simply reacting to a headline without understanding the facts of the case. This is far too common. However, on King's model, it does not provide a legitimate foundation for civil disobedience. The first step is to find out the actual facts of the matter - to make certain that one actually has the case.

In natural law theory, one would defend this position by arguing that justness comes from reason. A misapplication of reason is likely to lead to injustice. However, an individual who rejects rationalism can still defend the principle of epistemic responsibility. Reckless thinkers are responsible for far more harm than any other type of moral irresponsibility that a person can be guilty of. We lament the cardnage of drunk drivers, yet the tens of thousands of people they kill and hundreds of thousands that they maim is insignificant compared to the suffering that reckless thinkers inflict on humanity.

As I am fond of pointing out, I got into this subject of moral philosophy out of a wonder that a whole culture - the antebellum south - were willing not only to die, but to kill, in the name of preserving white supremacy. Those who think that the Southern soldiers fought for some more noble cause need to study some history. The fought to preserve the southern way of life, and the part of the southern way of life that they cared about the most was white supremacy.

So, before one does something so drastic as to break the law in the defense of justice, one has an obligation to gather the facts and make sure that one is actually on the side of justice, and is not - instead - as is so often the case - marching off to the preservation of injustice. This requires more than just a measure of one's own sentiment. Trust me, the perpetrators of injustice, such as the Confederate soldier, are just as capable of feeling outrage as the slave or the victims of racist discriminatory legislation. It requires the application of reason.

Even where we talk about reason, we must be worried about motivated reasoning. This is reasoning that takes a desired conclusion as true, and then looks for the evidence that supports it, while tossing out any evidence against it. It requires an objective view of the facts - the type of evidence that would persuade an impartial jury. If one does not have the time to look at the evidence oneself, then one should give one's opinion over to those who examine the issue impartially, rather than to a faction in the dispute who has reason to misinterpret the evidence in their own favor.

If one is going to break the law in defense of justice, then justice demands at least this much from its defenders.

No comments: