, Research Paper
Should you obey an unjust law?
According to the theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th century French political philosopher, ?in a democratic society the state represents the general will of the citizens, and that in obeying its laws each citizen is pursuing his own real interests.? Thus, in an ideal state, laws express the general will. An individual who disagrees with a law must be failing to look at things from the moral standpoint.
Rousseau is talking about an ideal state where laws express people?s general will, a will that aims at the common good. But the question is: are we living in an ideal state and do all the laws of our land express the common will of the people and should we obey all the laws even if they are unjust? The answer to this question can be different for different people, but in my opinion it is ?NO?. I think the state in which we are living in is not an ideal state described by Rousseau. There are times when the laws are unjust and it is reasonable to disobey them and protest against them to get them change if there is a higher moral or purpose behind it. I would agree with St.Augustine, ?an unjust law is no law at all.? As we know during the sixties large number of people recognized that obeying the law was sometimes harmful because sometimes the law itself was wrong. Therefore, we had a civil rights movement, an anti-war movement and several other smaller movements in which people purposely disobeyed the law. But the question is how and when to disobey the law; how does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?
If we look back in history we find perfect examples to get an answer to our question; the example of Henry Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They all were governed by the sense of justice. For them there are times when it is necessary to break the law for a higher purpose. To give a brief description of what is an unjust law, I would quote from Martin Luther King?s ?Letters from Birmingham jail?. He writes, ?a just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.?
There is no doubt that laws are made for a reason and the laws of a society reflect the values of that society because of tradition, necessity, and expectation. But occasionally there will be a law, which is unjust and wrong though not for everyone but say, for a group of people. If the law contradicts with their high morals or religion, in my opinion it is right for them to protest against it in a reasonable way. So now the question is what is that reasonable way and how to protest against an unjust law? First those people have to ask themselves if there is a higher purpose, which make them to disobey it. They should look beyond the intent of the law and immediate results to see what the final result will be. It is not right to disobey an unjust law for just personal convenience. People should look at the alternatives, weigh them against what their personal beliefs may be, and then make a judgment based on their individual moral values.
Here I would like to give an example of one of the laws of Pakistan, where I spent most of my life. Though it is very embarrassing for me but it is a fact that government in Pakistan is and has been very corrupt. Besides few people who are very rich, majority of the public is very poor and their average annual income is lower than $1000 a year. Government has imposed high taxes on people, which actually is a burden on middle class and poor people. There are no means to enforce tax laws so rich people usually get away with them easily. Instead of using the tax money for public welfare bureaucrats are wasting that money on their personal luxuries. To make matters worse, government has imposed a new law of additional sales tax recently to meet the deadline of (International Monetary Fund) IMF?s debt payment. Majority of the money that was given by IMF was used by the government officials to fill up their own pockets. Now they have burdened the common people of Pakistan for paying the debt. The public is protesting against the new sales tax and the businesses in the country are shut down. Majority of the rich and influential community have bribed their way out of this mess and the middle class and the poor community is now fighting to keep their hard earned money from the government?s hand. Because of these unjust laws the corruption is getting worse day by day. People have no choice other then commit robberies and use unjust means to survive to make their both ends meet.
Therefore, in this situation, I think it is right to protest against that type of unjust law. But there should be a way to do it. Thoreau, Gandhi and King all point out clearly that they are not saying, “do whatever you want to do if you get away with it.” Instead they recognized the value of the law and deeply respected it. They never ever advocated breaking laws on the sly for personal convenience; they attacked unjust laws at their own risk in order to improve society. I think in the case of Pakistan too, people should follow the path of these three eloquent men who were apostles of non-violence. They can protest against the government through non-violent direct action. In order to do it, they should use the power of media by writing about it in newspapers. They can follow a complete strike for a day by not showing up for work, but a long-term strike will not be favorable for them because people are already very poor. People can also perform marches in front of the parliament house but the key to remember is that all this should be done without any violence.
In the end I would just say that protesting against the unjust law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it. It is a corrective to the sluggishness of ?the proper channels?, a way of breaking through passages blocked by tradition and prejudice. It is disruptive and troublesome, but it is a necessary disruption, a healthy troublesomeness.