Last Updated 26 Mar 2020

Moral Responsibility

Category Responsibility
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Naina Navni Professor Adams UCWR 110 21 October 2010 Moral Responsibility America would not be where it is without the laws that have been placed and the citizens who follow the laws. In order for this to happen the knowledge and acceptance of the laws are needed to establish order. African Americans had been secluded in the past through harsh laws of segregation.

Although many believe disobeying the law is morally wrong and if disobeyed a punishment should follow, Martin Luther King’s profound statement, “One has the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (King 420) leads to greater justice for all which is also supported by King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Jefferson’s “ The Declaration of Independence,” and Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address. ” "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," wrote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (King 416).

Eight Alabama clergymen composed a statement urging restraint in the Civil Rights movement and the discontinuance of demonstrations in Birmingham. The clergymen explained that progress could best be achieved through negotiation and through the court system and suggested that direct action would only make the situation worse. In response to this statement, Martin Luther King, Jr. composed his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to explain why he was active in civil rights demonstrations, primarily because of the failure of the courts and negotiation to address the issue of civil rights effectively.

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One of King's most important and most extended arguments begins with the distinction between just and unjust laws. He begins by stating one has a legal and a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. "I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all" (King 420). A distinction is made that an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law and by contrast, any law that uplifts human personality is just.

Through these definition King can elaborate on his claim he developed earlier, "Segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality," to draw a central conclusion which condemns segregation statutes as unjust (King 420). Any law that degrades human personality is unjust and all segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. Therefore this supports his conclusion, "Segregation gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority" (King 420).

Segregation is morally wrong and sinful, therefore action was needed to be taken to prevent it. In the second phase of this argument, King redefines "unjust law" in such a way as to intersect the democratic argument seen developed in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. King begins his argument by stating what defines an unjust versus just law. “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. This is difference made legal . . . a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself.

This is sameness made legal . . . 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” (King 421). The segregation laws were enacted by the Alabama legislature, representatives to which Negroes did not vote for because they were denied the right to vote brings up a question "Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured? ” (King 421). Such laws are not democratically structured, therefore such laws are unjust.

After King clearly demonstrated that segregation laws are unjust, it follows the immediate opening premise, "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws" that we are obliged to disobey segregation laws (King 420). King shines a new light on the disobedience of the law by expressing his belief 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 the law” (King 421).

This therefore means that conscientious disobedience of an unjust law, especially with the intention of overturning injustice, shows the highest respect for the law, where just law is supposed to derive from natural law and God's moral order. King's language here echoes Jefferson, but particularly in the Declaration of Independence where Jefferson argues that governments exist to protect basic human rights, "Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" (Jefferson 437).

At time it appears that the letter might even surpass the Declaration of Independence in its importance and value, as the letter speaks on behalf of all Americans as a unified "we" (Ess). Lincoln’s famous “Second Inaugural Address” given in 1865, exemplifies what King tries to explain in his letter. The main message gained is that all men are created equal, therefore segregation laws should not exist (Ess). Lincoln’s speech laid the foundation for others, such as King, to continue to work hard to abolish segregation and discriminative treatment.

King’s use of logos, appeals to our logic or reasoning and gives his own example of how segregation affected his life. Once, he was randomly arrested for walking around without a walking permit. Another example, an elderly black woman states, "My feets is tired but my soul is at rest" (King 430). He mentions that the old woman’s statement is grammatically incorrect, and emphasizes her lack of education and his awareness of it. He draws attention to this fact to point out that even the uneducated know and sense the magnitude of the injustice of segregation.

Also, in quoting this elderly woman, King's appeal includes an appeal to the emotions. His use of imagery of this elderly woman with tired feet, we feel for her in that she is old and must endure this march to fight for something she should already have. The laws denied the rights of the elderly woman because of her race, hence the law being unjust, which King believes is fair not to follow. The main problem that was occurring in society was segregation. Similarities between King’s letter to the “The Declaration of Independence” and “Second Inaugural Address” are visible as both documents strive for the same goal: equality.

If a law is morally wrong and unjust, then it is our responsibility to disobey it. King argues his point in a variety of ways, particularly the example of the elderly black woman complaining about the pain in her feet from the march and how King points out the grammatical errors in her speech which show her lack of education, yet still understands that segregation happening, knows it is wrong, and wants it to end.

Works Cited Danner, Natalie, and Mary Kate. Paris. “King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. ” Mercury Reader: a Custom Publication. New York: Pearson Custom Pub. , 2009. 412-31. Print. Danner, Natalie, and Mary Kate. Paris. "Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. " Mercury Reader: a Custom Publication. New York: Pearson Custom Pub. , 2009. 434-35. Print. Danner, Natalie, and Mary Kate. Paris. "Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence. " Mercury Reader: a Custom Publication. New York: Pearson Custom Pub. , 2009. 436-40. Print. Ess, Dr. Charles. "King's Letter from the Birmingham Jail. " Drury University, Springfield, Missouri. Web. 16 Oct. 2010. .

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