Martin Luther King on Civil Disobedience and Ethics of Resistance to State Authority

Martin Luther King, Jr. (NA)


Today is Martin Luther King Day. One of King’s most important legacies was his advocacy of civil disobedience as a strategy for resisting injustice. In 2022, I wrote a Martin Luther King Day post addressing some common misperceptions about King’s views on this topic. I built, in part, on a piece on King by Georgetown Prof. Jason Brennan, author of an important book on the morality of resistance to government power.

Contrary to popular perception, King did not categorically oppose all violent resistance to injustice. His views also don’t imply that practitioners of civil disobedience have a categorical obligation to accept punishment. In the case of the US civil rights movement, he advocated both nonviolence and acceptance of punishment for primarily tactical reasons. But the reasons for doing so don’t always hold true in other cases. On the other hand, King did strongly oppose rioting, on both moral and pragmatic grounds. And his reasoning does imply a strong presumption against violence, even if not a categorical bar.

A few excerpts from the 2022 post:

As Brennan points out, King believed that disobedience to unjust laws is often entirely justified, even when the laws in question were enacted by democratic governments…

I think King was right about this, and that, for many unjust laws, we have no obligation to obey. I outlined some of the reasons why in this 2014 piece about why most undocumented immigrants have no moral obligation to obey laws denying them the right to move to another country (see also follow-up post here). The same reasoning applies to many other unjust laws, at least those that inflict great harm on their victims….

Brennan is also right to note that, on King’s view, justified disobedience to unjust laws may not always require accepting punishment. He favored such acceptance, in some cases, for largely tactical reasons….

Sometimes, the goal of disobedience is not to effect a change in law (which, may, for political reasons, be impossible at the time), but simply to prevent injustice in that particular case. For example, many of the people who violated the Fugitive Slave Acts in the 19th century did not turn themselves into the authorities and accept punishment. And they were entirely justified in so doing. Accepting punishment would, among other things, have impeded their efforts to help escaped slaves. At least for a long time, they had little hope of getting Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Acts. But they could and did help individual slaves escape their reach…..

At times, King seems to have endorsed a more categorical duty to accept punishment, as when he wrote that “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” But that was in the context of writing about civil disobedience intended  “to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice” and thereby facilitate reform….

Brennan also points out, contrary to much conventional wisdom, that King was not an advocate of absolute non-violence, but merely supported it as a strategy for the civil rights movement on tactical grounds….

While King was not, on principle, opposed to all violent resistance to injustice, it is important to emphasize that he did oppose violence targeting innocent civilians, including that caused by rioting. In 1968, he warned that “riots are socially destructive and self-defeating” and that, “[e]very time a riot develops, it helps George Wallace.” He opposed the riots of his own time on both moral and instrumental grounds. While we cannot know for sure, it seems likely he would have felt the same way about the 2020 riots in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police….

The obvious criticism of views like King’s is that many people may have poor judgment about which laws are unjust. For example, those who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 likely believed that enforcement of the laws against doing so would be unjust, because (in their view) Donald Trump had a right to stay in power. Similarly, both left and right-wing terrorists often believe they are justified in violating laws against murder and assault.

But the risk that individual citizens may be mistaken about matters of justice has to be balanced against the danger that government can be wrong about such things, as well. Even in democratic societies, there is a long and awful history of the latter…..

Even when governments are acting unjustly, there should nonetheless—for reasons well-articulated by King’s critique of riots—be a very strong presumption against violent action that might harm innocents. But the threshold for defensible peaceful disobedience is much lower.

King’s pragmatic arguments for nonviolence and acceptance of punishment apply largely in the context of swaying public opinion in democratic societies. In such cases, peaceful moral suasion is often more likely to be effective than violence, and less likely to cause harm to innocent people.

This reasoning applies with much lesser force in authoritarian states. Dissidents living under brutal dictatorships, like those of China, Russia, or Iran, surely have no moral duty to accept punishment. And, if they have a good opportunity to overthrow the regime by force and replace it with a significantly better government, they may well be justified in seizing it.

As noted in my 2022 post, King’s views don’t definitively resolve these issues. He wasn’t infallible, and even a great hero can sometimes go wrong. Some might also argue that King’s views were sound in his time, but for some reason don’t translate well to our own. But I think King’s positions on these questions were in fact largely right. At the very least, they are more than worthy of our careful attention and consideration.

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