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The Justice of Resistance

In my Intro to Philosophy classes, we talk a lot about justice. We read most of Plato’s Republic, as well as several other thinkers that attempt to define what justice is or the parameters for ethical behavior. We contrast the position of one of Plato’s interlocutors, Thrasymachus, with that of Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Thrasymachus argues that justice is whatever benefits those in power, since those in power make laws to benefit themselves and declare following those laws to be justice.[1] When I ask students about this, even if some admit that those in power seem to profit from the laws they create, most agree with Plato and reject Thrasymachus’s conclusion that this should be called “justice.”

When we look at King’s “Letter,” we unpack what he means when he says, “There are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all’.”[2] King goes on to define a just law as that which “uplifts human personality,” and an unjust law as that which “degrades human personality.”[3] Again, my students are usually in agreement with King – he’s MLK, after all! – that laws can sometimes be unjust. This is quite evident to them in King’s context, where Jim Crow laws in the South were so clearly prejudicial and unjust.

What’s interesting when reading these texts side-by-side in classrooms predominantly populated by white, middle- and upper-class students in Southern California universities is that they distance themselves from “the South” (even though the North also had Jim Crow and redlining) and from “those generations” (even though the systemic effects of this racism – including internalization of prejudicepersist today). [This also leaves completely disconnected from the conversation California’s own racist history, but that’s for another blog post.]

I’ve noticed that when I give a quiz on these readings, there’s one question that has emerged in the last few years as troubling to me in that it’s the question most students get wrong in the same way:

While my reporting here is merely anecdotal, I think it’s still noteworthy: between 50-60% have recently begun to miss the question by choosing “b.” In other words, these students have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that sometimes civil disobedience, demonstrations, and disturbances are actually good because they’re demanding justice.

This is why there aren’t always two equal sides to every issue, and why sometimes the rule of law needs to be disrupted.

When Trump pardoned Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt for his racist and inhumane crackdown on undocumented immigrants, he had the constitutional right to do so.[4] But this does not make Trump’s actions just. While many of the undocumented immigrants who suffered under Arpaio broke laws, that neither demonstrates those laws to be just nor justifies the inhumane conditions they suffered in containment. With a challenge to the pardon in the works, and in the wake of an administration that is dangerously inexperienced and unknowledgeable with a president more concerned with being liked than with justice, it falls to us to see that unjust laws do not stand and that just laws are justly enforced through the exercise of our First Amendment right to assembly and through the ethical obligation to stand up against injustice.

[1] Plato, The Republic, trans. and ed. C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN, and Cambridge, England: Hackett Publishing Company, 2004), 338c-339a.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Reader, 5th ed., eds. Larry May, Kai Wong, and Jill Delston (London, England: Pearson, 2010), 307.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

[4] See Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.


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